Looking Back to Zionism in the 40's and 50's

    June 1998         
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Zionism Yesteday, Looking Back to zionism in the 40's and 50's


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Zionism Yesteday,

by Myrna Katz Frommer & Harvey Frommer

"Behold I will take the Children of Israel from among the nations whither they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land."

Ezekiel, XXXVII:27

STEVE SOLENDER: I'm from the generation that was born in the Depression, grew up during the Holocaust, and experienced as children and teenagers the birth of the State of Israel and its first years of struggle. That's part of our memory.

YITZ GREENBERG: The Holocaust was something that people wanted to put behind them then. The focus was Israel. For religious Jews there was almost a kind of messianic quality about it. We prayed for it, dreamed of it.

ADDI FRIEDMAN: I used to imagine Palestine as a little medieval city of nooks, cranies and towers, a dusty place of Arabs with daggers and Jews living in walled towns. I dreamt how wonderful it would be when there was, at last, a Jewish state.

MOE SKOLER: We used to listen to the news every single night at the kitchen table. We tried to find out what was going on. In l946, l947, we began to hear stories about Jewish refugees trying to get into Palestine, and we began the paper drives all around Boston, gathering and selling them and sending the money to Palestine. I was no more than ll when I was unloading trucks of newspapers.

BALFOUR BRICKNER: Our favorite pastime as kids was picketing the British consulate in Cleveland. Our struggle was to create the State of Israel.

YITZ GREENGERG: From the age of about l2 on, I went out with Jewish National Fund boxes into the Brooklyn subways to collect money for Israel. It seemed the riders on the West End line which ran through Borough Park didn't give much. The best subway was the Brighton Beach line. Somehow Jews gave more money there.

The technique was to get on a train with a box in each hand and stand in front of the doors. As soon as they closed, I would shout: "Open the doors!" Everyone would look up --at which point I'd continue: "Open the doors of Israel to new immigrants." It was a great attention getter.

My older brother had an old broken down car that he used to transport the boxes from our local branch to the main office. One day he parked his car in a no parking zone to deliver the money and got a parking ticket. The price of the ticket could have broken the back of the organization. Besides that my brother was very headstrong; fighting that ticket was a matter of principle.

At the traffic court, everyone was "guilty, guilty," no matter what they said. When it was his turn, he said, "Well, I had these boxes to deliver and so I had to park."
"What boxes were they?" asked the judge. "Those were JNF boxes," he answered.
"It's a good cause." "Not guilty," the judge said.
Back at the office, no one believed my brother. They called up the traffic court. It turned out that the judge was Manuel Rothenberg, president of the Jewish National Fund.

MANNY AZENBERG: My father was a Zionist, always a Zionist. A self educated man who spoke five or six languages, he was born in Poland and lived in London before coming to America. In 1919, he worked directly with Chaim Weitzman at the Second Zionist Congress.

It was always around the house. We sent money to plant trees in Palestine; we dropped the coins in the Jewish National Fund box. My father worked for the Zionist Organization in New York. In the summer, he managed the Zionist Camp Kindleveilt. It was joy. At home, I was under pressure in school, in Hebrew school, on the streets of the Bronx. At camp, there was none of that. You played basketball, you swam, you necked, you had color war with blue and white teams --what else? You had social dancing and Israeli dancing, you sang Hebrew songs, dozens of them, early 1940s Israeli songs about the Palmah. They sank into you.

There were kids up there in "Habbaneam" -- an organization that sponsors Aliyah. Adults visited the camp, people like Golda Meier and Abba Eban and also people who painted houses, worked as butchers and in the garment center. Nobody rich, a very active group of working class, lower middle class first generation or immigrant Jews. They were not educated, but they knew the value of education. These were people who discussed and listened. These were people who read four newspapers: You saw the papers laying around the camp.

Famous Yiddish and Hebrew writers came up to talk. We kids weren't invited. We wouldn't have gone anyway; we wanted to play basketball. But we were surrounded by an atmosphere. It didn't hurt. We bumped into people who were committed. Coming back to the Bronx was culture shock. I started thinking about the next June.

We grew up in a traditional Jewish home. Friday nights, we waited for my father to come home, had challah from the G & R Bakery on l6lst Street, said kiddish, ate gefilte fish and chicken. We went to shul on the High Holy Days, and we had a seder. But as time went by, religion diminished in our lives. We moved from being pulled by religion to being pulled by Zionism.

