Taking on the Swamp

Malaria, as much as government policy, kept the Land of Israel vacant. In 1902, a report on the distribution of the Anopheles mosquito and malaria in Upper Palestine describes the conditions. “It (Palestine) was guarded by a small company of Turkish soldiers, and the platoon had to be changed every month because malaria sickened and debilitated everyone after 10 days.”

Reports of early Jewish settlement from the end of the 19th century describe widespread fatality from the conditions in Israel. Around the Sea of Galilee, 95% of workers in the Jewish settlements suffered from Malaria. Of the approximate 75,000 Zionists which arrived in the land of Israel between 1882-1914, about half had either died or left by 1914 because of the severe conditions, including malaria.

Even the British army under General Allenby, famous for receiving the surrender of Jerusalem in 1917, collapsed from malaria in 1918 after the battle of Megiddo.

No successful campaign had ever been launched which did anything other than control the disease. Before 1917, the only experience in dealing with malaria control anywhere in the world was by General Gorgas at the Panama Canal. Their efforts involved thousands of men, vast sums of money and was too costly for most countries – particularly the slowly crumbling Ottoman empire. Even Balfour’s declaration could not hope to encourage masses of Jews to settle in Israel if malaria held sway.

Enter Louis Brandeis, president of the American Zionist Federation. He saw the negative impact of malaria on the Zionist enterprise. He approached Chaim Weizmann to invest in his efforts but they declined. Brandeis put up $10,000 of his own money and teemed with Dr. Israel Kligler, Zionist and brilliant public health scientist, to come up with a new, affordable method for dealing with malaria. More than that, though, he saw the solution not as malaria control but malaria elimination and ushered in a new model of public health.


Educational post in English, Arabic and Hebrew

Involvement of the community and culturally-sensitive education were the bulwarks of the new approach. Instead of employed personnel, individuals could impact the spread of the disease. Kligler went to Palestine in December 1920 to direct Hadassah Hospitals’ laboratories. He shared Brandeis’ vision: no Jewish homeland without eliminating malaria. His plan included: detection and treatment of carriers, destruction of breeding sites, use of quinine as a prophylactic, education through lectures, pamphlets and home visits, and a change in attitude to convince the public that malaria is preventable.

Mandatory Palestine did become malaria-free, but only after the death of Kligler. One of the Jewish missions is fixing the world, Tikkun Olam; and by not taking a fatalist approach to malaria, but rather a proactive stance to beating this disease, Israel provides a model for the rest of the world.


Flour and Torah

In a recent article in Segula Magazine about Jews living in Beit Shean (Beisan) before the Independence War, the subject of Jews living in mainly Arab towns pre-state was examined. I looked at statistics of the Jewish population of my home town, Beer Sheva, and found that the statistics were similar: a largely Arab city (population in 1931 almost 3,000) with a very small Jewish population (11) and assumed that the story would be the same. While certain elements of Beer Sheva’s story mirror the situation in Beit Shean, many elements are different.

Firstly, Beer Sheva is a modern town, unlike Beit Shean. The first modern settlement was started in 1900 with the establishment of the town by the Ottomans. The Ottomans wanted to both control and serve the Bedouin community while establishing a military base against the British in Egypt. Interestingly, almost immediately Jews arrived to the town. Among the first residents, arriving in 1901, were 2 Jews who founded a flour mill right on the main street. Unlike Beit Shean’s Jewish population which consisted of mainly Arabic-speaking Sephardim, these two Jews, Yaacov Gordon and Meir Shnaiderovitch, were Ashkenazim. Prior to coming to Beer Sheva, they had worked in the winery in Rishon LeTzion and been fired. Beer Sheva provided them with a second chance to see what they could build up in this Arab Bedouin town.

beer sheva flour mill

Gordan and Shnaiderovitch Flour Mill building today

The Ethics of the Fathers, 3:21, states, “If there is no flour, there is no Torah,” and this adage was true for the Jewish community of Beer Sheva. The flour mill, pictured, was the focal point of the community, housing at one point a well, a synagogue, a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) and a chicken coop. Bedouin preferred going to the Jewish mill instead of one of the other Arab-owned mills in the town because the Jews set a fixed price for the flour and had superior equipment to grind the flour finer.

Prayers in the community were said in the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Edot HaMizrach styles depending on who was leading and who was attending, as the population was varied.

