Present at the creation: Zionists before Zionism
An older generation knew the 70 years before ’48
On the 70th birthday of Israel’s Third Commonwealth, as the state was quaintly known in 1948, looking back 70 years prior to 1948 is as startling as looking at stiffly posed daguerreotypes of ancestors, recognizable as family and yet, was that us?
In 1878, Tel Aviv was barren, a sand dune. Hebrew, the mother tongue, was extinct, hardly heard except in study or prayer. It would be another three years before Eliezer Perelman disembarked in the Holy Land, changed his surname to Ben-Yehuda, and began Hebrew’s revival, refusing to speak anything but Hebrew to anyone, not even to his son, who became the first Hebrew- speaking child that anyone could remember. Meanwhile, no Jew ever spoke of being a “Zionist” or “Zionism” until an Austrian Jew, Nathan Birnbaum, coined those words in 1890, linking the biblical to the modern longing to return. The words so naturally fit, they ricocheted like a Jewish “midnight howl” across continents and oceans.
No one remains alive from those days, but we’re only one degree of separation away. Even in the 21st century, we could talk with Rabbi David Eliach, former principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, famous for its meticulous Hebrew linguistics; Eliach was a child in Jerusalem when Ben-Yehuda still walked its streets. Jacob Birnbaum, the Soviet Jewry leader, often told me about how his grandfather, Nathan Birnbaum, came up with the word “Zionist” years before Theodor Herzl became a Zionist. In 1940, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s father, Rabbi Shlomo Telushkin, worked for, and then officiated at the New York funeral of Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, one of the pre-eminent Zionist leaders, as 25,000 lined his funeral procession through the Lower East Side.
In 1898, though Jabotinsky was only 18, a teenager, he stood up at a Zionist gathering in Warsaw, warning that European Jewry was doomed. Escaping from exile, evacuating the diaspora, he said, was our “only hope of avoiding a Bartholomew’s Night,” referring to a long-ago French massacre of Huguenots that left thou- sands of murdered men, women, and children floating in the River Seine.
Jabotinsky’s warning, and others like it, galloped like Paul Revere through every shtetl and town, including Ciechanow, my grand- father’s village in rural Poland. Zionism began peppering conversations around Shabbos tables, and after morning minyan, and all the more after the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. Chaim Nachman Bialek’s widely published poem, “City of Slaughter,” mocked the passivity, the coward- ice of these “sons of Maccabees,” the Jewish men who couldn’t fight. “Crushed in their shame, they saw it all; they did not stir nor move,” wrote Bialek, “peering from the cracks,” while Jewish women were raped and Jewish children were killed.
Zionists began talking about the need for a Jewish militia, even if many considered armed Jews on horseback to be quite un-Jewish. As one Jewish Zionist leader said, “Some shout that we want only others to fight. Some whisper that a Jew only makes a good soldier when squeezed in between gentile comrades. I challenge the Jewish youth to give them the lie.” In World War I, Joseph Trumpeldor, a young Russian Zionist, organized the all- Jewish, 650-man Zion Mule Corps (“the first Jewish army since the Maccabees,” many said) to fight in the Gallipoli campaign alongside the British. Post-war, the Zion Mule Corps led directly to the 1921 founding of the Haganah (the Jewish militia in the British Mandate), and in 1948 the Haganah became the IDF, Israel’s army.
In the village of Mlawa, where my great-grandmother Chana grew up, shtetl Jews purchased “shares” in the “Jewish Colonial Trust,” supporting Zionist settlements. The Mlawa Yizkor book notes that in those early years, “young Yeshiva students appeared in the shtiebels [the small shuls] to collect money for the Land of Israel. The elder chasidim, in anger, broke dishes, tore up lottery tickets and confiscated the collected funds.”
Talk of a Jewish state became so commonplace that a local Russian official would tease the Zionists in the Mlawa street. “Well,” he would laugh, “do you already have a king for your country?”
