The General's Son
Journey of an Israeli in Palestine
By Miko Peled
Just World Publishing, LLC Copyright © 2016 Miko Peled
All rights reserved.
When I was a child, I would sit with my grandmother in her cold apartment on 18 Rashba Street in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood. The apartment was on the first floor of a simple two-story house. Behind the house, there was a small yard with a grapefruit tree in the center. The neighborhood was modest and quiet, but respectable. Most of the residents were professors who worked at the nearby Hebrew University.
Savta Sima would pull out old photos and talk about her life as the wife of an ambassador.
"Avrami," she would say. I was named after my grandfather, but she was the only one to ever call me by that name. "This is your grandfather Avram with King Gustav the Sixth, king of Sweden, and here he is with the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia."
Dr. Avraham Katznelson or Saba Abba, as he was fondly called, died before I was born, but my mother and grandmother spoke of him and his life all the time. He was a spokesman for the Zionist movement in the early 1920s — traveling to Jewish communities around the world and urging them to return to their historical homeland in Palestine — and then among the signers of Israel's declaration of independence. He was also Israel's first ambassador to Scandinavia.
My grandmother was proud of her husband's diplomatic work: "Your grandfather was both charming and an excellent diplomat, and he knew how to cultivate close ties with people." She was particularly proud of the relationship he had cultivated with the Chinese ambassador. This was quite a feat because, having aligned itself with the West, Israel had no diplomatic ties with China in those days.
One afternoon, as we sat together on her old blue sofa, my grandmother showed me a faded newspaper clipping. Savta Sima's living room was always cold and stuffy because she would seldom turn on the heating or open the windows. The newspaper had turned yellow and must have been more than 20 years old. There was a photo of my grandfather dressed in coat and tails, wearing a top hat and walking alongside a horse-drawn carriage. I could tell from the photo that this was a cold and foggy European city.
My grandmother told me of my grandfather's presentation as Israel's first ambassador at the court of King Gustaf in Stockholm. "The ceremony took place on a Saturday," she explained, which is the Jewish Sabbath, when Jews are forbidden from driving or riding in vehicles. "He was the representative of the Jewish state — indeed of all the Jewish people — and he felt it would be proper to walk rather than ride in the royal carriage."
"He walked the entire way. He was tall and handsome, his back straight as an arrow, and the royal carriage was rolling beside him." I looked at my grandmother, and I could see how much she missed him.
The glamour of that life reminded her of her years growing up in Batumi, Georgia. Although she lived most of her life in Jerusalem, Sima always missed Batum (what she called the Georgian city of Batumi on the coast of the Black Sea). Every Friday afternoon, she visited us in Motza Ellit, and she would talk to me for hours about the grandeur of her childhood home. They had servants and carriages and were able to truly enjoy the beauty of the city. I imagined Batum to be paradise.
But when I knew her, Savta Sima was very thrifty. Her house was always cold in the winter because she only turned the heating on between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., regardless of the temperature outside, which during the Jerusalem winter frequently drops below zero. I remember one particular winter day, when I visited after school. It was snowing, and I called my mother from my grandmother's apartment, and I whispered into the receiver, "Mom, I am freezing." Savta Sima heard me and quickly came back with, "Freezing, freezing! Well, we are all freezing." Still, the heater remained off. When she watched television in the evening, she had all the lights in her apartment turned off, and she would wear a long, dark blue robe and dark sunglasses to protect her eyes from the glare of the television. "I know you think I am stingy. I am not stingy, I am thrifty."
When school was out, I would sometimes meet her at the medical clinic where she worked as a dermatologist and walk home with her. She was in her mid-seventies by then and worked only part time, so she was done at noon. I was no more than nine or 10 years old, and she would hold my arm as we walked and say, "Avrami, you are my cavalier." It was no more than a mile or maybe two as the bird flies from the clinic to her home. She would walk 20 paces at a time and then stop to rest. She refused to ride the bus or, God forbid, spend money and take a taxi. "A taxi? What an extravagance," she would say at the mere mention of the idea.
Back then, there was not much traffic as we walked by the small shops, cafes, and bakeries. We would pass the compound of Ratisbon Monastery and the Yeshurun Synagogue, two Jerusalem landmarks that stood next to each other, one Christian and one Jewish. Both of them were about as old as my grandmother, and she would captivate me with stories about the people who established and frequented them. "Ratisbon himself was a French Jew who converted and became a Catholic priest," she said with obvious disdain. "When Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi was president, he would come to worship right here at Yeshurun Synagogue." From there we would turn into the smaller and quieter streets of Rehavia. These were the 1970s, and to me Jerusalem seemed full of hope and optimism.
