High times in the ’70s: A Jew in Asheville

Jerry Sternberg


Back in the ’70s, I lived in what was known as Seely’s Castle up on Town Mountain Road. This awesome architectural wonder, sitting right in the center of our community, featured huge rooms that were perfect for hosting charitable fundraisers. And of course everyone wanted to tour the castle, which helped boost attendance at those events.

In a previous installment in this series, I wrote about my trip to Israel immediately after the 1967 war and my momentary local celebrity afterward. At our annual party that year, one of my friends showed up, as a gag, dressed as Moshe Dyan, in full Israeli military garb and sporting the famous general’s iconic black eye patch. Needless to say, he was quite a sensation.

From Israel to Asheville

I mention this because it makes an interesting segue to the next recollections. At that time, Yitzhak Rabin, another famous Israeli general in the Six-Day War, was serving as his country’s ambassador to the United States. And in around 1972, he came to Asheville to participate in an international conference at UNC Asheville.

The Jewish community never missed an opportunity to hold a fundraiser: Rabin was invited to speak, and we hosted it at the castle.

The day before, the Mossad (the Israeli secret service) scrutinized every nook and cranny and even crawled through the tunnels underneath the castle to eliminate any possibility of an assassin or a bomb on the premises. For the next 24 hours, we had armed agents guarding the gate and the driveway, and lookouts toting automatic weapons were posted on the roof.

The event went off without a hitch. The ambassador proved to be a rather soft-spoken, stoic personality, but he was absolutely astounded by the castle’s beauty and architecture. After Rabin completed his presentation, however, I had one more surprise for him. I handed him some notes written in Hebrew and asked him if he recognized the handwriting. He said that they were his notes and asked me where I’d gotten them.

I explained that I had been in Israel at the end of the ’67 war on a United Jewish Appeal mission and that he had made a presentation to our group on the battlefield. Afterward, Rabin had discarded the notes, and I picked them up and brought them home as a souvenir.

He went back to Israel, served two terms as prime minister and was well on the way to helping craft a Middle East peace plan when he was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish zealot in 1995.

A memorable visit

In the early ’70s, my oldest daughter, a social worker, moved to Israel to assist immigrants who had settled there after being driven out of Morocco because they were Jews.

In the course of her work, she became particularly engaged with a poor Moroccan family who were living in cramped quarters in a tiny house. There were five or six children, and one of the boys, whose name was Shmuel Siso, had just finished his army service and wanted to make a short visit to the U.S. before starting college. My daughter asked if he could stay with us at the castle for a few weeks, emphasizing that he was a very special young person. I agreed, and Shmuel came to visit.

He was a skinny little dark-skinned young man with an extremely engaging smile and a million-dollar personality. Siso, as we took to calling him, was amazed by the size of the castle, which had bedrooms that were bigger than the house he’d grown up in.

He immediately charmed our beloved housekeeper, “Miz Beulah,” who promptly took the visitor under her wing. I would guess that he had never seen or at least engaged with a Black person before, but they became great friends.

He had boundless energy and loved to help Miz Beulah with her housework while they watched soap operas on TV.

Shortly after he came to us, Siso asked me if I could help find him a job so that he could earn some money in order to extend his tour across the United States. I asked him if he had any skills, and he said that in the army, his specialty was explosives, so if someone needed something blown up, he was just the man for the job.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know any such person, but I did know a woman who ran a very popular restaurant on Tunnel Road, and she said she could use a dishwasher.

Siso jumped at the opportunity, and he quickly became a celebrity. His fellow workers loved him, but they couldn’t pronounce his name, so everyone just called him “Seesaw.”

The owner of the restaurant was delighted with Siso, took him out at every opportunity and proudly introduced him to all her customers. Among them were some influential politicians. They, too, were completely charmed by this unusual Moroccan-Jewish boy with such a winning personality. Siso eventually went back to Israel, finished college and law school, got involved in politics and became mayor of Kiryat Yam, the seaside town where he grew up. He distinguished himself as mayor and was appointed Israeli consul general to New York and Puerto Rico.

Returning the favor

In 2004, I was going to be in the New York area, and Siso invited me to be his guest at the embassy residence. It was all so impressive: His chauffeur-driven limousine picked me up at the airport, and we spent two days exploring New York.

It just so happened that on the Sunday I was there, there was a Puerto Rican celebration, and Siso was taking part in it in his official capacity. We walked several blocks in the parade, and he knew and was recognized by various celebrities and politicians. Perhaps the most memorable were the boxing promoter Don King in his eye-catching convertible, and Hillary Clinton, who graciously visited with me and had great praise for Asheville and Western North Carolina.

But I still shake my head in wonder, thinking about how this scrawny little Moroccan kid — whose life journey improbably brought him through Asheville and who briefly became “family” to me — wound up holding such an important position and affecting the lives of Israelis and Americans alike.

Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at gospeljerry@aol.com. An anthology of his columns is available from Pisgah Legal Services for a donation of $25 or more. To order your copy, visit pisgahlegal.org/jerry, or send a check labeled “Jerry’s book” to: PLS, P.O. Box 2276, Asheville NC 28802. All proceeds support the nonprofit’s work.



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