Sam Zebba ... with the conductor’s baton ‘which made him look like a magician holding a wand’ Below: Sam was second unit director on The Nun’s Story which starred Audrey Hepburn and Peter Finch
The critique of Sam Zebba’s last book opens with the following words: “In humorous yet penetrating lines he recreates events which he experienced throughout his well-travelled life.” It goes on to say about him that “he has filled his years with what most people only dream about.”
Sam came to Israel from Latvia at the age of nine. He served in the British army and the Hagana, going on to study theater arts, directing, photography, conducting, and sailing. In each, his achievements were exceptional. He shot movies in Brazil and in Nigeria, with Harry Belafonte and with Audrey Hepburn. He wrote a doctoral dissertation on Theater Arts. He published books and articles in all the important international publications on art and artists.
He established an organization of authors and artists, turned his home into a rehearsal hall, a place where artists could meet. It was also a gallery for his photographs taken on the numerous occasions he sailed to the ports of the Mediterranean. But, above all, he succeeded where impresarios and giant organizations fail. He created symphony orchestras, one after the other, and gathered musicians around him who loved and revered him.
Sam was a man of means which he always used in order to build, create, initiate, and assist. I saw for myself how he offered a young seventeen year-old boy, who was playing a bass guitar, the opportunity to study contrabass and join the orchestra. “Your parents and I can split the cost of the lessons”, Sam said to him.
There are barely any new-immigrant musicians who do not owe their first musical venture in Israel to Sam. In fluent Russian and with open arms he brought them into one of his orchestras. There was always at least one of the musicians, from any of the orchestras I met in Israel, who would come up to me and ask to send regards to Sam, or to find out how he was, and especially to pass on a message expressing their sincerest gratitude.
Sam was a combination of infinite knowledge, professionalism, industry, humor, wit, and good heart. He was the perfect gentleman - intelligent, sharp-witted and refined. However, one look from him could also be a monolog of castigation. He had charisma and charm that no one, especially women, could ignore. He was always surrounded by beauty, the arts and attractive women…
Sam was a model family man, often spoke about Riga, and invited us into his home. I remember one Yom Ha’atzmaut going up to the roof of his penthouse, from where we could see the fireworks from Herzliya to Holon.
I got my first piano from Sam after his mother passed away and he decided to move her piano, a Grotrian Steinweg from Riga, into our house. My first experience with an orchestra was when Sam asked me to strike the cymbal at the end of a waltz by Johann Strauss.
In the living room, Aunt Hanna once hung a picture of Sam dressed in a tuxedo and holding a conductor’s baton. We were young children, and to us the man in the picture looked like a magician holding a wand. From then on we called him ‘Sam the Magician’. I think there is no more apt appellation for Uncle Sam. He was a magician; he knew how to charm everyone around him, to create and produce, to love, and to sweep along anyone he met.
Rest in peace our beloved Sam. It was a joy to have had the honor of knowing you, to spend time with you, to make music with you, and to be surrounded by your magic and your love.
Translated from the Hebrew by Norman Silbert
Time to read his magnificent seven again
Seven of Sam’s short stories on aspects of his life were published in ESRAmagazine. Each is a gem – interesting, colorful, expressive, gripping, and beautifully written. To read them go to the website www.esra-magazine.com and in the SEARCH write in Sam Zebba and a list of his stories will appear, as well as a review on his book. I miss Sam, the contact with him and the honor and pleasure of receiving his wonderful stories.
Merle Guttmann, Editor