© by Myrna Katz 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
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
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
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
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
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
As we were leaving, Weitzman said to my father, "Tsvai feina kinder"
(two fine children). It was like George Washington telling your father "nice
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
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
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
from theJune 1998Edition of the Jewish Magazine