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 thousands 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 grandfather’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 cowardice 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 Simcha, 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 literary 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 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 underground. Even dead Jews were given jobs. When Roza found useful items in the pockets of the dead, anything that could be used to make gunpowder, she placed the contraband into the clenched hands or mouths of dead women who were taken each night to the ovens in the men’s camp, where the items were taken by the underground.
On Oct. 7, explosions destroyed the crematoria, tearing apart the ovens, killing Nazi guards. An informant snitched on Roza. She was put into a solitary torture chamber for three months, her bones broken, her face beaten to a pulp, she was crumpled on the floor like a heap of rags, said a Ciechanow friend in the underground who saw her. When she was taken to the gallows, witnesses remembered her shouting, “chazak v’amatz” (“be strong and brave”), Moses’ last words to Joshua before crossing into the Land of Israel. Moses never entered Israel; neither would she. Roza, with the noose around her neck, started singing “Hatikvah,” the Zionist anthem that three years later would be Israel’s.
In 1960, my grandparents boarded an Israeli ocean liner, sailing away into their Zionist imaginations. They never got to see the Kotel or the Temple Mount, because Jordan’s army occupied the Old City, no Jews allowed. Jews were also not allowed to go to Rachel’s Tomb, nor Abraham and Sarah’s. My grandparents stood on an Israeli elevation near the Old City, from where they could glimpse the Temple Mount and a bit of the Western Wall. Denied access to holy sites, they instead went to Haifa and the Negev, enjoying the Hebrew signs and slang, the soldiers and kibbutzniks.
In the many years since, our family has walked on the Temple Mount, visited Mother Rachel, married Ethiopians, served in the Israeli army, and stayed awake on mountains until daybreak. My grandparents, Zionists before the word existed, would have been delighted.