* * *
I was deeply influenced by the knowledge that my relatives helped shape the history of my country. It made me feel special to know that my namesake signed the declaration of independence, that he moved among kings and prime ministers, representing our country among the nations of the world. Being a proud Israeli patriot was something I did not need to be taught; it was infused in me by the men and women in my family.
Even the way my mother's parents met is a small piece of Israeli history. My grandfather, Avraham, was born in 1888, in Babruysk, a city in Belarus that was about 60 percent Jewish. As a boy, he received an education in a heder, or orthodox Jewish preschool, and then in a yeshiva, where he studied Jewish religious texts, before he entered a public, secular high school.
My grandmother would boast that he graduated from the gymnasium, as high school was called then, "with exceptional scores. And that is how he was accepted into medical school in St. Petersburg, Russia. He was tall and good-looking and always impeccably dressed." This last part she corroborated with the use of old photos. "He loved the ballet, and when he was a student, he would deprive himself of food for days so that he could afford to buy himself a ticket to the ballet and a bouquet of flowers to present to the prima ballerina after the performance."
I heard stories about my grandfather throughout my entire life, and they were often told to me in no particular order. "He served as a doctor in the Russian army and was awarded a gold medal for bravery by the czar of Russia himself," my mother told me one day as we were sitting in the kitchen. "I even remember playing with it as a child, thinking it was a toy." I was in high school, old enough to appreciate what a medal like that must be worth, and I was stunned. "My grandfather received a medal from the czar of Russia, and they let you play with it?"
"My parents thought very little of it, and the medal was lost."
"Oh my God, I can't believe you lost it!"
"It's a good thing we have a photo of him as a dashing young officer in uniform wearing the medal."
"In medical school, your grandfather met Yossef Trumpeldor, and the two became good friends," my mother went on with obvious pride. Trumpeldor was a Jewish hero of mythical proportions. When Trumpeldor was young, he too served as a doctor in the Russian army. He was a Zionist like my grandfather, and he founded the British Army's Jewish Brigade, in which many years later my mother served. Trumpeldor served as the brigade's deputy commander. He was killed in the battle of Tel Chai in northern Palestine in 1920, and all Israeli children learn in school that Trumpeldor's last words were, "It is good to die for our country."
Trumpeldor asked my grandfather to visit the home of Ze'ev Kaplan, a wealthy Jewish merchant living in Batumi, to see if he would make a financial contribution to the Zionist cause. "Your grandfather did go to Batumi, and he did receive a generous contribution," my mother continued with a smile, "but that was not all he received. Ze'ev Kaplan's daughter, Sima, became his wife and your grandmother to be."
After several years of courtship, Sima and Avraham married, and in 1923, Avraham convinced Sima to immigrate with him to Palestine to participate in building a Jewish state. Avraham rose in the ranks of the Zionist movement and became a member of the executive board of The Zionist National Council, or Hava'ad HaLeumi — the de facto Jewish government, chosen by an assembly elected by the Jewish community in Palestine, prior to the establishment of the state of Israel. He was the founder of the Jewish Ministry of Health and acted as de facto minister of health during the pre-state years. His stature can best be measured by the fact that he was among the select group of Jewish leaders who signed Israel's declaration of independence.
After the state was founded, my grandfather was designated to be Israel's first minister of health. However, he never got the job because in Israel's first major political battle — between Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, on who would lead Israel's labor party in the elections for the Jewish state's first prime minister — he bet on the loser. Weizmann, also from Belarus, had a leadership style founded on charm, reason, and diplomacy, and he was pushed aside by Ben-Gurion, whose brand of leadership was militant and uncompromising.
As a child, I heard of my grandfather's disdain of Ben-Gurion many times. My grandmother rather enjoyed describing a particular instance when Ben-Gurion spoke to my grandfather after the elections.
"Ben-Gurion was short and bald, and he came up to Avram, who was tall and handsome, looked up at him, and with clenched fists cried, 'Ata Veitsmanist!' You are a Weizmannist!"
It was true. He believed in and supported Chaim Weizmann, and he clearly disliked Ben-Gurion's aggressive style. However, since Ben-Gurion won, my grandfather lost his chance to be a member of the first independent Jewish government in more than 2,000 years. My grandfather's good friend and ally, Moshe Sharett, was Israel's first foreign minister, and he asked my grandfather to head Israel's delegation to the United Nations and later to be Israel's ambassador to Scandinavia. My grandfather died of cancer in 1956, at the age of 68, while serving in Stockholm.
