Growing up Jewish In
Chapter Seven: The Precious Promised Land
"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, crannies 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
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
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....
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
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