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Prelude: What We Have Won

[We asked cousins Mimi Asnes and Ben Keller to cover yesterday's peace conference at Annapolis, Mimi from the outside and Ben from within. This is their first post. Read all their coverage here.] When our great grandfather Akiva Holtzman landed … Read More

By / November 27, 2007

[We asked cousins Mimi Asnes and Ben Keller to cover yesterday's peace conference at Annapolis, Mimi from the outside and Ben from within. This is their first post. Read all their coverage here.]

When our great grandfather Akiva Holtzman landed in America and changed his name to Maurice Goldsman, he was 24. He had fled the pogroms of Byelorus and conscription into the Russian army never to see home again; he traveled some 6,000 miles across Russia on the TranSiberian railroad and worked in China and Korea until passage to the Land of Opportunity was obtained. Akiva’s brother Shmuel had different plans. A hard-core political Zionist, he believed that the solution to persecution of the Jewish people in the Pale of Settlement and elsewhere in the world was the establishment of a Jewish homeland. He too tried to escape the Russian army and was caught and jailed once before succeeding in smuggling himself and a friend out on a ship bound for Mediterranean shores. Akiva-now-Maurice married his first cousin Bluma and they settled in Maryland. They bore three children; the eldest one was Celia. Shmuel met a young woman who remembered his family from their chicken-raising days in Russia, and they settled in Israel; they too raised a family and awaited the day when Israel would be a true country. On my bookshelf, I have a leather-bound volume that Shmuel sent to his American brother in 1951, just after Israel’s War of Independence. It is a commemorative volume telling, in high literary Hebrew, the story of the Jewish refugees arriving in Haifa and Tel Aviv, the brave battles with the hostile indigenous Arab population, the odds against the Hagana in 1948 and the incredible victory and unfathomable loss of that war. Most arresting are the pictures, pages and pages of sparse landscape, nascent cities, broken and resolute people. “I hope this will help you understand how hard we struggled, and what we have won,” Shmuel wrote to his brother in an inscription on the title page. He wrote not in Yiddish, the language of their childhood, but rather in Hebrew. This is my life now, the writing says. This is who we were meant to be. My grandmother, Maurice’s eldest daughter, sits today not far from Annapolis in an elder care home in Silver Spring, MD, the town where she raised her own children and grandchildren. She has dementia, which is why she doesn’t know that the Israeli Head of State Ehud Olmert is here to ostensibly try and broker peace with the Palestinian Authority amidst representatives of the countries that fought Israel in 1948, 1967, 1973. She struggled mightily during her more active years in support of the new State of Israel here in the diaspora, co-founding Pioneer Women and leading initiatives with the Labor Zionist organization Na’amat. She kept attending meetings long after she could remember anyone’s name. She sent her children to Labor Zionist summer camps and to Israel; she supported the family there and saved money for her international phone calls and trips to the region. Perhaps my cousin Ben and I will go visit Grandma after today’s conference is come and gone. He will tell her how it came to be that he is sitting inside the US Naval Academy as a technician for a major international newswire, brushing past heads of state, ministers and dignitaries and honing his skills as a photographer. I will try to explain to her why her eldest granddaughter speaks Arabic as well as Hebrew, and how my two years of living and traveling in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Israel have led me back to the United States with the slim hope that it is as an American, not in spite of being American, that I can contribute to internationally responsible polity in the Middle East. I know exactly what she will say. “I’m confused.” “It’s okay, Grandma,” we will tell her. “I love you,” she will answer.

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