To Be Young And In Love With Israel

To Be Young And In Love With Israel

Associate Editor

Just as Yom HaShoah is reason to consider that Holocaust survivors are slipping away from us, along with their first-person stories that suffer in the retelling, Yom Ha’Atzmaut is equal reason to consider that the Jews who remember Israel’s birth and infancy are also fewer and fleeting.Let others talk about Israel’s anniversary with the removed sophistication of academics and professionals. I’d rather talk to grandmothers. Israel doesn’t have many anniversaries left in which we’ll have the privilege to hunker down at a bubbe’s knee, asking her what it was like to be young and easily in love with a new Jewish state.And so we telephoned Toby Willig, last week, effervescent grandmother of 12 (six of whom are Israeli). Willig, of Forest Hills, a volunteer and
leader for more than 50 years to Jewish organizations, particularly Emunah and Young Israel, now has an apartment in Jerusalem and was readying to fly “home” for Yom Ha’Atzmaut.Mrs. Willig, can we talk about Israel?“Sure, I’d love to talk to you — and inspire you!”Do you remember falling in love?“Oh, this is so easy. I fell in love with Israel when I was a teenager. It was an ideal. An inspiration. We dreamed it could come into being, a place that could represent all our dreams and hopes.“My mother and father actually met for the first time in a group called the Zionist District, Zionist groups were where everyone socialized.”The Willigs lived in the South Bronx, “Bryant Avenue, Hunts Point, good old Hunts Point. It was such a glorious time.” Her father was poor, a factory worker; in those days factory workers, not just factory owners, could become local Zionist leaders. They raised money, dimes and a few dollars at a time, from a shtiebel on Barretto Street, near Southern Boulevard.“We were prepared to do practically anything. I think of that era now, I start to cry. That we lived through this, my parents, who had a portrait of Theodor Herzl in their apartment.“I went to the Hunts Point Talmud Torah, and the teachers were always very inspiring about Israel. Everyone belonged to Zionist youth groups and, of course, Young Israel. Always Young Israel. It was in the Young Israel building in Manhattan where weapons were stockpiled for Israel’s War of Independence. Labor and Revisionists, everyone argued but everyone was very happy. At that moment in time, I don’t remember such divisions as there are now.”In 1948, when the state was declared, “I remember walking in the street, such a marvelous feeling, less than three years after the Holocaust and news of the new Jewish state was playing out over the radio. In Hunts Point all the stores had radios on and you heard the news as you made your way home.”In 1964, Willig and her husband Herb went to “Milk and Honey,” a Broadway musical, starring Molly Picon, that was an adoration of the still-young country, a far cry from the skeptical theater that Israel inspires now. And in 1964, the Willigs visited Israel for the first time. Back then, most visitors sailed across the ocean, but the Willigs flew.The Willigs saw the nascent Israel through a prism like Robert Browning’s fantasy in which “waters gushed and fruit trees grew/ and flowers put forth a fairer hue/ and everything was strange and new/ the sparrows were brighter than the peacocks here/ and the dogs outran our fallow deer/ and honey bees had lost their stings/ and horses were born with eagle’s wings.”There were Arabs, but they too were minus “their sting” in 1964.“One of my best memories of that trip,” Willig remembers, “our guide took us to Abu Tor where there is a fabulous lookout from which you can see Har Zion and Har HaBayit [the Temple Mount]. Jerusalem was divided then, of course, and Jews weren’t allowed in the Old City. We looked at it from afar, and thought, God, this is the closest we’ll ever get. Our guide told us to keep our heads low because occasionally the Jordanian army [positioned in East Jerusalem] would take pot shots at us. We could see the soldiers, but they didn’t do anything to us. But what a sight, to see Har Zion and Har Habayit, right there!”What was the focal point of Jerusalem, then, for the first 19 years of the state, before access to the Wall?“The big six-branched menorah outside the Knesset. That was it. People didn’t even think about more than that. Before anyone wants to give back half of Jerusalem, they should visit the Tourjeman Post, where I take my grandchildren now.” The Tourjeman Post, now a museum devoted to the divided Jerusalem, 1948-1967, was then a house used by the Jewish army as a sentry post right across from the Mandelbaum Gate border.“We visited a religious kibbutz near Lod,” says Willig, “it was poor and struggling, and we later raised money to buy them a bread-slicing machine. The pride we felt! And for a bread-slicing machine! The fact is, the kibbutz couldn’t afford one, and they needed it or someone had to stand there and slice bread for the entire kibbutz.“In 1967, in the weeks before the Six-Day War, I think people appreciated how precious and vulnerable Israel was. In New York, we carried unfurled Israeli flags in the street and people just threw in money. Another genocide was not inconceivable. In Israel, people asked for [poison] pills to take, in case the Arabs broke through. The Israelis dug so many graves, they were prepared for mass slaughter. And look at the miracle that happened!“Not long after, walking through the Old City for the first time, an Arab boy offered to be my guide, and I had no fear at all! I just walked, my eyes wide with amazement. The young Arab was so sweet, he wanted to show me everything, we went through alleys, we went through debris … the image of donkeys clearing the Hurva Synagogue [in the Jewish Quarter], pulling out sacks of stones, it was such a wreck. The Jewish Quarter was rubble. But even then, they were planning for Jews to return to the Jewish Quarter, let alone all of Jerusalem.”So what were her plans for Yom Ha’Atzmaut?“I’m going to go to the synagogue and thank God that we’ve lived to see the 50th year of Israel. To this day, when I see the city walls looming before me, I bless God for this miracle.”And then?“Then we’ll go in the streets and dance.”

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