By 1923, the Jewish community had grown to around 30 people. The population included not only a miller and a butcher, but a teacher, storekeeper, doctor, tailor, shoemaker and even a police man, with their spouses and children. Many of the Jews were related or became related. Each person made a niche, raised and educated families, and created a small Jewish community in the Land of their Forefathers. They were not your typical Zionists and were largely ignored by the large Zionist organizations, receiving almost no help or support.

The Jewish community, and the flour mill, came to an abrupt end with the Arab revolt of 1929. The Jewish population of Beer Sheva fled, and the mill was sold to a local Arab. The Jews did not stay away for long though, as the 1931 census records indicate that there were 11 Jews living in Beer Sheva, rebuilding Jewish life there. The Arab riots of 1936-1939 ended the Jewish community in Beer Sheva and only a few individuals returned afterwards, leaving no signs of Jewish communal life.

There is a legend that during Israel’s Independence War, the remaining Jewish population of Beer Sheva got into a van and fled the city. There were fewer than a dozen individuals. It’s hard to believe today when looking out over the modern city with over 200,000 Jewish residents, that the Jewish life in the modern city started with such a small population. Like its pre-state community, Jews from all over the world make up a patchwork. And like for Gordon and Shnaiderovitch, Beer Sheva offers a second chance and a different kind of Zionism – a unique chance to make something new as envisioned by Ben Gurion.

Ideal Family

One of my favorite families in the history of the land of Israel in the early 1900s is the Bentwich family. Herbert and Susanna, their 11 children and descendants made their mark on the land and on the emerging state and it’s institutions.

I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what I find to be so interesting.  There are lots of crazy stories within the family – some of them are actually crazy.  I think what impresses me the most, though, is that the Bentwich’s are a family driven by ideals.

Herbert and Susanna, who are part of the English Jewish aristocracy in the second half of the 19th century, raise their children on 3 central tenets:  music, education and Zionism.  I used to think that the scariest part of being a parent was that, even after all my efforts, my kids wouldn’t listen to me. As I mature, I find that the most terrifying part of parenthood is that your kids actually listen to you.  These Bentwich kids did just that, each in his own way.
Susanna Bentwich was a concert pianist. She conveyed her love of music by assigning her children, in a predetermined order,  a musical instrument.   The first learned piano; the second, the violin; the third, the cello.  This pattern – piano, violin, cello – repeated for the remaining 8 children.  Nita and her husband, Michael Lange, made their home a haven for musicians and hosted many concerts.  Another sibling, Thelma founded a music school in Israel which exists until today. Grandson Daniel studied piano at Julliard.  Margery is a professional violinist.  Most of the siblings end up having a significant connection to music.

Education is also an important pillar of the family.  Besides Thelma and her music school, Norman Bentwich, the oldest son, after a stint in the British army as a major of a camel division, becomes a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  The youngest Bentwich, Joseph, becomes a teacher in  two of the most prestigious high schools in Israel – Gymnasia Hertzelia in Tel Aviv and HaReali Haifa. He then goes on to become deputy Secretary of Education in the young state of Israel.  Joseph’s son, Michael, was also a professor of Engineering at Hebrew University.


bentwichAnother pillar of this illustrious family is their commitment to Zionism.  When Susanna dies young in 1915, Herbert arranges to buy land on the Mount of Olives in which to bury her and to establish an estate.  He succeeds in bringing her body to Israel in 1921 to establish the family cemetery.  His plans for an estate on the same piece of land fail when the Ottomans refuse to give him a permit.  Instead, he donates the land to establish the Hebrew University, on the condition that they maintain for perpetuity the cemetery.  Many Bentwich family members were buried on the Mount of Olives in the family cemetery.  When Herbert finally moves to Palestine, as it is called under the British, in 1929, he already has 8 of his children living (or buried) here.

Norman is employed by the British to update the laws in Palestine, incorporating Ottoman laws into the British framework; the political system he devises is the basis for Israeli law until today.

The town of Zichron Yaacov is interwoven with the Bentwich family. Many Bentwich children and grandchildren lived at Chatzer Carmel, the estate established by Michael and Nita Bentwich Lange.

Also, Jerusalem owes a debt to the Bentwich’s.  Besides Hebrew University,  the neighborhood of Rechavia benefited from the family.  The first house in the new neighborhood built in 1924 was of Eliezer and Thelma Bentwich Yellin.

