The last of my father’s four siblings, his younger sister Shirley/Sara, died last month in Israel. Since she moved there with her husband Benny in 1947, I didn’t really know her other than on her sporadic visits to the States and on my two visits to Israel. She was a family myth, the one who left.
Going through letters written to my father during World War II, I came across one from his sister who went by the name Shirley back then. She wrote it while he was in basic training in Louisiana in August of 1943 and she was at a Zionist camp in Wild Rose, Wisconsin. At age 20, she had found her purpose in life and also understood how her path diverged from that of the rest of her family. She told my father,
The similarity [in their current living environment] is that we are both living out-of-doors. You, from compulsion, learning the art of warfare; I from will, living a beautiful, simple life, truly in and surrounded by nature. I suppose that’s hard for you to appreciate or understand from your situation…To me, it means a lot to be away from the city and work…this is more living with a true purpose. Yesterday we worked on nearby farms picking beans – and we returned tired – but it was a feeling of physical weariness, but yet satisfying. I think it comes from a feeling of having done creative or rather constructive work.
My aunt went on to say that her letter probably didn’t mean much to my father because,
You don’t know or understand my purpose in life…Attribute it all to a wonderful, peaceful, calm feeling I have sitting here where all is truly quiet.
My aunt was given the name Shirley at birth and was sixteen months younger than my late father, with two younger siblings born five and seven years after her. While my father and Shirley appeared to be close as children, she was the one of four siblings who took the path less traveled. The rest stayed in the Detroit area, but two weeks after she married Benny in May of 1947, they boarded a ship to Palestine to pursue their dream of creating a new nation.
It was a bold move on many levels. They traveled by ship under the pretense that they were Hebrew school educators attending a convention in Palestine. My grandparents were vehemently opposed to her involvement in Zionist youth organizations in the Detroit area, where she met her future husband. They expected her to be their Shirley, to stay in Detroit, marry, and give them grandchildren with whom they could interact. From their point of view, they had crossed the ocean fleeing persecution in Lithuania when they were teens to create a better life for themselves and their children. To have one of their children take a boat across the ocean to live an uncertain life was unthinkable. My father described the climate at home as one filled with much yelling and many tears. So, when Shirley left to become Sara, she also left a note on her bed with the words, “I’m gone.”
When Sara and Benny arrived in Palestine, they were met with illegal British papers allowing them to enter the country, making them undocumented immigrants. For a period of time, the newly reborn Sara worked as a secretary for the British and took the carbon copies of everything she typed to the underground. Their life was challenging. My mother told a story about a baby that died, or possibly a miscarriage that happened, in the back of a truck. My cousin Roni was born in January of 1949, followed by one or more miscarriages. When their second child, Noam, was born with developmental delays, they returned to the US to see if there was some way to help him. My uncle had to use a forged passport for the trip because he had been born in Poland. I remember that visit and how Noam lagged behind my youngest brother who was his age. They never did find a way to help him.
Back in Israel, they moved around until they were assigned to Kibbutz Ein Dor, where they were pioneers. Eventually, they had two more daughters, my cousins Dina and Ayla. My Uncle Benny was a large animal vet who had traveled to Africa to bring livestock to Europe to replenish the animals that had been decimated by the war. For most of his career, he worked in Haifa. His salary went into the general treasury of the kibbutz. Theirs was a true socialist dream in which the adults worked in the fields while their children were cared for in children’s houses apart from their parents. When I visited there in 1969, I was amazed by how the children came for tea time everyday but didn’t stay with their parents at night.
My aunt was the grandmother of nine and lived to see many great grandchildren. She also suffered the loss of her first two children. Noam lived in an institution and died in middle age. Roni was killed in a car accident. Despite these hardships, I remember her as someone who was truly interested in what I thought and listened respectfully to my ideas. Of course, these memories were based on a handful of encounters and a few Skype sessions in later years.
Eventually, Sara and Benny left the kibbutz to live in a small house next to one of their daughters. The idealism of my aunt’s youth was replaced by growing dementia, as my mother tried in vain to reach her via Skype in the years prior to her own death in April of 2015. Growing up, Sara and Benny were mythological characters whose life unfolded via those thin, blue aerograms that caused great excitement in our home when they arrived. I remember the flurry of phone calls in my father’s family whenever anyone heard from “Israel.”
In his old age, Benny laments about the family he and Sara left behind in Detroit. He tells his children that perhaps it was a mistake to abandon their relatives for a dream. Even though they left a large family, they created one in Israel. My Aunt Sara is gone and Uncle Benny is frail, but they left behind a legacy of idealism, social justice, and what my aunt called a purpose in life.