The telegram that arrived at the apartment my friends and I had rented for the summer was not an overseas cable. It was local, cabled in Hebrew from Tel Aviv, addressed to me on Rechov Haamarkalim in Jerusalem, requesting that I be at my cousin’s apartment, “Tuesday afternoon at 5 p.m., and bring a dress for Shabbat.” It was signed: “Bina”.
Home phones in Israel were non-existent in 1958. Telegrams were the popular mode of communication in the ten-year-old State. Why did Bina want me in Tel Aviv on Tuesday with a Shabbat dress? She wasn’t my size. Who was the dress for?
A cable in response was not an option. The Post Office was closed. So, as she requested, I boarded a rickety bus to Tel Aviv on Tuesday, my green Shabbat dress folded in a bag, arriving on time at Bina’s apartment on Melchett Street.
It took some explanation before I understood Bina’s plan for the evening. Her sister-in-law and brother-in-law would visit, followed by their 21-year-old son, whom Bina and her husband thought would make a fine match for me.
It was a teeth breaking evening that boggled my poor Hebrew language skills. I soon realized that American singles were like fish, a darn good catch; yet, so few swam toward the coast that those who did were considered prized.
The State of Israel was declared in 1948. I was seven years old. I didn’t know or understand what a State was, or what it meant for Jews. Conversation around my Zaida’s Shabbat table in Williamsburg was noisy and animated. Most American Jews were grateful for President Truman’s recognition of the new State, yet were concerned. War had broken out, and Jews in Eretz Yisroel were in great danger of annihilation.
I remember school campaigns. The entrance fee to activities depended on canned goods collected at the door, packaged and sent to Jews in Palestine, especially Jerusalem where food supplies to the city were cut off, and people were starving.
Growing up in Williamsburg holds memories of little Israel, a State in need of financial support, a State surrounded by enemies, a State at war. Still, Eretz Yisroel was a mounting dream, a wishful dream to fulfill. A year of seminary in Israel was not a given, it was non-existent. There was anger and disagreement over State laws. American Jews differed in opinion, especially about women’s conscription to the armed forces. But there were individuals who, when the opportunity arose, also rose to the challenge of fulfilling the dream, sailing or flying off to the Holy Land. In 1958, I was a dreamer fulfilling the dream.
I skipped summer camp in favor of my dream, traveling to the Jewish State celebrating its tenth anniversary. I was seventeen, and spent the summer touring with three friends, who were two and three years my senior. We spent two weeks in Europe and then sailed to Israel on the S.S. Herzl.
We met Israelis who were young, simple, friendly, but also aggressive, living in a State that was a century behind developed Western countries. We visited religious kibbutzim, where we met religious soldiers serving in a Jewish Army, a phenomena as astonishing to us as a country with border warnings at every bend in the road. No traffic lights, very few private vehicles or paved roads, yet proud and determined youngsters prepared to defend the Land, and fascinated by American tourists who hailed from a fairy tale dreamland where silver coins supposedly lined the streets.
My grandparents arrived in Israel at the start of August 1958. A trip to Israel was a family gift in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary. My Zaida hoped to convince my grandmother to remain in Jerusalem to fulfill his life’s dream, but every day in the young State, away from their children and families, and their luxury apartment – by Israel standards – was punishment for my grandmother.
The first few weeks I made myself available to them. I joined them for Shabbat meals, and tried to enjoy the food my grandmother cooked on a smelly naphtha primus, a small single paraffin burner cooker. My grandmother, who had a fully equipped modern American 1950’s style kitchen and enjoyed every moment therein, was forced back in time. The primitive conditions in Israel were greater than in her Hungarian village where she had lived fifty years earlier.
My grandmother had asked that I accompany her on Shabbat afternoon to visit relatives of friends whom she befriended. I knew my way around the neighborhood and agreed to pick her up at the rooming house on Zephania Street where she and my Zaida stayed. We found the apartment tucked away on a narrow Jerusalem side street. A tall, handsome young man, about 21, answered our knock. He led us into the central room where the entire family had gathered to meet “the Americana guests.” With the questions about my family, my father’s business, my future plans, and the head to foot scrutiny I received, I knew I was being baited again.
It was another teeth breaking experience, this time in Yiddish. And when we returned to the rooming house, my Zaida informed me that it was arranged that I meet the young man on Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. outside the Schneller army compound. (Sixty years ago, Schneller was considered the outskirts of the Geula section of the city).
“How could you do this to me? My father would never allow me to be picked up in the dark. He would never allow me to meet anyone at this stage in life!” I cried, wiping tears in a hankie that had been tied around my wrist.
Zaida was wise, and pragmatic. Not one to argue or get involved in a battle. “Naaraleh,” he said in Yiddish,“silly child, why are you crying? You have a ticket? You’re leaving in two weeks? Go meet the bochur on Tuesday, and then, “fuhr aheim gezinteheit, go home in good health!
We met at Schneller, in the dark. No street lights, only a sky filled with bright stars and a shiny full moon. He offered to back track and buy a drink at a kiosk. Seltzer shpritzed into a glass with raspberry syrup. I declined. I wasn’t thirsty. We walked along the dusty road. He addressed me in Yiddish, and two weeks seemed almost too long to wait to fly home.
Seventeen was also too young to be away from home for more than a summer. Especially a summer in Israel where I was on the run from the mating crowd. I had considered spending the year in Israel, but at every dry sandy pond someone was out with a fish line and I was afraid of getting hooked. I was captured by Israel’s surrealistic beauty, and I felt a strange connection to the past. It was a battle between my heart and my head, yet I knew I had to leave, to fly home, to finish school, find a job, meet the man of my dreams, and return together with him.
G-d was at my side when I left in September 1958 on a twenty-seven hour TWA flight to New York.
My husband held my hand when I returned in November 1960. We were as two birds in a forest without trees, rootless, without connections, yet he knew he was home from the moment the bus drove up and around the bumpy snakelike mountain road into Jerusalem. I needed another seven years, until the Six Day War, to be convinced. The threat of annihilation, and the miracles we witnessed at that time left no doubt that “home” was Israel, G-d’s country.
Israel at seventy is a wise, mature, albeit politically impaired start-up nation. Plenty of fish and birds, flowers and fauna, agricultural miracles, markets overflowing with produce and merchandise, an admirable defense force and industry, and booming hi-tech. We are enriched with yeshivot, batei medrash, shuls and Torah study as never before in history. There are phones in every home and in the palm of every hand. Telegrams and cables are gone alongside seltzer bottles, smelly paraffin cookers and heaters; and sadly, my husband and elders that I loved.
Survival is in G-d’s hands, and we survived each war, every decade. The IDF fought and defeated our enemies, and Israel grew stronger and more resilient. We’ve learned to shift from “yagon l’simcha, u’mi eivel l’Yom Tov” from grief to joy and from mourning to happy days, similar to Jews in the days of Esther and Mordechai who were saved from the horrific decree of obliteration. Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and citizens who were murdered in terrorist attacks ends at nightfall and, Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, follows.
Seventy is that milestone year, a time for celebration, a time for gratification and reflection, with emphasis on success and achievement. Jews never forget the past, it is always held in mind, while hearts garner strength and wisdom to celebrate our G-d gifted, blessed, independent State.