They may not be actually an ideal family, but they are definitely a family with ideals.


The Making of a Zionist

I recently attended the screening of a movie which highlighted an interview in English with David BenGurion.  Interwoven with the interview are video clips and narration about BenGurion’s life.  It runs like a Tuesdays with Morrie for the quintessential Israeli leader.  One of the interesting assertions that BenGurion makes is that he was never a Zionist until he moved to the Negev kibbutz of Sde Boker after retiring from public life in 1963.  The man who declared the Independence of the Jewish State and masterminded the Independence War; the man who led the fledgling nation through the early years and settled Jewish immigrants.  This man claims that none of those activities were an expression of his Zionism.ben gurion sde boker

We need to ask two main questions:

  1. How does BenGurion define Zionism?
  2. What about the Negev brings out the Zionism in him?

Zionism, according to BenGurion, is the re-creation of the Jews in their land.  Re-creation implies that there was a destruction or loss.  Indeed, the Jewish people were created and had an independent state 2000 years ago; that state was lost and destroyed by the Romans; now the Jewish political entity is being re-created.

We know how important the Negev is in BenGurion’s vision of the success of the Jewish State.

“It is in the Negev that the people of Israel will be tested – For only with a united effort of a volunteering people and a planning and implementing State will we accomplish the great mission of populating the wilderness and bringing it to flourish.  This effort will determine the fate of the State of Israel and the standing of our people in the history of mankind.”

This describes Ben Gurion’s theory of Zionism for the Jewish people as a collective, but not for one individual – David BenGurion.

How does moving to the Negev  re-create David BenGurion?  When BenGurion was a young man, he moved to the land of Israel. Here he holed up in Sejera with the likes of Alex Zaid. He learned farming, although not so successfully, and worked the land. This had been his childhood dream – BenGurion created himself.

During his years in public service, he lost that direct connection with the land. It was a loss for a greater good – the Jewish people needed a leader. Only after he leaves public life can he re-create himself and return to his personal connection to the land. Where does this transformation happen? Naturally in the Negev. 

“It is in the Negev that the youth will be tested – its pioneer strength, vigor of spirit, and creative and conquering initiative.  Will it take advantage of the greatest, and most precious and rarest opportunity in the history of the entire nation – to create anew and to be fully immersed in creative enterprises, which necessitate infusion of the special and most wondrous properties locked and hidden in the recesses of the soul of each human being, the properties of creative valor which gain control of nature’s strongholds, and fashion the destiny of a people and its country.”

BenGurion re-creates himself, returning to the ideals of working the land which he espoused as a youth.

Many groups I take to the Negev desert experience the renewal which comes from being alone in the desert. Especially there you can strip off the trappings and become as bare as the surroundings. You can connect with your core, the driving ideals which steered you when you were young, and re-create yourself.

There, you can be a true Zionist, BenGurion style.

Ordinary People

As part of some research I am doing for a friend, I came across Chaim and Rachel Mittleman, two ordinary people.  Someone in their family thought to video Chaim telling the story of his life and his coming to Israel.  Their story is touching, because it is the story of ordinary people.  Most of us go through life as ordinary people, and yet, most stories which are preserved are not of ordinary folk.

Yesterday, I stood at the base of the steps leading into Jaffa from the sea.  I tried to imagine myself as Rachel Mittlemen, just arriving from Poland in 1924.  She arrived as I did, pregnant, and driven by a dream.  I don’t know much about her life, and the snippets I do know are through her husband Chaim’s words.

She was the most beautiful girl in Lubartow, Poland, and when Chaim returned, broken, from the front, he wooed her.  Her hand was not to be won by just anyone, but rather by one who would follow her to the end of the world, to Palestine.  Chaim was not a Zionist, but a well-respected carpenter like his father.  Whether it was because of her beauty, or because of Chaim’s father’s brutal murder on the road outside of Lubartow at the hands of non-Jews, Chaim agreed.   I  don’t know what drove Rachel to make this condition.  Was she a Zionist, believing in an ancient promise? or a sufferer like Chaim  of a repressive present?  The two set out and because Rachel had a cousin living in Jaffa and Chaim had a trade, they were able to receive visas from the British to come to Palestine.

