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August 2, 2015 / 17 Av, 5775
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My Incredible First Day in Israel


The Russian Compound in Jerusalem

The Russian Compound in Jerusalem
Photo Credit: DG Jones

I’m putting Fishman in charge of the front page of the newspaper!” one of them declared after Era had finished telling the story. “As long as the Jewish Underground is in jail, every week I want Fishman to write our lead story. This is a total injustice! These people are heroes! Rabbi Tendler’s letter is front page news!”

When the meeting was finished, I stopped Era in the corridor.

Listen Era,” I said. “I’d like to help out but I have a ticket to make aliyah this week.”

No problem,” the bigger-than-life idealist said without batting an eye. “You go to Israel. That’s more important than this is. Anyway, you can send in your stories from there. I’ll call Israel today and tell them you’re on the way.”

I wrote up the story about the Underground with Rabbi Tendler’s accompanying letter and left it with Arnie Fine. A few days later, I flew off to Israel. When I arrived in Yerushalayim, I dropped off my bags with a friend in the Hapalmach neighborhood and headed for the Kotel to thank G-d for the unsurpassable kindness He had done for me in bringing me home to Israel. On the way, I passed the house of Yitzhak Shamir who was Prime Minister at the time. Across the street there was a small demonstration. Walking over, I inquired what was going on. One of the protestors was holding a copy of that week’s Jewish Press with the front page article that I had written. He said his name was Ephraim Levinger and that his father, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, had been arrested under suspicion of involvement with the Jewish Underground. When I told him that I had written the front page newspaper story, his eyes lit up.

Fantastic!” he said. “Hurry to the Russian Compound prison now! There’s a big demonstration there going on now demanding the release of my father and all the Underground prisoners.”

So I hurried downtown and made my way up the small incline to the old, barb-wire enclosed building that housed the Jerusalem police headquarters and the local prison, where Rabbi Levinger was being held. Suddenly, Meir Indor ran up to me holding a copy of The Jewish Press in his hand.

It’s great that you’re here!” he exclaimed, handing me the newspaper. “We’ll squeeze you in between Yosef Mendelevitch and Rebbetzin Levinger. Get up on the roof of my Volkswagon and read the letter as the special shaliach of Rabbi Tendler to the demonstration on behalf of the ‘Machteret.”

Machteret” meant an illegal underground group. It was one of the few Hebrew words that I knew. Ever since the volunteer program had taken me out of my Hebrew ulpan, I had stopped learning the language, picking up expressions here and there from all the Israelis I had been working with in New York.

I looked toward the place where Indor was pointing. Yosef Mendelevitch, a famous Prisoner of Zion who had spent 11 years in a Soviet prison for trying to hijack an airplane to Israel, was speaking into a bullhorn while standing on the roof of Indor’s dilapidated VW beetle. Behind the large crowd were photographers and TV cameramen from around the world. Up on the roof of the prison, police photographers stood snapping pictures.

Gevalt!’ I thought to myself. “My very first day in Israel, and my mother would turn on the TV in America and see her son making a protest speech against the Israeli government on behalf of the Jewish Underground!”

Before I could bolt, Indor introduced me to the crowd as the special shaliach of Rabbi Tendler who had just this minute arrived in Israel with the Rabbi’s letter giving halachic sanction to the activities of the arrested prisoners. Hands lifted me up to the roof of the car. Holding the bullhorn, I read out the letter in a loud angry voice, just like Yosf Mendelevitch (now my good friend and weekly hevruta) had spoken before me. The letter (which I myself had liberally expanded upon) was in English, and I don’t know how much of it the crowd understood, but everyone applauded again and again.

Uh oh,” I thought. “My mother’s going to plutz!”

That was my first day in the Holy Land. For the next few months, I kept sending front-page stories into The Jewish Press as the trial progressed. I still have them in a box in a closet. Rabbi Levinger was released, but the other fellows were charged with serious crimes and given long jail sentences. Little did I know that I’d soon be working once again with Rabbi Yehuda Hazani on a nationwide campaign which he initiated to free them from jail.

About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon.

The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.

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Tzvi Fishman, author of the Jewish Press blog Felafel on Rye and author of more than a dozen books.
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