One of the interesting aspects of life in Israel, even today in 2014, is the search for missing relatives and friends. Although the Jewish Agency shuttered its Search Bureau for Missing Relatives in 1999 or 2002 (there is a conflict between dates given by the Jewish Agency and Wikipedia) there still exists a radio show on IBA Radio 1 (Reshet Aleph) that goes by the same name and with the same mission: putting long-lost friends and relations back in touch with one another.
There are other organizations of similar purpose ranging from the Israel Genealogical Society, which provides a great many resource links, to Magen David Adom (MDA), which reestablished its MDA Tracing Services in 2002 to fulfill requests of Holocaust survivors and their families, and as part of the services provided in parallel by the Red Cross Association in other countries.
The Nana 10 site has a nice if incomplete list of resources — even genealogical investigators. And the town of Hod Hasharon has even turned relative hunting into something of a sport, posting a weekly photograph and asking the public to assist in identifying the people pictured.
But it fell upon the excellent Nostal.co.il site, an online photographic repository for all things Israeli from days gone by, to identify the schoolgirl author of a 60 year-old scrapbook devoted to a Hollywood screen star.
The story, writes Nostal editor David Sela, “begins in 1953 when an 11 year-old girl, a student at the Balfour School in Tel Aviv sent the notebook to the world famous movie star, whom she adored, Esther Williams.”
“The magazine Olam HaKolnoa (World of Cinema) was very popular at that time and many girls cut out pictures of movie stars from the magazine, as apparently so did this young fan.”
“Esther Williams passed away a few months ago in Beverly Hills at the age of 91. And here begins an AMAZING series of coincidences.
“The bookkeeper of law firm handling the assets of the deceased was a Jewish woman named Julie Cohen. She found the notebook on a shelf at Williams’ home. Mrs. Cohen’s daughter is married to an Israeli who sent the notebook to his father who lives in Israel right across from Dr. Tzipi Landau, the current principal of the Balfour School.”
The student’s name was written on notebook cover but the letters were blurred and illegible. After several months of unsuccessful attempts at decrypting the script, Dr. Landau turned to noted cookbook author Ruth Sirkis — a Balfour graduate herself — and Sirkis contacted Sela at Nostal.co.il.
“The first thing we did was request assistance from visitors to our Facebook page. In addition we turned to Dr. Doron Lurie, Head of the Conservation Department at the Tel Aviv Museum. Our web-surfers took on the task and with the professional assistance of Dr. Lurie we detected a name: Nili Moyal.”
“But the school did not have a copy of the graduating class of 1956, the year in which according to our calculations, Nili Moyal graduated. The Population Registry also produced no result.”
“Landau had no other choice but to review the school records from those years and found to her surprise that Nili Moyal had been in the same class as one of her relatives. It didn’t take long after that to get the class picture (see arrow).”
“Another of the classmates said she had heard that Nili left Israel decades ago for the United States.”
Armed with these tidbits of information, Sela and company painstakingly combed through Facebook, looking for and finally finding someone who possibly fit the profile. “I sent her a brief of the story and my phone number, in a ‘Cast your bread upon the waters’ way.”
“Then, a few nights ago, my phone rang: ‘Hello David Sela. This is Nili Moyal-Shir. I understand that you’re looking for me…’ I had shivers…”
A picture of Nili Moyal-Shir as she looks today can be seen at Nostal.co.il. Sela reports that Balfour School principal, Dr. Tzipi Landau is on a visit to the US where she will return the homage to Esther Williams to its author. The postscript to this happy ending is, of course, the reconnection with childhood friends.
“Only in Israel could such fantastic stories happen!” Sela exults, adding that anyone in need of information and assistance in the areas of Israeli history, heritage and nostalgia can turn to the Nostal.co.il information center where dozens of online volunteers are happy to offer their help, free of charge.
Images courtesy of Nostal.co.il