When they drew near to the Port of Jaffa, Chaim tells of his wonder in new sights and new people, new lold-jaffaanguages and new challenges.  Rachel silently gets off the boat and stands with her future ahead of her and within her.

I hear the story through Chaim’s words and think of her – a simple person, one of the many anonymous personalities living and building quietly, raising families.  But anyone who makes the journey, deciding to pick themselves up from one place and move to the Land of Israel, driven by an ideal, can relate to Rachel and see themselves in her.

On Yitzchak Sadeh Street in Tel Aviv, there is a building which bears a simple plaque attesting to Chaim and Rachel Mittleman building a house there.  A simple plaque memorializing simple people and simple acts.  Those of us whose simple acts build up the country can see ourselves in their story.  And as I stood at the foot of the steps leading from the sea into ancient Jaffa, it was Rachel Mittleman who ascended with me.

Birthright to the Max

maxThere have been posts on facebook about an article written recently laying at least some of the “blame” for Max Steinberg’s death on the institution of Birthright. The headline’s subtext states, “A Birthright trip convinced an American with shaky Hebrew that he was ready to die for another country.”

Even before I read the article, I knew that it would upset me.

Condensing the decisions and actions of a person on one factor is infantile.  But beyond that, the one statement quoted above has so many problems that I barely know where to start.

1.  “A Birthright trip convinced an American”:  Birthright is not there to convince anyone of anything.  It is meant to expose people to viewpoints and experiences to which they would not otherwise have been exposed.  I have had some trips where the participants say that the main Jewish value in their lives is Bagels and Lox!  I am not so happy about that, but it is allowed to happen, and sometimes it does.

2.  “with shaky Hebrew”:  The fact that Max had shaky Hebrew says nothing about the depth of his commitment to this country.  Israel was built by people who had shaky Hebrew.  Hebrew only returned to usage on a daily basis a little over 100 years ago.  Herzl didn’t speak Hebrew.  Golda Meir spoke Hebrew with a Midwestern accent.  The state of Israel is built on immigrants who have shaky Hebrew.  Intel’s chips and cherry tomatoes, as well as much of the cell phone technology, were developed by people who did not speak perfect Hebrew and yet had to get along here and communicate.  Think about how many US citizens are being shut out of contributing creatively because of their shaky English.

3.  “that he was ready to die”:  Maybe Max was ready to die.  This is actually part of the statement that I agree with.  But before you go getting all crazed with thinking that I am a war-monger, suicide-mission aficionado, let’s look at the flip side.

People who are ready to die, are engaged and willfully living.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Simple self-preservation with nothing behind it is selfish.  It says, “I am the most important idea in the world.  I deserve to be alive because I am me.”

Is that why we are alive?

In Judaism, there is the idea of tikkun olam – fixing the world.  “For six days you should do all your work.”  What work?  Tikkun olam.  Each of us will see this differently.  Whether your life’s work is in charity, or making a better world for our children, or advancing business in order to improve the world, or whatever.  Once you know what you are living for, you know in what situations you are willing to die.

So, Max was ready to die, according to this article.  If so, he reached a level that many of us don’t reach until we are much older or at all.  Self-awareness of what we are doing on this planet and why we are alive is an aspiration.

4.  “for another country”:  Israel is not just another country.  Max got the message that Israel is home.  That is a Birthright message.  And home isn’t always warm, fuzzy, chocolate cookies all the time.  Sometimes home is the “my boyfriend dumped me and I need someplace to be” refuge.  Home is when mom hugs you and then yells at you for not washing your dishes.  Home is where you need to take out the trash and work at making it liveable.  And yet, home is just simply home – that place where you can just be.  That is what Israel is for world Jewry.

And when Jews are being killed in Europe, Chana Senesh is coming to parachute in to help you.  She won’t give up secrets.  She left Israel-home to help her fellow Jews in Europe.  And when Jews are hijacked and sitting in an airport in Uganda, the Israeli army is coming to get them out.  Yes, your mom would do that for you.

So what did Birthright do for Max Steinberg?  What did Max get from his 10-day all-expense paid trip to Israel?  Maybe some ideas, maybe a free ticket, maybe a feeling, maybe some friends or mentors.  Max Steinberg became Max Steinberg.  And I think that instead of searching for somewhere to place the blame for his death, we should celebrate everything that made up his life.

May his memory be a blessing.