Zionists would gather at the home of Chana’s uncle and aunt, Feivel and his wife, also named Chanah, for tea and Hebrew conversation, to the extent that anyone had a Hebrew vocabulary in those days. When fiery Zionist conversation softened to embers, Feivel asked his guests to sing a new song or tell an old story.
My great-grandmother Chana married Sim- cha, from Ciechanow, where they settled. In 1915, Ciechanow established its first Zionist Hebrew- language school for girls. Warsaw’s “Lovers of Hebrew” group sent Ciechanow a Hebrew teacher. The school had a Hebrew drama club and liter- ary evenings. The Yizkor book remembered that when the Zionist girls held their events, “Boys from important Jewish families came forward, [even] from families for whom Zionism was out of the question.”
My grandfather, Chana’s son, moved to New York and created a storefront shul, Knesset Israel Nusach Sfard, in the South Bronx, but a Nusach Sfard shul, in those days, tended to attract non-Zionists. My grandfather encouraged his daughters to attend the local Young Israel, a place without rabbis or cantors, in the 1930s, but led by young Orthodox Zionists. In the evenings, these men and women would climb the neighborhood walk-ups, knocking on apartment doors, collecting money for Zionist projects. The Young Israel “kids” loved everything about Israel, the songs, the pride, the geography they could only imagine; they loved even the politics, the cacophony of Jewish voices committed to the holy cause. As they grew older, they may have disagreed with prime ministers, but they loved each one.
In 1938, Warsaw’s Tisha b’Av was somber. On the day commemorating destruction and exile, Jabotinsky offered yet another warning, chilling listeners and readers of Yiddish papers everywhere: “I am calling upon you, Polish Jewry, the crown of world Jewry … a catastrophe is coming closer … [a] volcano will soon spit its all-consuming lava.”
However, Jabotinsky promised, “Whoever of 11 you will escape from the catastrophe, he or she will live to see the exalted moment of a great Jewish wedding: The rebirth and rise of a Jewish state.”
In Ciechanow, one teenaged girl, Roza Robota, joined HaShomer Ha’Zair (The Young Guard), a socialist-secular Zionist youth group. Then, in September 1939, the “volcano spit its lava.” Roza was sent to Auschwitz, assigned to sorting the clothes of the dead. With other young people from Ciechanow, she joined the camp’s Jewish under- ground. Even dead Jews were given jobs. When Roza found useful items in the pockets of the dead, set up on tables below. They listened through headsets linked to a mic worn by their bar mitzvah boy, but it was difficult to hear and there were not enough headsets to accommodate every guest. My status as an observer, rather than an active participant, was sealed.
Don’t get me wrong: It was a joyous celebra- tion and one of the highlights of our November trip. Yet I didn’t touch the stones nor did I regret my missed opportunity.
Now back to April, with Sofi’s observations on my mind, we returned to the Kotel on the subsequent Tuesday evening for the state ceremony marking the start of Yom HaZikaron, the day honoring Israel’s fallen soldiers. The prayer space was emptied and in the plaza was a speaker’s podium, memorial flame guarded by four soldiers, and a flag flying at half-mast.
We stood in silence during the 8 p.m. siren marking the start of the national day of mourning, and carefully listened to the words of President Reuven Rivlin and other dignitaries trying to comfort a grieving nation.
The backdrop — my “bunch of rocks” — was not lost on me. I considered the symbolism of military ceremonies at the Kotel and the powerful image of strength, longevity and endurance born from the last remaining wall that surrounded our holy temple.
In my Israel, Judaism and history are intertwined and it’s difficult for me to separate one from the other. I remain awestruck by the site of the Western Wall — there’s an inherent energy to the site, something I ascribe to the duality of being the heart of the Jewish people while remaining a hotbed for political and religious tensions. I hope to always feel excitement when I walk down the stairs from the Jewish Quarter and the Kotel, with its tufts of greenery, pops into view. But I’ve come to understand that my awe comes not from feeling the Divine’s presence, but from a deep appreciation for the historic significance of the Western Wall. For it is in my Zionism that I find God.