Reading Children

Birth of a Country

Sitting on my deck, I watch my chickens foraging in the grass. I watch them with vague feelings of affection. My chickens, they seem to be so busy all the time.

I used to not care for chickens, or for that matter, any other animals. I grew up in an environment where the lives of people and animals were strictly separated. My mother was afraid of dogs and hated cats. No one in our neighborhood owned any pets, not even a goldfish. It was therefore not surprising that as a child I feared and disliked all animals.

But things have changed since those long ago days. My current love for animals testifies to a person’s ability to change and adapt. Here I am with my menagerie of pets. There are the two standard poodles, my cat and the chickens of course. They provide an almost contin­uous background of friendly sounds. They coo and they cackle and create an atmosphere that reminds me of the chit-chat in a crowded cafe on a sidewalk in Tel Aviv. At times the dogs will bark at some imaginary intruder and the cat will purr while securely curled up on my lap. Life is so peaceful here, like the slow flow of the nearby Chattahoochee River.

I remember what my mom used to say about life. “Life is a one way trip; we all travel on a road filled with unplanned events that are full of surprises—some good and some bad. There is no going back on this road that leads forward only, till you reach the bitter end.”

My mother had a way of mixing a sunny disposition with a rather pessimistic worldview. My life’s trip started when she gave birth to me, on the morning of April 25, 1943, in Israel, in the fledgling town of Tel-Aviv—now a city, a city built on dunes of sand and mountains of hope.

Our family, my dad and mom, my sister and myself, lived in a small house set in the middle of a large yard of barren sand. The house consisted of one big room, a kitchen and a toilet. On all sides there were neighbors. Most were poor and lived in shacks. There were some larger homes, even one with three stories, but no one in our neighborhood was really rich. All struggled to survive. Because the dwellings were small and the weather mostly sunny, the children spent a lot of time playing outside in the sandy yards or on the dirt road. The road was a safe place to play. Other than an occasional donkey cart, there was little traffic. As there were not too many children on our street, we all played together.

The majority of us had something in common: few had a full-time daddy. Our fathers would come home periodically and leave again unexpectedly and before we really had a chance to get to know them. It was wartime and we were told they were in the underground. I remember wondering why my daddy would prefer to live part of the time underground, when we had a perfectly good house above ground.

When I asked my mom, she got very angry and told me that this kind of talk and questioning would only bring troubles to us all. I should, she insisted, for once listen to her and keep my mouth shut. However, keeping my mouth shut I found very difficult. I liked to talk a lot. My mom used to complain to her sister about me. She would say, “Listen, Batya”—that was my aunt’s name—“this child of mine can be such an embarrass­ment at times. Can you imagine, the other day she started talking to a total stranger, sitting on a bench and minding his own business. ‘Hey’, she said to him, ‘do you have kids? Where is your wife? Do you have a dog or a cat? My mom hates both. Where do you live? Do you come here often? We do.’ Can you picture that Batya? I can’t take her anywhere without her embar­rass­ing me.”

I felt sorry for my mom. The last thing I wanted was to get her all bent out of shape because I talked to a poor, lonely old man on a bench. After all he seemed so lost and quite sad.

Guests who came to our house received the same treatment. I would get their attention and then bombard them with all my latest experiences and made-up stories. I would shower them with a million questions and hardly ever listen to the answers. It was no wonder that I became known as “Lapatoocha,” which is Yiddish for “chatterbox.”

My earliest memories are from about the age of four. At that time, Israel was still known as Palestine and was a British protectorate. British soldiers were often seen marching up and down our street. Most remarkable about their uniform was the red beret that gave them the nickname, “Poppies.” There was even a song, popularized by Shoshana Damari about the Poppies.

Typical of the time were the sirens announcing curfew or some military emergency. Their frightening wail resounds in my ears to this day. The siren started with a two-toned, wavy sound. That meant “Get indoors now and stay there,” If you happened to be out you ran to get indoors somewhere. Once inside, windows and doors were closed and the lights turned off. The “clear” siren was a long wailing monotone, which meant that all was safe and normal life could resume.

During one of these curfews something happened that has stayed with me till today. My sister, who is eleven years my senior, and I were home alone. Mother was out shopping. The siren sounded its terrifying warning. My sister made sure that everything was closed and while I was standing in my crib, the door was suddenly kicked open. Two British soldiers with guns at the ready stormed into our house. They started to throw things about, looking in the closets and under the beds. They were not careful and one of Mom’s little porcelain ballet figurines “danced” to the floor and broke her leg. This didn’t stop them from their search mission. I later learned they had been looking for hidden weapons. I was terrified and clearly remember the fear in my sister’s eyes. We both kept quiet. After not finding what they were looking for, they decided to leave. As a consolation they gave us each a fake gold ring of the type the colonists had handed out to pacify the “natives” in the territories they were invading. I guess they felt sorry for breaking Mom’s figurine. It was a good thing the Poppies did not search our outhouse. I later heard that my father had hidden a gun under the wooden board that served as a seat.

