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The Pioneer New Immigrant...

golda1 Golda Meir with children of Kibbutz Shfayim

...The First Lady, and Prime Minister Golda Meir 

Ben-Zvi with her husband on a visit to Rehovot

An unfamiliar car drove into the compound of my moshav in the summer of 1972. By chance, I was standing in the doorway of the communal kitchen and saw it pull up. When Rachel Yaniat Ben Tzvi, close to 80 years old and widow of Israel's second president, stepped out of the car into the dry and suffocating 40-degree heat, I rushed over to greet her. She was holding a large bouquet of red roses and smiling at me.

"Mazal Tov," Mrs. Ben Tzvi said. "These roses are for you in honor of your wedding."

I was stunned. The former First Lady of Israel had personally come to my moshav, a cluster of prefab buildings in the middle of nowhere, to bring me flowers in honor of my recent marriage!

So, what did I do to merit such an honor? I think that getting married on a basketball court on a windy hill overlooking the Jordan Rift Valley and the border with Jordan had something to do with it. So does the story of what I was doing there.

During the Six Day War in 1967, I was finishing my freshman year of college in California. By the time I graduated three years later, I had become a Zionist and made plans to make Aliyah, move to Israel. During those three years between the war and moving to Israel, Israeli soldiers were constantly engaged in fierce battles with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorists who infiltrated from Jordan in attempts to carry out attacks on Israeli citizens. I kept up with these stories by reading the newspaper and plotting events on my big map of Israel.

Once an infiltration was detected, Israeli forces pursued the terrorists until they were found. Dozens of soldiers, including high-ranking officers fell in these battles. I didn't know it at the time, but I would become connected to the family of one of those officers.

When I arrived in Israel in October 1970, the situation had calmed down because King Hussein of Jordan, who had his own reasons for not wanting the PLO in his country, finally succeeded in forcing them out of Jordan (and into Lebanon and Syria). The Jordan Rift Valley was now deemed secure. It was time to establish civilian settlements in the valley and on the ridges above as the first line of defence on the borders, a strategy Israel had used even in pre-State days.

That was exactly what I wanted. I would be a pioneer and help build and defend the only Jewish country in the world.

I started out by living on a kibbutz, where I studied Hebrew and was introduced to a communal life where everything was shared and there was no real personal property.

Seven months later, I knew it was time to move on. The kibbutz had been established in 1933 and its first pioneers had drained the swamps, dug ditches, and created a thriving community. They didn't need me. It was my turn to make a difference like they had. I preferred to live on a moshav – a cooperative settlement where, as opposed to a kibbutz, each family owns its own home and works its own land. Like the kibbutz, however, it also encourages a strong sense of community among its members.

I found my "Road Not Taken" in a newly established settlement whose first settlers set up tents during Chanukah 1970, where they lived until the prefab structures were in place. I arrived there five months later and quickly connected to the group of singles in their early twenties that hoped to become members of this future moshav.

We were living in a compound on a ridge above the Jordan Rift Valley, with the nearest city an hour's drive away. In the beginning, we lived in the communal style of a kibbutz – shared kitchen, work rotation, shared fields. This living style would continue until the moshav's permanent site was completed. Once we moved into our own homes in the valley below, our community would function as a moshav, a setup similar to an agricultural cooperative. We would move from socialism to capitalism, but with a strong emphasis on mutual cooperation.

We, the new generation of pioneers, were special. We accepted the challenge of turning this desert into land that would produce quality grapes, melons, tomatoes, eggplants, and even onions, whose smell never left your hands.

The Israeli public, while thinking us crazy to live under such sparse conditions and in summer temperatures over 40 degrees, treated us with a respect that motivated us to continue dodging snakes and scorpions in warm weather and planting seeds in the rich red soil one by one in the fall.

