Eyewitness to history: The letters of Tmima Bar Ilan

Eyewitness to history: The letters of Tmima Bar Ilan

Squirrel Hill resident Naama Lazar recited Yizkor at home. She holds a book of her mother’s letters. Photo provided by Naama Lazar
Squirrel Hill resident Naama Lazar recited Yizkor at home. She holds a book of her mother’s letters. Photo provided by Naama Lazar

Some people read about history, other people live it. Tmima Bar Ilan, nonagenarian mother of popular local Hebrew teacher Naama Lazar, was one of the latter. She experienced some of the most tumultuous and significant events of the 20th century and wrote about them in letters home to her family in the United States from what was then Palestine, and later, Israel. Though printed in a limited edition book primarily for the Bar Ilan family, Lazar is selling a few copies.

Barbara Burstin teaches Jewish history at both Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. She “found the work fascinating because it highlights the events surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel and the hardship of the siege of Jerusalem,” said Burstin. The book provides a “woman’s point of view of their daily struggle for survival.”

Though these are personal letters, they have “larger historical value,” explained Burstin. “The euphoria when the U.N. approved partition, the hardships families faced during the establishment of the State of Israel, the dangers and the shortages — all are presented in the context of a young woman raising a happy family and embracing her challenging life.”

Sunday, Nov. 30, 1947, after the United Nations votes to approve the partition of Palestine into two states, permitting the establishment of the State of Israel: “The city was wild today,” Bar Ilan writes. “The streets are full of people dressed up in their best clothes and everyone is full of hope and enthusiasm. Youngsters climbed on trucks and buses and went through the streets singing and shouting, ‘a Jewish state — free immigration.’ Whenever you met anyone you knew, the greeting was, ‘Mazel Tov.’ Many stores were closed today and the radio asked school children to turn up tomorrow in their holiday clothes. … We will be a nation like other nations for the first time in almost 2,000 years.”

Bar Ilan, born Florence Ribakove in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1915, met and fell in love with an intelligent, handsome and determined young man who came to the United States from Palestine to study. After college graduation, he returned to Palestine, and two years later, a day after Rosh Hashanah in 1937, Bar Ilan boarded the Queen Mary alone to join her fiancé and begin their life together in the Holy Land.

Her husband, Tuvia Bar Ilan, came from an illustrious rabbinic family. He was the son of Rabbi Meir Berlin (later Bar Ilan), one of the major leaders of Mizrachi, the political arm of religious Zionism. Bar Ilan University is named after him. Tuvia’s grandfather, Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, was a renowned Talmud scholar, the dean of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva and an early supporter of Jews returning to the Land of Israel.

Tuvia was looking for, and found, a woman who today would be described as “a liberated woman.” In 1936, he writes to her, “Darling, I love your energy and your wish to have a career of your own. I could never really love a wife who has nothing in this world except me. … My wife must be … recognized as Miss Ribakove as well as Mrs. Berlin.”

The former Florence Ribakove, a graduate of Barnard College, was a prolific and articulate letter writer in a time when it took three weeks for the onion skin-thin letters to cross the ocean to the United States. Florence and her mother and father wrote to each other copiously, beginning with her pioneering years in Palestine, through the founding of the state, the Israeli War of Independence, the siege of Jerusalem, the early years of the fledging State of Israel, all the way up to 1964.  

On Sunday, May 16, 1948, she writes: “This is the second day of the Jewish state and events are moving so fast that it is hard to keep up to date. I feel I don’t know how much you have read in the papers. I believe we are cut off from the world: telephone lines are down outside of town and there is no electricity. Due to the fuel shortage, the current is cut several hours every day and the shooting in town has cut most of the lines, so we have had no electricity at all since Friday morning.”

Along the way, she describes the shortages of food and clothing, the rationing of water, the Jewish refugees from Europe and the Middle East seeking asylum, bombs, gunfire, lack of heat, the difficulties and the joy of being a pioneer woman while raising three small children in challenging situations, always with optimism and cheerful grit.

Four years ago, an 8-pound box arrived on Lazar’s doorstep: It was full of letters that her mother had sent back to the states and a relative had saved and stored. “As I read the letters,” said Lazar, “I saw that it was of interest not just for the family but for others who are interested in the history of the time.”

Lazar, with the help of her husband, Rabbi David Lazar, spent almost four years on the effort, going to Israel many times where she found that her mother had saved the letters she had received from her family. Those letters completed the picture. Lazar retyped all the letters, put them in chronological order, added family photos, newspaper clippings, photocopies of originals in Hebrew, V-mail letters from her soldier father and arranged them all into an attractively designed book.

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Congregation Poale Tzedek, a scholar of Jewish history, enthusiastically recommends the book.

“Reading this was a fascinating window into the heroic lives of American olim against the backdrop of the founding of the State of Israel,” he said. “Stemming from one of the most significant families in modern times, the everyday life of the Bar Ilan family is a testament to the faith and tenacity of the greatest generation of the State of Israel and is both eye opening and inspiring.”

Bar Ilan just celebrated her 99th birthday, surrounded by her four children, many of her 18 grandchildren and almost 50 great-grandchildren.

“I came here by myself,” she said. “And now I have a tribe.”

>> For more information about the book, contact Naama Lazar at batmima@gmail.com.

Simone Shapiro can be reached at simoneshapiro@hotmail.com.