When I was 14 and my sister was 10, my father took us out of school and up to the Waldorf Astoria to meet Chaim Weitzman. This was the day before he went to see President Truman to persuade him to have the United States recognize the State of Israel. Secret Servicemen escorted us into his room. I had seen pictures of Chaim Weitzman in the house. I expected him to be about l7 feet tall. So I was surprised to meet this little man with spots on his bald head who was going blind.

He asked me when I was going to Israel. "Next year if there's peace," I said because that's what I was told to say.
But he chastised me: "There will be peace."
And I, of course, agreed right away. "Don't worry, there will be peace."

As we were leaving, Weitzman said to my father, "Tsvai feina kinder" (two fine children). It was like George Washington telling your father "nice kids."

Whatever my father was or wasn't, he was a Zionist. He had a passion about it. You were respectful about that passion no matter what. He sat at the kitchen table listening to the radio while the United Nations voted on partition. They ticked off the names of the countries. When they got to Uruguay which put it over the top, he just sat there and cried. But in many ways, his job was over.

BALFOUR BRICKNER: When that voted was taken in Lake Success, we all went crazy. Who ever believed the state was going to be established? It was a justification of my dad's life.

MIKE LECAR: My father died in 1943. He had been a great Zionist but did not live to see the fulfillment of his dream. After Israel became a nation, I began having this dream in which my father had not died after all. He was alive, living in Israel where he was working as a spy. One day, I would go there, and I would see him again.

ALAN LELCHUK: Burt, a dear older brother type who lived upstairs from me, had enlisted in the Air Force as a l7 year old and got shot down over Germany in a B-17. He had about 40 operations to get out the pieces of the experimental German glass bullets that broke into parts when they exploded in his body, but he never fully recovered. He was arrogant and caustic, cynical as well. Nevertheless, when Israel was being formed, he decided to go to Palestine and fly with the early Jewish Air Force. He became part of a small group of American flyers, not all of whom were Jewish by the way.

My father thought it was crazy for Burt to take this heroic gesture, and they had arguments over his going there. I was about ten years old then, and Israel was beginning to take on some concrete reality for me.

MARNIE BERNSTEIN: In September, 1948, 5709, I entered fifth grade and Israel celebrated its first New Year. For me, these two events --one personal and one historic are forever entwined.

I can still remember that September morning sitting in a classroom in a Brooklyn elementary school, my neatly folded hands resting on a desk that was bolted to the floor, listening to the teacher talk of the usual first-day-of- school things. Much as I and the other children tried to pay attention, we kept glancing out of the fourth floor classroom window where the spire of the Coney Island parachute could be glimpsed in the distant sky. Our teacher must have sensed our longing for freedom because she smiled at us and said, "Summer is over, and now we must turn to the business of learning." But leaning against her desk, her hands crossed on her lap, she suggested this would not be such a terrible thing.

We looked at her with some curiosity. She neither looked nor sounded like the martial matrons we were accustomed to at P.S. 177. She was graceful and pretty, dressed in a long flowing skirt and silky blouse tied at the neck with a bow -- a "New Look" outfit, that romantic reaction to the military inspired dress of the war years. "This year," she told us, "we will study American history, and you will learn how lucky you are to be living in this wonderful country."

She did teach us American history as well as all the other subjects, but without the strict regimentation we were accustomed to until then. Gone were the marching drills. Instead we put on musicals and produced class newspapers. Our teacher seemed to us the epitome of peace and loveliness, and none of us knew her immediate, intimate connection to war.

It was not until much later that I learned she was the widow of Mickey Marcus, the United States Army colonel who was one of the chief architects of the military strategy that won Israel its War of Independence. A World War II hero and the only American soldier buried at West Point who died in the service of a foreign country, Colonel Marcus was a victim of "friendly fire" in June 1948 just at the war's end.

That September Mrs. Marcus returned to her teaching job, and I became one of her students. Sitting there that first day of school, yearning for the pleasures of a summer just past, how could I have known that just three months before David Ben Gurion had embraced our teacher tearfully and told her, "Emma, he was the best we had."

IRV SAPOSNIK: You felt tremendous pride associated with the creation of Israel. It compensated somewhat for the embarrassment you felt growing up around people who had one foot in the old world: the seltzer man who carried loads of bottles on his back up four flights of stairs, the rabbis and Hebrew teachers who walked the streets with a timeless tread, the pishke man who came once a month to collect the pennies my grandmother put into the box for charities in a Jerusalem that only I would ever see.