After she was widowed, Savta Sima lived alone for more than 20 years. By the time I knew her, she was thin with deep wrinkles, short silver hair, and an air of importance. She had beautiful eyes and was known to have been a beautiful woman in her youth. Or, as my mother put it, "She was so beautiful that when she walked down the streets of Jerusalem, everyone turned their head." She was proud of her background as the eldest daughter of the Kaplan family, and of her connection to the Katznelsons, and the sign on her door read "Dr. Sima Kaplan-Katznelson-Nisan."
"We are Katznelsons," she would say.
Being with Sima was not always fun, but it was often interesting. She insisted that I join her for lunch once a week after school, even though she couldn't cook or bake. She lived in Jerusalem for more than 50 years, most of them in the house she and Saba Avram built on Rashba Street, where many years later, I was born. We would sit in her small, almost bare bones, cold kitchen, and she would bring out a pair of ivory chopsticks to show me. "These were a gift from the Chinese ambassador," she declared every time she brought them out, and she would show me how to use the strange sticks to pick up the bland rice and chicken she had boiled for lunch.
Regardless of how she may have seemed to me as a child, Sima was an accomplished woman. She completed medical school in Krakow at a time when both Jews and women were rarely admitted and only if they had the highest possible academic scores. She became a dermatologist and one of Palestine's first Jewish female MDs. She made major contributions to the development of dermatology in Palestine, then Israel, through her work in the early years of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and Kupat Holim, Israel's vehicle of socialized medicine.
Zalman Shazar, who in 1963 became Israel's third president, was my great uncle by marriage. He was married to Rachel Katznelson, my grandfather Avraham's sister. Rachel was a writer and a Zionist labor leader and established women's unions fighting for women's rights. Shazar himself held several important political posts before being chosen the third president of the state of Israel, a largely ceremonial position. He was also a writer and a poet, and in his youth he would captivate audiences for hours with his long speeches. Sima was very close to them, and every Saturday she would join Zalman and Rachel for a luncheon at the president's residence. She occasionally asked me to join her, and we walked together to the presidential residence, a few blocks from her house. In those days, it was a beautiful and respectable home located in a quiet corner of Rehavia, though it was rather humble as presidential mansions go. I was very young at the time, but I remember those visits vividly. They were all very old by then, in their seventies, and the food was never very good. We called the president Dod Zalman, or Uncle Zalman, and his wife Doda Rachel. On Dod Zalman's birthday, which like mine, was during Hanukkah, he would invite the entire family to his house. This meant hundreds of people: judges, cabinet ministers, distinguished doctors, artists, all of whom were members of my extended family. Today, Dod Zalman's portrait is on the 200 shekel bill. When my children were young, I showed them the bill with Dod Zalman on it, and they were floored: "We have a great uncle who is on money!"
When Sima turned 80, she received a letter from the general director of Kupat Holim telling her how much they had appreciated her many years of service, and that it was time to make room for younger doctors, mostly new immigrants who had arrived from the Soviet Union, who were in need of her position. She tried to take it well, but it was truly devastating for her. To keep her occupied, my mother took apart old sweaters and gave her the yarn, from which she knitted beautiful bed covers, one of which I still have. Sima died when I was in high school after a protracted struggle against leukemia.
It seems clear to me now that the harsher aspects of Sima's personality were the result of her having lived in an era when women were not supposed to have a career, and emotions were forcibly subdued. This could not have been easy for her. By contrast, Sima's daughter, my mother Zika, is a warm and loving woman, with a small and strong physique and a loud and distinctive laugh. When she was younger, she volunteered to serve in the British Army's Jewish Brigade. She told me that the best part of her service there was that she was able to see Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus, three Middle Eastern cities known for their great beauty. She married my father when she was 19.
When we were kids and my parents had friends over, they would make my mother laugh just to hear that infectious sound. Her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren could not wish for a better advocate and supporter. She is a wonderful cook, something she says she learned from her mother-in-law. She has impeccable taste in clothes and décor. Her house is always beautiful, and her yard always in bloom.
I learned a great deal about my family from my mother. She taught me to be a Zionist, but not by being dogmatic. She did it by imparting her love for everyone — family members and those outside our family — who played an important role in the revival of the Jewish national home. She also imparted to me her love of the Hebrew language and culture by teaching me to appreciate modern Hebrew poetry and prose. The two most prominent men in her life, her father and her husband, dedicated their entire lives to the cause of Zionism, and she shared their stories with me throughout my life. She was never active politically — she refused to be interviewed or to be in the public eye — but she supported her father and then her husband as they committed themselves to the cause. (Continues...)
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