Wednesday, March 11th, 2009
(In 1996, when Bibi Netanyahu first became prime minister, I took a look back at his high school years in the United States and a girl who knew him when. With Netanyahu about to become prime minister again, and with the article no longer available in The Jewish Week’s online archives, here’s a reprise in response to several requests. — JM)
Bibi Was There – And Then He Wasn’t
By Jonathan Mark
Ah, graduation day at Cheltenham High School, 1967, a beautiful June afternoon in Wyncote, Pennsylania. Senior boys adjust their gowns and tassels. Senior girls look down at their hems, each hem exactly eight inches from the ground. Mrs. Downey and Mrs. Engle were on hand to help measure and pin the hems for graduates sitting in the front row.
“And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star”
After the invocation the Senior Vocal Ensemble sings “The Impossible Dream,” with all its pomp and mustard. And Mr. MacFarland hands out the diplomas:
“… Penny Neckowitz.
Alan Joel Nelson.
Where was that Benjamin, anyway?
“Barbara Jo Netter.
One senior girl, Zelda Rae Stern, clubs editor of the yearbook, knew where Ben Netanyahu was: He was in Israel. It was June 7, 1967, day three of the Six Day War. While Cheltenham seniors, back in May, were studying for finals, Egypt moved tanks into the Sinai, and the Netanyahus, she learned later, returned to Israel, and to uniform.
Zelda and Ben — no one in high school called him Bibi — found each other at the beginning of sophmore year. She was one of the few traditional Jewish kids.
“I heard about this Israeli guy who had just come to the school and we gravitated to each other,” said Zelda. “We were kindred spirits; I was more Jewish than the other kids and he was Israeli.”
The newly arrived Netanyahu still spoke a heavily accented English that made him sound like a falling rock zone. The nice girl helped help him with his vocabulary and pronunciation. “It only took a few days,” recalls Zelda. “He learned very quickly.”
Netanyahu became acquainted with this strange country. Maybe he felt alien, but everyone on all the hot TV shows were outsiders, too: “Bewitched,” “The Fugitive,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Star Trek.” Netanyahu soon was speaking English as fluently, and maybe you could hear in his enunciation the rhythms of the fugitive (David Jansen) and Captain Kirk (William Shatner).
At Cheltenham, young Ben encountered Robert Frost and Homer’s Odyssey. By senior year, in Mrs. Hildebrand’s English honors class, Netanyahu could stand in front of the blackboard and recite the Olde English prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soot…”
He went on to earn a National Merit Letter of Commendation.
“Ben missed Israel,” said Zelda. “That’s what we talked about a lot, not about politics but the people, the land, the idea of a Jewish homeland.”
Netanyahu didn’t join Cheltenham’s current events club, but he might have liked it. According to the school yearbook, “Nations are born, leaders ousted… [Members of the club] endeavor to keep abreast of the news, to understand the subtle implications of world happenings…”
No, Netanyahu didn’t join the Hall Patrol Committee or the Civil Defense Club, either. And while his friend Zelda joined the yearbook, the Speed Typing Club, the Driver’s Education Club and the Spirit Committee, Netanyahu was content to join the Chess Club and the soccer team.
He kept his hair short at a time when most boys wore their hair in a big swoop over their eyes. He was cool in his own way, proud to love his parents when that was unfashionable; friendly, yet intense, like James Dean, never smiling in photographs, but comfortable with strangers. The school parking lot was filled with Corvettes and Thunderbirds, but splashy cars didn’t matter to him.
Zelda remembers, “I once complained that my parents kept me home on Jewish holidays, that I was missing tests and classwork, and Ben would tell me that I should be proud, very proud, that it meant so much to my family to keep the tradition, not to go to work or school but to go to synagogue.”
He didn’t like to waste time, but he’d go out with Zelda and a friend from Shomer Hatzair to the local drug store for a Coke and fries, in 1965 and ’66, while the jukebox played “Satisfaction,” “Good Lovin’,” “Strangers In The Night,” “Wild Thing,” and “The Sounds of Silence.”
L’il Abner was the theme of the sophomore dance.
At Ben’s junior prom, “When A Man Loves A Woman,” was the slow dance of choice.
What did he think when “The Five Guys” band from Penn State University entertained at the annual junior-senior reception in the school cafeteria that was transformed into a Hellenistic hall?
Cheltenham was quite the American high school for young Ben. There were pep rallies for the football team, even bonfires. The pretty high school girls wore flips or long straight hair and took home economics.
“I’d see Benjamin everyday in class,” says Zelda. ” He was my friend. And then one day in 1967, he just wasn’t there anymore. No messages, nothing. I asked everybody where’s Benjamin. And then I started reading about troop movements in Sinai.”
An optometry student took Zelda to the senior prom, but the war had started that morning and she was “numb. It was such a frightening day.” She skipped the 2 a.m. senior breakfast and just wanted to hear the news.
“When I was 17 or 18 I didn’t think of mortality much,” says Zelda. “But when Benjamin left for the war, I thought about life and death. It never occurred to me that someone my age, Ben, would be in a life-threatening situation. And the person I wanted to talk to the most about the situation wasn’t there.”
When the seniors got their yearbooks, Zelda Stern noticed a photo and caption: “Plymouth-Whitemarsh fails to hinder the dexterous ball-handling of Ben Netanyahu.”
Everyone was signing her yearbook: “I’ll never forget all the good times we had this year!”
“I couldn’t have made it through study hall without you!”
But Netanyahu never got his yearbook and he never had the chance to sign Zelda’s.
Zelda moved to New York, graduated Columbia’s School of Social Work, and lost touch with Netanyahu, who spent five years in the army and several more years at M.I.T.
But in 1985, Zelda’s father, who helped market Israeli military products in the United States, was being honored in Atlantic City by an Israeli hospital. Moshe Arens was invited to speak but he sent Benjamin in his stead.
“There he was,” says Zelda, “still bright, intense, answering questions in such a warm way, as if in a living room by a fireside.”
They run into each other now, maybe once a year. Over coffee they’ll shmooze as old high school friends will about teachers and the yearbook; Israel and the media. They’d ask about each other’s family and he’ll still wince when she mentions his older brother Yonatan, who graduated Cheltenham, too, and then died in the raid on Entebbe.
Zelda sends “Dear Ben” mazel tov notes on the births of his children and on his becoming prime minister, and he writes back.
But the last word should come from Cheltenham’s Dr. Ross Gill who wrote in the 1967 yearbook words that might be useful not only to Netanyahu but to all leaders, no matter their high school.
… Personal integrity and work habits take a man farther than knowledge alone. To be knocked down hurts, but to stay down and be counted out is fatal. Defeat may be the first step toward something better. You are on your own now — parents and teachers can only stand in the wings and be supportive.”
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