I am a Tour Educator who has been guiding Birthright groups for the last 3 years.  Max could have been on my trip (but he wasn’t).  To date, of the 450 participants on my trips, only 1 has stayed to join the army, but 450 have returned to their lives with a taste of what Israel and being Jewish means to them.

Patience and Promise

So, I should be working on the millions of things I have to do before my upcoming Birthright and guiding trips, but I heard a story tonite that needs to be told.  It so urgently needs to be told, that I am putting all else on hold.  It is a story about patience – but, wait, I am getting ahead of myself.

Tonite and tomorrow, Israel celebrates Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Our community, like many around Israel, holds a ceremony in the evening to mark this day.  The ceremony is organized and run by the 12th grade class and features a skit with readings, music, an introduction by the local Rabbi, and the lighting of torches.  The 12th graders have all had the opportunity to go on their high school trip to Poland and spent time learning about the Holocaust and generally do a pretty decent job at choosing appropriate readings and music.  The local Rabbi speaks, usually about the importance of living and building the state of Israel after the Holocaust, and what a fabulous community we live in that takes in so many immigrants to strengthen the Jewish state.  The other parts of the ceremony usually run without surprise or incident.

More of a wildcard is the lighting of the 6 torches which represent the 6 million Jews who were killed.  Traditionally, torches would be lit by the survivors to remember their family members who were lost, individuals representing masses.  It has been almost 70 years since the Holocaust.

70 years is a long time.

Think how hard it is to find people who themselves survived the holocaust.  So, generally, we get one or two survivors and then we fill in with people whose parents, relatives, aunts, uncles, etc. survived.  The survivors who light a torch, are often frail, or not native Hebrew speakers, and are helped by their children and grandchildren who read a memorial passage written by someone in the family.  It is nice, but sometimes lacks passion.

This year, there was a family led by an elderly woman who went to light their candle.  The grandchild, Elisheva,  started reading about the family, telling their story.  Her grandmother, Mindy, came from a small town.  When the Germans came into the town, they carted off the Jewish population to a concentration camp in Poland.  There, Mindy’s entire family was killed;  her parents, her siblings, her grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.  She alone survived.  All in total, 31 of her relatives were killed.

After the war, Mindy came to Israel.  Mindy only had one child, Chana, Elisheva’s mother and Chana had raised children and grandchildren.  Mindy’s granddaughter continued that they were lighting this torch to remember their entire family who was killed.  Elisheva handed the torch to her grandmother and Mindy started speaking.

“I am lighting this torch to remember my family who died in the Holocaust at the hands of the Germans:  Shlomi, Moishe, Freidel, Sarahleh, Dovid….”  She paused slightly before each of their names and did not use their proper names but rather their nicknames.  You could hear in her voice, that as she recited the names, she revisited their faces.  Name after name.  31 people.  Her entire family.
 rosh hashana - 2014
Then, her voice cracking, Mindy continued.  “Two days ago, another great-grandchild was born for me.  Two days ago, my 31st descendent came into the world.  31 descendents for 31 of my family members who were killed.  This is my revenge.  This is my answer to the Nazis who wanted to eliminate the Jewish people.  The revenge of life and not of death.”

70 years is a long time.

MIndy had to wait almost 70 years for those 31 relatives to come back into her life.

70 years of hope.
70 years of yearning.
70 years of patience.
70 years of belief in the Jewish promise.

“Know that your children will be strangers in a land not their own.  They will be oppressed, but I will execute judgement on the nation which oppresses them, and in the end, they will go free with great wealth….They will return to their land.”

Patience and promise.  And if anyone asks about the survival of the Jewish people throughout the ages, throughout the hardships, I would have to say that the belief in the promise and the willingness to wait for it, are a big part of the answer.  Come to Israel for a visit and let me help you discover your part in the promise.

Olim L’Har Hertzl

As we go through the season of the counting of the Omer, there are  several Holidays/Remembrance days that are celebrated.  We feel the depths of Yom HaShoah; we feel the heights of Yom HaAtzmaut.  However, as Olim (new immigrants), it seems to me that we have the hardest time  relating to Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Remembrance Day dedicated to Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror.  Most of us did not serve in the army, nor did our fellow Olim.  We only meet the face of the army when our children are drafted.    We are, thankfully, missing the personal connection that unfortunately many native-born Israelis have with the day.

