Statesman-TV Host Abba Eban Documents the Jews' Heritage of Struggle and Achievement

updated 12/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1984 01:00AM

When Abba Eban, 69, began researching and filming Heritage: Civilization and the Jews for public television in 1978, he had little idea that the project would provide him with such a varied cultural feast. In six years the portly scholar-statesman-diplomat trekked from the heights of Mount Sinai to the depths of Nazi concentration camps. He immersed himself in the lives and works of Jews from Moses to Spinoza. Then, to top it all off, he stumbled across the existence of an American phenomenon by the name of Farrah Fawcett.

Farrah Fawcett?

That's right. Heritage had been drawing an average audience of 20 million viewers each episode, explains the former Israeli foreign minister, when suddenly "it went down by 200,000 in New York City alone. We couldn't figure out why, until we learned that it was due to a woman named Farrah Fawcett, who had chosen that particular night to switch from sex to drama in a TV movie called The Burning Bed. The next week we were back to our normal ratings when the Jews were expelled from Spain."

Farrah's TV torch song may have burned up the Nielsens that week, but Heritage—a $10 million, nine-part saga that traces the more than 3,000-year history of the Jews from the Ten Commandments to the modern era—has also been an exhilarating success. Furthermore, the $30 hardcover book based on the series and written by Eban has climbed the best-seller lists ("Bar mitzvah boys will hate me now," says Eban. "Instead of their dream computer they'll probably get my book as a bar mitzvah present"). And the shy Eban has found himself turned into an unlikely TV celebrity—a sort of Israeli version of Alistair Cooke. "I can't even cross the street now in the U.S.," he says, "without kids pointing their finger at me and calling out, 'There's the man from TV!' "

A sense of anxiety—not hunger for media attention—drew Eban to the project. "My chief source of melancholy is this: Are we the last generation to keep the Jewish heritage alive?" he asks. He was intrigued when PBS proposed a TV chronicle showing the Jews not as victims throughout history but as "major contributors to the world," whose cultural impact has far exceeded their tiny numbers. "It was an American proposal but it had an Israeli character," Eban says. "By which I mean the idea was 90 percent fantasy and 10 percent reality. Therefore it was quite likely to succeed."

Filming the series became a four-continent odyssey, though it was hardly the romantic experience Eban had imagined. The colorful scene in which Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, for instance, required an agonizing climb by jeep and on foot up the arid 7,497-foot mountain ("How Moses at age 120 shlepped up there I will never know") while plagued by mosquitoes and heat. There was also an inevitable touch of controversy. Orthodox Jews, who believe the Holy Scriptures were handed down directly from God, attacked Heritage as "a stab in the heart of Judaism," for portraying the Torah as having been written by Jews during their Babylonian exile. Eban dismisses their condemnation impatiently. "Their absolute certitude," he remarks, "makes me think of the saying: I wish I were as sure of anything as he is of everything."

Eban has had disdain for extremes all of his life. Born in South Africa, he grew up in London, graduated from Cambridge as a language scholar (he is fluent in nine) and emigrated to Israel in 1949. During the next two decades he served as ambassador to the U.N., to the U.S., and as foreign minister, admired at home and abroad for his eloquence, diplomatic skill and intellect.

But in a country drawn to more flamboyant politicians such as Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, the sober Eban has never built a popular following. "Israelis aren't consistent," he complains. "On the one hand, they want you to have individuality. But when you have individuality they say, 'Why are you not the same as the others?' "

Having declined an offer to serve the current government as minister without portfolio, he was appointed chairman of the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, and he lives in the seaside town of Herzliya with his wife, Suzan Ambache, president of Israel's Cancer Research Association. His son, Eli, 33, is a clarinetist with the Israeli Philharmonic; his daughter, Gila, 27, is married and builds musical instruments.

With no new media projects under way, the unlikely TV star is content in the knowledge that he has helped create a captivating record of his people's great saga. "They have preserved their identity under conditions in which no other people have ever managed to preserve theirs," he marvels. "The Babylonians, the Byzantines, the Assyrians, the ancient Egyptians—all of whom persecuted the Jews—are gone. But today the world is still full of the sound of Jews."

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