MARNIE BERNSTEIN: We had a Yiddish record: "Vee ahil zol Ich gane?" ("Where shall I go?"). The singer recounts how he tries to go here, go there, but nobody wants him. Then the mood of the song abruptly changes from pathos to pride, as he sings: "Now I know where to go/ Where my folks proudly stand/Let me go, let me go/To the precious Promised Land. . "

Something new had been added to my personal universe, a land far away and very different, and at the same time totally familiar. I saw Israel as a complicated combination of the pictures in my Golden Library Bible for Children, a place of modern apartment houses with terraces that overlooked the sea, and a Jewish world of family and stores like home.

My mother had one sister who remained in Romania with her husband and children after everyone else emigrated to America. Miraculously, all had survived the war and reunited in Palestine in 1947. My cousins were married now and starting families, and these people I had never met began to take on the dimensions of reality.

I'd seen their photos in family albums -- dark, serious figures in heavy suits and coats. Now they were wearing sundresses, summer shirts and shorts, squinting into the camera's lens from the bright sun. Where Europe had seemed to me a place of perpetual winter, Israel was eternal summer.

All kinds of items began coming into our home: a sheaf of post cards of Israeli sites that folded up like an accordion, a letter opener with a little map of Israel in the handle, a turquoise ash tray with the Hebrew letters for Israel forged in brass along the edge, copper trivets engraved with what looked like belly dancers, bottles of colored sand arranged in a pattern, camels carved out of wood. Exotic names of places like Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Bat Yam, that made me think of gardens and orange groves, entered our vocabulary.

The guttural Yiddish I had heard all my life was giving way to a new kind of pronunciation that was so appealing. In Israel, we learned, they said "Sha =>bat" instead of "Shabbos, " "Yom Kee pur" instead of "Yum Kipper," "Sha vuoth" instead of "Shveese." And the songs --"Hatikvah" that gave me the chills, "Tzena-Tzena" and "Hava Nagila" that we danced the hora to, and Arabic melodies in a minor key flooded my consciousness.

A mythology was taking shape with a cast of heroes dressed in short-sleeved white shirts or military uniforms. There were founding fathers like Chaim Weitzman and Ben Gurion, and Golda Meier, a founding mother as well. My favorite was Moshe Dayan whom I thought as romantic and dashing as Errol Flynn. We heard about the land of milk and honey, of gardens growing in the desert, of girls fighting in the army alongside the men, of "Sabras," the name for native Israelis who like the fruit they were named for were tough on the outside and sweet on the inside. Everything was bright and modern, and so totally opposite from the Jewish image I had until then.

BARBARA KREIGER: At age 10, l decided with a friend that we would move to Israel. We made the decision together. Israel had caught my imagination. It was connected to my feeling that I was an outsider, that being Jewish was something other than what my life was defined as.

DAVID BISNO: I didn't know about Israel until I got to Harvard in l957. The German Jewish milieu in St. Louis was very anti-Zionist. It wasn't until Israel became a success, as I saw it, that the Jewish community there turned around and accepted its existence.

BALFOUR BRICKNER: The Reform movement was classically anti- Zionist, and the job of people like Abba Silver and my father Barney Brickner was to move the American Reform rabbinate from assimilation to integration.

DANIEL MUSHER: Reform Jews, in the main, weren't interested in another country. They were Americans. They had a concept of ethical Judaism and a supernatural God that you related to on a personal basis, and they didn't need any ethnic trappings at all much less a country someplace. The Orthodox didn't accept the notion of Zionism because the Meshiach would take care of the whole thing, and the Conservatives were inclined towards the Orthodox.

My grandfather, Mordecai Kaplan, advocated the idea that Judaism is a peoplehood, a civilization as well as a religion. He was a tremendous force in moving the Conservative movement first and then others to a Zionist position.

SUSAN LEVIN SCHLECTER: Our rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Birmingham, Alabama was one of the first Reform rabbis to speak in defense of the State of Israel. He was a Zionist from the word go. That was unusual, to say the least, in Birmingham in the 1950s. In the country, too, at that time. There were Jews who were violently opposed to involvement, in any way, with Israel. A group of people actually left our temple left because of the rabbi's support.

All those cries of dual loyalty were out and about. Why would any Jews in Birmingham want to be accused of dual loyalty? They were, had to be Americans first. It was that feeling of being peripheral, marginal, of being not quite secure in one's own life.

FRANK RICH: As I encountered organized Reform Judaism growing up, many things rubbed me the wrong way. The religious school attempted to imitate secular school with its pop quizzes and homework. Everything was framed in a secular context so that it felt like a kind of a bush league version of regular life without any particular spiritual content. The over-accentuation of Chanukah in relation to other more important Jewish holidays was one of the things that made organized Reform Judaism bogus to me. There was also a certain type of hypocrisy like the ritual that I observed of people paying huge sums of money to have the best seats for the High Holy Days and then not showing up or listening to the World Series through an ear piece. It all had a kind of canned quality; it was like a game that everyone played.