And with the place.  Our children may visit Har Hertzl, site of the National Military Cemetery, with their high school in preparation for their Poland trip, as part of their youth group, with their army unit, but we do not share those experiences.  Perhaps, when someone comes to visit, we may take them on their second or third visit to the Hertzl Museum, but we do not spend time wandering around the cemetery itself.

Here’s your chance.  Why should you dedicate a morning to a cemetery?  Because cemeteries tell stories of people’s lives and a National Cemetery tells the story of a Nation’s developing life. This month I would like to share with you some of the life stories of people who are buried in Har Hertzl military cemetery, with a special eye towards our experiences and realities as Olim.har hertzl - yom hazikaron

Tour date:  Sunday, April 21, Iyar 11
Tour start: 9:30 a.m. at entrance to Har Hertzl
Tour end:  approx. 12:30 p.m.
Approximate travel time: 40 minutes, participants are responsible  for their own transportation (I can help organize carpools).

No entrance fees.  Guiding fee is 50 NIS per person.

You need to wear good walking shoes, a hat and bring water.   This is a walking tour – we will be walking all morning.

If you are interested, please  e-mail me to let me know.  This tour will only run with a minimum of 8 people so tell your friends to contact me!

You Can’t Take it With You

In honor of the start of October and spooky Halloween stories,  I have a post about cemeteries – and not just any cemetery, but the ancient cemetery on the Mount of Olives.

I like visiting cemeteries.  OK, there’s the confession.  But you may ask why?  What led a mild-mannered midwestern Middle Easterner to like cemeteries?  I have come to recognize that cemeteries provide a window into life.  All the history found in history books can be read through cemeteries.  All the major human, political and natural events show through the graves themselves.  Drought, plague, war, peace, movements of populations, ideas.

Recently, I attended a continuing education morning on the Mount of Olives.  It was an interesting session walking through some of the 150,000 Jewish graves on the sides of the ridge which provides a view of the Old City of Jerusalem  Indeed much of the Jewish history of Jerusalem can be read through the graves and monuments found here.

One grave which continually catches my eye is that of Rav Shmuel Salant.  Rav Salant came to Jerusalem in 1840 with his wife and son after being advised that the warm climate would help his lungs.  He was 24 years old.  Over the course of the next 69 years, he served as Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.  When he was not in Europe collecting money for the poor Jews living in Israel, he would sit on a stone bench in the Old City of Jerusalem.  People would come and meet him on this bench and ask him questions as he was a known Torah scholar and Talmudist.

When he died in 1909, he stipulated in his will that he wished to be buried on the Mount of Olives and that his stone bench, on which he had sat countless hours, should be his tombstone.  Unbeknownst to him at the time, when archaeology was in its infancy and digging in the heavily populated Old City was impossible, his “bench” was actually a toppled Roman column from the Cardo, erected  about 1600 years before!

A few elements from the story are interesting to me.  First, one gets a picture of what the Old City must have looked like before archaeology.  One imagines “finds” laying around, waiting for someone to come and use them or move them around.  The common debris of the ages, waiting for modern archaeology to make sense of the picture, but not waiting passively in some restricted area.  Rather, in a natural way, the past interacting with the present.

Secondly, the Rav Salant’s bench/column is long – it invites another to come and sit next to him.  He was a person who connected to the people in Jerusalem.  He actively worked to collect money to be distributed to the poor from different ethnic backgrounds – quite revolutionary for his time.

The third element from the story which is interesting to me is that Rav Salant was attached to his things.   He chose an element from his life which he wished to represent him to the world after he died.  The choice of his bench, where he connected to the people of Jerusalem was an obvious choice.  It is interesting that there is a cross-cultural need to be buried with one’s things.  The obvious example (and the most
extreme) is the Egyptian pyramids, full of entire entourages of figurines and objects which the ancient Egyptians believed would be needed in the next world.  In the First Temple period tombs behind the Begin Center in Jerusalem, a small golden amulet was found among the bones – the oldest biblical text ever found – but again pointing to a
need to be buried with ones things.  It is generally believed that in Judaism, “you can’t take it with you and you don’t need it” in the next world, but as human beings, we acquire things and we become attached to them.  In a certain sense, our things represent us, mirror who we are.

Rav Salant sat on a Roman pillar using it as a prop to solidify the renewed Jewish presence in Jerusalem.  Where were the Romans and the Roman city when Rav Salant sat on the pillar?


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.