And that's why, when my boyfriend Avramik, whom I had met on my first day on the moshav, and I decided to get married, it was an event bigger than the two of us. Our wedding represented the success of the new settlement, and that meant we'd have interesting people coming, especially those bigwigs who were connected to the organizations that were involved in the settlement of new areas – the Jewish Agency and the Moshav Movement. The chief rabbi of the Moshav Movement, Menachem Hacohen, later a member of parliament, officiated at the wedding.

Our 500 guests, many of whom were from the moshav where Avramik grew up, danced and ate and were our "captive" partygoers until it was time to board the buses that had brought them from Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv. All the buses had to leave together, as an army escort was accompanying them to Jerusalem and Haifa and from there, they were on their own.

Why military escorts? It was just eighteen months after the valley was declared safe for civilians after years of terrorist activity there. The roads were narrow, it was dark, and most Israelis were not yet familiar with the area. Not a destination to attempt at night if you didn't know the way. And yes, some concern about the possibility of terrorists crossing over from Jordan.

I am sure this is not what kept Mrs. Ben Tzvi away from the wedding. She had been a pioneer herself, and she visited us often because she was so proud of the new generation of pioneers. She was a personality in her own right and was awarded the Israel Prize in 1978 for her special contribution to society and the State of Israel. It isn't fair to always describe this amazing woman as the "wife/widow of…"

I still laugh in disbelief when I think about how incredible it was that I knew the Rachel Yanait Ben Tzvi so well that I could greet her and invite her to my room for coffee. She had brought two guests with her. One of the ladies was Molly Lyons Bar David. I used to cut out her recipes from her columns in the English-language Jerusalem Post. I still use her cookbook, The Israeli Cookbook, today. The other guest was Miriam Freund, past national president of the Hadassah Women's Organization. What an amazing period this was for me and getting better all the time.

Within a few months I'd be shaking the hand of another hero of mine: Prime Minister Golda Meir. I had always wanted to meet Golda. A woman prime minister – and former American! Maybe even talk to her or shake her hand. Not as outlandish a dream as it may sound. Not long after the visit from Mrs. Ben Tzvi I had the opportunity to make this happen. Golda was attending a ceremony near the moshav – the dedication of the new monument in memory of the 189 soldiers who were killed in the Jordan Rift Valley region.

I had two official invitations for this "By Invitation Only" event. The first was for residents of Rift Valley, but the second invitation was more personal. Lieutenant Colonel Tzvika Ofer, one of Avramik's relatives, was one of the names on the monument's wall. Tzvika was killed in Wadi Qelt in 1968 in one of the battles against terrorists I had read about when I was at UCLA, following events on the news. It was an honor to be at the ceremony in his memory.

Moshe Dayan, the minister of defense, would also be there. What Jewish kid in America or even Israel didn't play soldier with a patch over one eye?

"I've never seen so much brass in one place," I wrote to my parents. Just a few meters away were Chief of Staff, David Elazar, Head of Central Command General Rehavam Ze'evi (Ghandi), Chief Rabbi of the IDF Shlomo Goren and the area commander, Colonel Moshe Yosef, who once offered to take me to Gaza to visit Avramik when he was serving there in the reserves.

There were speeches, of course, and I understood Golda's least of all because of her heavy American accent when she spoke Hebrew. Even my accent was much less pronounced than hers! From that day, whenever anyone said, "You still have an American accent," I'd say, "Golda's was heavier and look what she accomplished."

After the ceremony, the VIPs led the guests up the ramp to the observation deck with its panoramic view of the Jordan Rift Valley. I stayed back; preferring to wait halfway up the ramp because I knew Golda had to come back down the same way.

"As Golda came down," I wrote my parents, "she passed people one by one and shook hands with everyone."

The only picture I have of that special moment is in my head. Every time I walk up that ramp (which is often) I remember Golda's face, her tiny smile and the second or two that her hand was in mine.

Another very special moment for a new immigrant living in a prefab structure on a hill overlooking the Jordan Valley.

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Thursday, 29 February 2024

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