But if the liturgical aspect and the practice of Judaism were peripheral, what was not peripheral was the feeling of identification with a people who have a history, a history that always struck me as fascinating. Even though she did not belong to a synagogue the entire time I was growing up, my mother thought of herself as a Jew. She was extremely interested in all aspects of Jewish history, was a Zionist.

That's what I inherited. I identified with Israel. It was very important, particularly for someone who grew up in the l950s when the assurance that there would be an Israel was far more precarious than it is now.

NATALIE COHEN MONTELEONE: When I was a teenager, I had this great desire to go to Israel, not so much for religious reasons, as for romantic ones. I expected Paul Newman to be there waiting for me when I got off the airplane.

JIM SLEEPER: Growing up as a Jew in Springfield, Mass. in the 1950s, you had your parent's memories, your going to your grandparents' home in Worcester for the High Holidays, and a suburban temple. That was it. One of my mother's favorite stories was when her mother was away for a few days, and my father said "C'mon I'm gonna cook you some bacon." My grandmother comes back unexpectedly while he's frying bacon. She has kiniptions. She's shaking out the curtains. But it's all "What will the neighbors think?" It's not some internal deep belief. It's a shanda. The whole thing was held together not by some internal faith but by not wanting to lose face in a communal way of life.

And then in 1960, right after my bar mitzvah, I won a scholarship to Camp Ramaz (a Conservative-Zionist camp) through the synagogue. I remember trying to fall asleep in my little bunk, while the counselors and staff, up in the dining hall, were singing Hebrew songs, Hagannah songs mostly, with a piano background. The melodies would be wafting down over the hill. Listening to the singing on a summer night, I felt a spirit, an excitement like nothing I had ever known. Suddenly I seemed part of an immense community that was cast up across time and space.

Then, during the summer of my junior year in high school, I actually went to Israel. And the ground shifted under my feet. I now understood that there was a physicality to my Jewishness. It wasn't just some spiritual thing. There was a national reality which I had never connected with.

At the time, Israel was a young, fledgling pioneering country. For me it was totally intoxicating, a complete revelation. This was pre '67. The country was still only seven miles wide across the middle, and you just had this overwhelming feeling of pride and admiration for this country, a sense of its vulnerability, its energy.

MITCHELL SERELS: During the Six Day War, I was standing on the corner with an Israeli flag and collecting money. People were dropping in coins left and right. A woman gave me two dollars and said in an Irish brogue: "This is to help the Israelis beat the British."

JASON FREED: I was born in May, 1967 right in the middle the Six Day War. My mother used to tell me how she lay in her hospital bed the days after my birth, listening to the radio, and worrying about what would be.

I grew up hearing about the military might of Israel, how the image of the brave soldier had replaced that of the meek shtetl Jew. My grandfather, who had been born in Europe, had this tremendous sense of pride in Israel's military prowess. He used to tell me how Israel had the only army in the world where the officers lead the men in battle. When he visited Israel, he kept having his picture taken with soldiers.

To me it seemed that here in America, we had such safe, ordinary lives while there in Israel, our other world, all these adventures were going on. In l973, they wheeled a television into our Sunday school classroom and we watched the news about the Yom Kippur War. I was six years old and didn't really have a sense of what was at stake, only a small boy's excitement at the idea of battle. And then there was rescue at Entebbe in 1976 which was more adventurous than a movie.

As I was growing up, the fact of a strong, vibrant Israel was a given. It figured in my self definition. I was a little kid, and in Hebrew school these two kids used to pick on me a lot: David who was big and fat, and Ira who very tall and thin. I wasn't into fighting, but I was able to hold my own. Once I had a fight with Ira, and David was the so-called arbiter. Ira complained that I pulled his hair which was against the rules. David, who was supposed to be neutral, hit me as kind of a punishment.

I saw the whole thing as a political metaphor. Ira was the Arabs --my main enemy. David was Russia, the big, fat super-power who was totally unfair. And I was Israel --small but brave and clever. Against all the odds, I like Israel was able to fight back and win.

from Growing Up Jewish in America by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer, Harcourt Brace 1995. Chapter Seven: The Precious Promised Land

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer teach oral history at Dartmouth College. Their newest book It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way will be published by Harourt Brace this fall.


from theJune 1998Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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