Letter to an Israeli pioneer

Letter to an Israeli pioneer

Dear Raffa:

You came into my life and married my mother when I was 10.  You asked my permission and let me try on the engagement ring first.  I accepted you as my father.  We had the wedding at our home on Wightman Street on May 4, 1958.  You promised to love my mother, my brother and me and we loved you back.  

Over the years we learned your story began in Russia and moved to Palestine and included chapters in the Hagana and the British army before you settled in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.  Relatives from Israel came to see us, but it wasn’t until I finished high school that I went to Israel for the first time, followed by short visits in college and our last family trip in 1980.   I wouldn’t return until 2011.  I wanted Daniel and our boys to meet their Israeli family, which has grown so large that a hall was rented to accommodate everyone for Pesach.

That’s when I got serious about Hebrew.

I hired a tutor and began learning how to read and write. I meditated on 501 Hebrew Verbs.  It became clear that to arrive at any degree of fluency I would have to go to Israel, which with Daniel’s support — we would rendezvous on Skype — and assurance from my editor that I wouldn’t get fired, I did in late January.  I settled into a tiny apartment in Ramat Aviv across the street from Tel Aviv University, enrolling in the TAU Overseas Winter Ulpan.  My classmates were college students on a semester abroad and a few new immigrants.  

Classes ran five hours a day, five days a week for five weeks.  When that ended in late February, I signed up for another month.  I studied like crazy, made verb charts, copied words over and over on recycled Tel Aviv University letterhead, did homework and took tests.  City buses became my language laboratory.  I would repeat after the stops as they were announced on route.  When the bus wasn’t talking, I’d engage with people around me or eavesdrop on conversations making up what I didn’t understand, which was a lot.

My teachers were great storytellers, and I learned more and more.

It has been a journey of chance encounters and intrigue.

One day I was paired for a language drill with Tristan, an 18-year-old Spaniard.  Since we both spoke Spanish better than Hebrew, we switched to Spanish and he told me that he was Jewish, a rarity in Catholic Spain.  He said his grandfather had founded the first synagogue in Madrid since the Inquisition.  The year was 1968.  I told him with a knowing smile that we had something in common.  I was a student at the University of Madrid that year, had visited the synagogue, met his grandfather and probably his then 8-year-old mother.  I had written about it in a letter home, which, since Mom had kept that trove of letters, was now stored in a box in my attic.  I told Tristan that I would send him a copy.

My classmates also included a young Hungarian whose great-uncle, an Air Force officer during World War II, assisted Raoul Wallenberg in helping Jews escape from Hungary.  On campus, I met a German woman whose father was in a prisoner of war camp in the United States during the war.  Her son is a new Israeli immigrant.  Both have converted to Judaism.

There’s also Christina from the Czech Republic who is getting her doctorate in Jewish studies and Anne, who worked with coffee pickers in Central America and is an intern at the Swiss Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Neither is Jewish.

Among my new friends is 86-year old Yehudit Barkol, who lives in the assisted living complex around the block.  A few weeks ago, I walked into her building confident that I could find an afternoon speaking buddy among the many elderly residents.  The manager liked the idea and made the match.  We planned to meet at 4 p.m. the next day. That evening cousin Ria’s husband Sheike called with a chuckle in his voice.  He had just gotten off the phone with his cousin.  She had told him that she had just met an American journalist and was going to help with her Hebrew. I was that journalist.  The cousin was Yehudit.

I spent weekends with relatives and friends.  I saw Roman ruins in Bet Shean, toured Jerusalem and Nazareth, visited a dairy farm near Netanya and stood among costumed merry-makers in downtown Holon for the Adloyada, the biggest Purim parade in Israel.  I roamed through greenhouses in moshav Ahituv, Israel’s cucumber capital.  It’s also where my college roommate lives and makes natural cosmetics, but not from cucumbers.

I am also on a journey to discover your history from the people who know you.

I travel north to Hanita, a kibbutz on the Lebanese border founded in response to Arab riots in 1938. I see a poster-size photograph that celebrates the event, the same historic picture I have in a frame at home.  You’re shown alongside then-Jewish Agency head, David Ben-Gurion, Paula Ben-Gurion, and Eliahu Golomb, founder of the Hagana.  The only difference between the two photos is that you’re not in the one on display in Hanita.  It’s obvious where the picture was cut.  I leave Hanita, but not without a promise that the original will be put up in its place.

My curiosity led me to the Hagana Museum in Tel Aviv to take another look at the notebook with your papers that we gave to the museum in 2003, the year Mom moved into assisted living and I cleaned out her apartment.  A researcher there helped me piece together a story that you never told.  He read me letters written in Hebrew from Eliahu Golomb and correspondence between you and Teddy Kollek in 1948, during Israel’s Independence War.

What role did you play?

I know that as a royal engineer in the British army during World War II you worked in North Africa and Syria, building roads and bridges.   After the war in 1945, you were sent to the British Embassy in Washington to detail the location of heavy equipment around the world.  You must have been in contact with Teddy Kollek, who was in the United States around the same time working for the Hagana and known to be gathering intelligence to smuggle arms and munitions.  Your paths must have crossed.   

This is an amazing story, and I want to know more.

I remember in the months before you married Mom; some guests from Israel came to our house on a mission to bring you back to Israel.  I was only 10, the same age as the young state.  I didn’t know who these people were, but I later understood that had they had played a role, like you had, in the creation of the State of Israel, and were serving as government ministers and officers in the Israel Defense Forces.  It was probably a hard decision not to go back to join your friends from your early days at Gymnasia Herzliya, the Hagana and the British army.   

No, you didn’t go back.  You channeled your support for Israel through Pittsburgh chapters of the Zionist Organization of America and the Hebrew Free Loan.   You gave synagogue lectures, lobbied for Israel on Capitol Hill and visited Israel most years to see family, friends and go to reunions of your army buddies.

Do you remember those British army jackets with shoulder patches that said Palestine and Royal Engineers?  And, what about that rectangular cigarette tin with shiny brass buttons and pins for those jackets in your top dresser drawer?  I took them with me to Israel, and now they have a home in the Beit Hagdudim Museum, north of Netanya in the village of Avihayil.   You would like it.  The museum tells your story, the story of the Jewish legionnaires in the British armed forces during World Wars I and II.   

I signed a paper relinquishing ownership, which made them officially the property of the IDF.  A part of you returns to become a part of the state you fought to build. My only regret is that you’re not here to tell me the rest of the story.

I’ve got a lot of work to do.



(Rosanne Skirble, a Pittsburgh native and daughter of Paula and Ralph Atlas, is a reporter for Voice of America in Washington.)