Grandparents – fascinating entities. If we take the time to look into their lives and their world, we can’t help but to be enchanted and inspired. Grandparents are a modern invention – only in recent history have grandparents been real people whom we meet and not part of an ancestor story-telling tradition. They are relatives who love us, spoil us, and teach us. Because most of us relate to grandparents when we are children, the focus is usually on our needs, our desires and our interests and not on theirs. And grandparents so happily comply to our selfish tendencies that we rarely give it a thought.
As adults, most of us don’t have a chance to ask our grandparents about their lives, accomplishments, dreams, either because they are physically or emotionally unable to convey these things to us. We then are forced to look to other family members, mentors, researchers to get to know who our grandparents were and what drove them to live the lives which shaped our communities, our parents ourselves.
And so, during my last Birthright trip, a brother and sister approached me with a request. “Tell us about our grandmother – Esther Antin Untermeyer.” They had heard she was an important person in the Jewish Zionist enterprise and perhaps had a memorial here in Israel. Here is a bit of HERstory.
It is difficult to find information about women who lived when Esther did. It was not a woman’s place in the larger world – that world of power and influence in big causes was most times saved for men. When you add that to belonging to an organization which went against the flow, it is difficult to piece together a picture of who the person is and what she accomplished. So here is what I have gleaned from an afternoon of research. I welcome other comments and insights.
Esther Antin was born in Rockland, Maine in 1895. She became the first woman to sit on the Municipal Court in Toledo, Ohio in 1925 where she remained until 1933. She left the bench to marry Louis Untermeyer, an eccentric left-leaning poet, who hung out with the likes of Robert Frost. She was his 4th wife (out of 5), and the two remained married until 1945. She died in New York in 1983 at age 88.
Her path crossed with Peter H. Bergson, a.k.a. Hillel Kook, in New York. Hillel Kook was born in Eastern Europe, a child in a rabbinic family whose father and brothers would found the backbone of the Rabbinate in the nascent State of Israel. He had another path. He left and went to the United States, changed his name to Peter Bergson and founded what came to be known as the Bergson group. Their goals, along the lines of Jabotinsky, were initially to create an independent Jewish Army to fight the Axis. The Axis was no good for the Jews – that was clear already in 1939, but they did not want to join the British Army as many Jews in Palestine did at that time (including Hannah Szenes). The Bergson group believed that the best way out was through an independent Jewish Army.
As the war progressed and the horrors of the holocaust began to come to light, the Bergson group focused on rescuing and repatriating European Jews in Palestine. As part of this effort, Bergson (Kook) called on his rabbinic connections to organize the March of the Rabbis, a gathering of orthodox rabbis on the Mall to push for legislation to ease the restrictions on United States immigration policy concerning refugees. These pressures led to the rescue of approximately 200,000 Jews from the fires of the Holocaust.
Bergson was still not satisfied and started on August 13, 1943 the American League for Free Palestine. It was in this organization that Esther Antin Untermeyer served as Treasurer. The ALFP sponsored a one-act play in 1946 called “A Flag is Born”. The main purposes of this play were to raise money to support the Ma’apilim and to act as a grass-roots catalyst for support for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. The play and the advertisements which promoted it drew on United States Revolutionary War symbols to force a wedge between the United States and Britain, thereby weakening support for the British Mandate on Palestine and strengthening American sentiment towards a Jewish State. After 200 performances in Madison Square Garden, the play went on tour to other major US cities. Marlon Brando, who played one of the lead roles, continue to travel with the show. The play also attracted the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, who saw the play in Baltimore (the play was not shown in Washington, D.C. as there were only segregated theaters there). In one moving scene of the play, one of the main characters takes his tallit and uses it as a flag for the Jewish State.
The Bergson group was ostracized by the Jewish establishment, still smarting from the anti-semitism of pre-war Europe. They feared that direct marketing and mass movements would only stir up hatred and opposition to the hopes of creating an independent Jewish state. They felt that the best way to garner support was through negotiations with prominent politicians and decision makers. The animosity reached such a level that the Bergson group is not until today memorialized at Yad VaShem for their efforts.
Esther Antin Untermeyer is Katie and Jason’s grandmother, for sure she loved her grandchildren as grandparents do. Her personal story is part of Jewish efforts to help their fellow man and create a homeland for the Jewish people. May our lives be as infused with meaning as hers was. And may her grandchildren carry on her goals, hopes and aspirations.