The year must have been 1947. When Mom came home she said that soon the Jewish people would be free of the British and that we would have a country of our own.

I wondered aloud, “Will we have to move when that happens?”

“No,” she said, “a border will be drawn between us and the Arabs.”

I remember wondering how they were going to draw a border? Would it be a line drawn in the sand like in the game we played, “Who is afraid of the big bad wolf?” I also wanted to know where my friend Yusuf would go? Yusuf was an Arab boy, who lived in Manshiyeh, a district of the city of Jaffa, just two blocks away from our house. We were friends in secret because my mom did not approve of friendship with Arabs. To her they were the enemy, as they had over the years opposed the Jewish settlements into the land of Palestine. As a young girl growing up in Safed in the north of Israel, she had witnessed some atrocities at the hands of Arabs, while the country was still under the Ottoman rule.

As we were one of the few families that owned a radio, our one room that served us as living, bed and dining room, also became the community room for some of the neighbors during the evening news hour. Kids would come with their moms or grandmas and as we had to be very quiet, we invented the “quiet game.” Many years later when I became a teacher I taught my students that same game, and it was always their favorite.

While listening to the news some of the women would cry quietly while the others prayed. The expres­sion, “Oy vay, God help us!” was most common. I guess God must have been busy on the day Mrs. Berenbaum’s nephew, Beryl, was killed in an Arab attack on a convoy to the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. I had a hard time understanding why God didn’t save him, since Beryl was the only family Mrs. Berenbaum had. The rest of her relations had been killed, mom said, by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

It was December 31st, 1947, and the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem was under siege. Mom and her sister, my aunt Batya, were Oy-vaying a lot. Our aunt Devorah, their sister, lived in Jerusalem with her husband, the rabbi, and their four children. I remem­ber that a special letter, requesting help, was written and sent to our aunt in America, another sister, also married to a rabbi. Boy, we sure had lots of rabbis in our family.

However, our real claim to fame was our descent from the Baal Shem-Tov, a famous Hasidic Jew from Russia. He acquired his reputation as a holy man by performing miracles and by creating the Hasidic movement in Russia and Poland. These were the Hasidic Jews that my great grandmother, Bobe Laiye, and my grandfather, Reb Sender, belonged to. My mother was always very conscious and proud of that weighty background and often pointed out we had “Yechus” or clout.

The letter to the aunt in America had the hoped-for effect. A few months later a very large package arrived, containing food and clothing for the family in besieged Jerusalem. It arrived in Tel Aviv, and now the only remaining problem was to get it to them. My mother was very resourceful and she had “Yechus.” One could always depend on her finding a solution for any problem that affected her family. The package went on a secret convoy to Jerusalem. On March 24th, 1948, the convoy was attacked at Bab El Wad and only a few of the trucks managed to get through. We were all devastated, and although I wasn’t quite five years old, some of the disappointment even got through to me. Only much later did we learn that some trucks made it all the way, and our package had actually arrived safely.

On April 25th, 1948, I turned all of five years old. Everything was happening really fast in that year. The sirens went off almost daily, and we could often hear bombs exploding in the distance. Mom said that a real war was about to start. We had not seen my father for ages, and she was crying a lot, particularly when my sister, who was sixteen at the time, forged her papers and joined the resistance forces.

Sandbags had to be filled to create shelters. We, the children, became part of the “war machine” and helped to fill the bags. To me it was mostly a lot of fun. It was at that time the game called “andsup” (hands up) was invented. The sandbags became our trenches and the entire neighborhood our battlefield.

The adults, mostly women and old men, were busy with their “war” and we with ours. Mind you, it did get a little scary at times. The sirens and the hysteria of our elders did have their effect on us children. The alarms went off almost nightly. We then had to run for the shelter, and I can still today sense on my skin the itchy, scratchy feeling of the coarse wool blanket my mom used to wrap me up and carry me to the shelter. But in spite of the roughness of that blanket, I always felt safe and protected in the strong arms of my mother.

Shortly after my birthday, the shelling got really close and mother decided that we should stay at the shelter. Everybody was talking about the Irgun (our soldiers) fighting in the city of Jaffa. Soon we heard that Jaffa was in our hands. Many had been killed on both sides, and most of the Arabs now left the city. I was very sad on that day as I sensed I would never see my friend Yusuf again.

On Friday, May 14th, 1948, the radio announced that Israel was now an independent state. People were dancing in the street, and my mom, as usual, was crying. The Poppies were on their way out and for a few days my father even came home. It was not much later that all the neighboring states attacked our new little country, and the real fight for survival had begun.
Mom & Dad

2 thoughts on “Birth of a Country”

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