Trim, youthful and relaxed, with a full head of silver hair that belies his 79 years, David Mandel sits in his spacious Savyon home and traces the wanderings of his family, from 1930s Germany to 1950s Peru, and finally to Israel in 1970. Mandel has achieved a prosperous, successful life together with his wife Ruth, an artist, and lives within walking distance of his three married children and 10 grandchildren. Today, he spends most of his time writing books in English and Spanish about the Bible and sends out a popular Spanish newsletter that focuses on current events in Israel and the Jewish world to more than 10,000 subscribers worldwide.
Mandel’s parents, who lived in Frankfurt, fled Nazi Germany in 1938. Says Mandel, “My father’s first choice was to go to Palestine, but he didn’t have the £1,000 sterling required by the British.” In April of that year, using visas obtained from a cousin in Peru, the Mandel family, including his parents, paternal grandparents, and assorted uncles, set sail from France and arrived in Lima. Mandel was born later that year in Lima.
In 1938, Lima had a population of 500,000, with a Jewish community numbering about 5,000. His father, who had spent the transatlantic voyage studying Spanish grammar, had a talent for languages, and in a very short time spoke perfect Spanish. His mother also quickly became a fluent Spanish speaker. The family established an Ashkenazi synagogue in Lima, which was called the “Mandel Synagogue” because his grandparents and uncles were the majority. Mandel, who says that he today considers himself more of a “traditionalist” than strictly observant, says that in Lima “we were like the haredim of the community.”
It was in Lima that Mandel began his lifelong love affair with the Bible.
“My grandfather, Hersh Mandel, a Talmud scholar, would teach Talmud after the Shabbat services. Every afternoon, after we came back from school, in the evening, he would teach Bible.” Young Mandel became enthralled with the Bible and Jewish history; it would become a lifelong passion.
Lima’s Jewish community was very pro-Zionist in the 1950s. Mandel was a member of the Betar youth organization and wanted to move to Israel immediately after completing high school. His father wanted him to attend college first and ultimately won out. David attended the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania from 1956 until 1960 but maintained his interest in biblical studies and took courses with Prof. Moshe Greenberg, a noted Biblical scholar and rabbi who later became a professor at the Hebrew University.
He returned to Lima in 1960, and helped expand his father’s business from a single store to a chain of department stores. His father, who also harbored Zionist feelings, had invested in a factory in Afula with other Peruvians and was spending six months of the year in Israel. In 1962, Mandel married Ruth and they had three children. Several years later, they decided to fulfill his lifelong ambition of moving to Israel. They arrived in Israel in 1970, first living in Tel Aviv, before moving to Savyon, where he bought a plot of land and designed and built his home. Mandel recalls the state of the country in the 1970s.
“When I came in 1970, we still had a very socialistic country. New immigrants would get a special discount for buying a car, but they were given special license plates. People who were envious or jealous of the discount that they received would scratch their cars. That happened to me a couple of times.”
Chuckling, he mentions that the government would insert special devices into all color televisions that would prevent the sets from displaying color. Customers would get around the government restriction by installing gadgets that would override the government’s devices.
Mandel also recalls the excellent relations that he maintained with his Palestinian neighbors in the early 1970s. He used to go to Kalkilya every morning at 5 to bring workers to help build his Savyon home. At the end of the workday, he relates, he would drive them home, where they would invite him into their homes for coffee. He located carpenters in Tulkarm, and even went to the casbah in Nablus to purchase marble. Sadly, he notes, traveling to these places would not be safe today.
When Mandel first came to Israel in 1970, he started a furniture business, selling imported furniture Italian furniture.
When personal computers became popular, he left the furniture business, and opened a store in Dizengoff Center that sold IBM-compatible computers. Ultimately, he decided that he preferred software development over hardware sales. He channeled his love for the Bible into software, developing Bible text search programs, as well as a program called Keys to the Bible, which searched the text to isolate “Bible codes,” purported secret messages encoded in the Bible at word intervals.
Mandel’s company also designed and developed multi-lingual word processors. Eventually, he sold his software business to his employees, and “decided to do what I liked the most, which was, and still is, writing.”
Mandel’s weekly Spanish newsletter, Mi Enfoque (My Approach), covers events in Israel, Judaism, history and the Bible. He has written several books, both in English and Spanish, ranging from Who’s Who in the Jewish Bible, to several historical novels featuring biblical characters. His latest work, The Saga of the Jews, is being published in both Spanish and English, and presents 4,000 years of Jewish history in 60 stories.
Mandel writes, edits, and translates his books himself. He says that he likes to find parallels between events in Biblical times and modern times, and he notes, “There are many.”
While Israel has changed greatly since his arrival in 1970, Mandel’s advice for newcomers is essentially the same as what he practiced 47 years ago.
“If a person comes to Israel with optimism and with realism, not thinking that he is coming to paradise on earth, but knowing that he is coming to a country with lots of problems but that it his country – then he will be very successful.”
Mandel recognizes that Israel’s leaders have made mistakes, but he says, “Despite the mistakes – people make mistakes, governments make mistakes – that doesn’t make me want to pull up roots and go somewhere else.
“Living in Israel is an opportunity that only our generation has had. I want to see history being made. I could have stayed in Peru, where my friends live very happily, but I wouldn’t change places with them.”