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Thursday, March 28, 2013

On This Passover Eve

When, this past Monday, on Passover eve, I began to write a new post, I meant to devote it to President Obama’s pro-Zionist speech in Jerusalem (March 21) and to the meaning of Zionism, and relate it to Passover, the Jewish holiday of freedom. But the smell of burning onions emanating from my kitchen drew me from my study back to my kitchen, as I prepared for our family Seder. I was foolish to presume that I could host a Seder in the evening and devote time to write a post. I haven't written for a month, I thought, it can wait another day or two, or….

The act of turning over the frying onions in a large cast iron skillet and their smell took me back to another place and another time, and to the two women who most influenced my life, each a Zionist in her own way.
Where I went back to was the terrace in my family's ground floor apartment in Tel Aviv. The time was sixty-two years ago, on Passover eve. The women were my paternal grandmother Bracha and my mother Khaya. They were cooking for all thirty or forty of us – my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my cousins, who would gather in my grandparents’ home for the festive Seder.
They were frying onions and gossiping at the same time. So that I wouldn’t hear the gossip, they sent me to the terrace – to no avail - to watch over the cooling onions.

My grandmother, an ardent Orthodox Jew, and a true feminist decades before the term reached the Orthodox community, literally forced my grandfather to agree to emigrate from Poland to Palestine.
The immediate cause of my family’s emigration was an anti-Semitic incident my grandmother witnessed while traveling on a train during one of her business trips. She was sitting in a car full of passengers, some of whom were Orthodox Jews. When one of the Christian passengers, accompanied by a few of his brute friends, pushed off a Jewish passenger’s hat and laughingly took out a folding knife from his pocket and moved to cut off the young man’s beard, my grandmother grabbed his arm and commanded him to stop.

When she arrived home she waited to talk to her husband without their children present. Only then she proceeded to tell him about the train incident. “We are going to Palestine,” she told her husband in no uncertain terms at the end of her story. With those five words she saved her family from the madness that would erupt in Europe with the rise of Hitler less than a decade later. In February 1926, on board the ship Dacha, my teenage father and his family arrived in the northern port city of Haifa where they first settled.

When my mother was sixteen or seventeen, she belonged to the Revisionist Zionist movement Beitar (founded in 1927 in Latvia). By the time she had graduated from Plunge’s Hebrew Gymnasium (high school), she was fully committed to the Zionist movement, planning to immigrate to Palestine, to take part in the rebuilding of a free, democratic Jewish state there.

In 1932, when she was eighteen, my mother left home for the Lithuanian city of Klaipeda, or Memel. There she joined the HeHalutz (The Pioneer) movement, training to become a pioneer in Palestine. It was during that year of training while working on a farm in Memel, that she experienced the strongest expression of anti-Semitism she had personally endured. Working much faster than the non-Jewish farmers - picking strawberries as I recall from her stories - they threatened to kill her if she did not slow down. Perhaps it was her beauty as well as her efficiency that irritated them.

In 1933, my mother left Lithuania for Palestine aboard the ship “Martha Washington,” with other HeHalutz members. Her family members who stayed behind were not as lucky as my father’s family.
Together with Blumma, a woman she had met on the boat and with whom she became life-long friends, my mother arrived at a settlement in northern Palestine, where she became a legendary cook, preparing meals for her fellow pioneers. Blumma, a heavyset cheerful woman of whom I have fond memories, lost her laughter after one, and then another of her sons fell in Israel’s wars. But my mother lost her own laughter much earlier.

When she left her family behind in Lithuania at the age of eighteen, she followed a legacy of courage, determination and perseverance, and a commitment to a cause. But her bravery, as well as her sense of purpose and resolve, gave way to seasonal depression and despair that began when she was in her early thirties, shattering not only her own life, but the lives of those who lived closest to her - my father, my sister, and me. We loved her nonetheless.


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