A Fascinating Story of Saadia Gelb from Galicia to America to Kfar Blum, Israel


the Chase is the Game, Saadia Gelb


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The Chase is the Game

Book Review by Jay Levinson

The Chase is the Game by Saadia Gelb published by Ameinu-Detroit (formerly Labor Zionist Alliance) Oak Park, MI: 2008 ISBN-13:978-0-6151893-5-2

This autobiography tells the fascinating story of Saadia Gelb, from childhood in Galicia to adolescence in mid-America, then immigration to Israel in the waning days of the British Mandate. The book is not a critical analysis of the Israeli labor movement in which Gelb played a pivotal role. Rather, the volume is a collection of personal reminiscences that bring better understanding to lifestyle and key personages.

All too often we look back in idealistic and somewhat romanticized terms at Jewish life in early 20th century Galicia. Gelb paints a very different picture. For him there were recurrent periods of abject poverty, near starvation, and various armies occupying the towns in which he lived. Yet, he relates amusing anecdotes. One is of a Polish soldier who knocked on the door, gun in hand. The Gelb family feared for the worst, but alas this was a Jewish soldier stationed nearby and asking for something to eat.

Immigration to the United States in 1926 brought a new style of life, as the Gelb's traveled from New York to Baltimore, then settled in Minneapolis. Saadia mastered the English language and eventually was graduated from the University of Minnesota, but in the process he became a devotee of a movement in which he would remain active for his entire life --- Labor Zionism. He met Golda Meir, then of Milwaukee, in 1932, and kept contact throughout her career. He was amongst the founders of what became HaBonim, a Labor Zionist youth movement begun in 1935, and he held various organizational positions in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. However, he never gave up on the dream to move to Palestine.

In November, 1947 Saadia and his wife, Helen, boarded a ship with round-trip tickets to Palestine and entered the country with three month tourist visas. After a stop in Haifa, they established residence in Kfar Blum, a kibbutz in the Galilee. The UN Partition Resolution was passed on 29 November 1947, and by the time the Gelbs' visa expired, searching for two American tourists was the least of the British police's concerns.

This book describes in very vivid terms life on the kibbutz. Idealism and motivation pressed the members onward, but high spirits are not a replacement for bread on the table and security with the Syrian border nearby. At one point the Gelb's discussed returning to the United States, but they decided to postpone the decision.

Alongside the personal story of Saadia Gelb is the history of Kfar Blum. The two cannot be separated. Over the years Gelb served the kibbutz in jobs ranging from tractor driver to general secretary. One particularly interesting position was to run the kibbutz guest house, which he developed from several beds to forty-nine rooms in four buildings. A side issue was diverting kibbutz resources from agriculture, the up-to-then traditional mainstay of the kibbutz economy. (Gelb also describes how the kibbutzim moved into industrial ventures --- some successful and others absolute failures).

The Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War meant life in shelters. The wars also meant notifying kibbutz families of the deaths of their fighting sons. That latter task was given to Gelb in his job as kibbutz secretary. Yet, the kibbutz was open to Israeli soldiers seeking rest from the fighting and a break from monotonous military rations.

Another anecdote. One of the numerous VIP guests at the kibbutz was US Chief Justice Earl Warren. Gelb was his escort in the kibbutz, and he tried to impress the American with the dangers of living within Syrian gun range from the Golan Heights until the area was conquered by Israeli 1967. Warren was unimpressed. He was a jurist. He repeatedly asked, "But to whom does the Golan Heights legally belong?" Soon a directive was issued by US governmental authorities forbidding their diplomatic personnel from going to the Golan Heights. There were, however, exceptions. When they came to visit in Kfar Blum, Gelb knew that these Americans were either from US military intelligence or from the CIA.

The book does have problems. The constant use of names (bringing back fond memories for the author but meaningless to the reader) makes reading laborious at times. As in many auto-biographies one also gets the feeling that the writing is too self-centered, rather than being an objective analysis of events detailing the author's role. Despite this, the book is certainly interesting reading and well worth the reader's time.


from the December 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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