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Grandmotherland: Tracing a heritage through the moves of a matriarch 

Published February 27, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

click to enlarge In Israel, 1956
  • In Israel, 1956

We called our mother’s mother Big Grandma to distinguish her from our father’s mother, who stood less than five feet tall. But even without Little Grandma standing at her shoulder, Big Grandma was a commanding presence, articulate and opinionated. She enjoyed Canadian Club and opera, played a cut-throat game of Scrabble, and made a mean mushroom-barley soup. Mathilda Brailove loomed largest, however, in the international arena of her public life — a life we kids only glimpsed when we glanced at the photographs of her sharing kisses and corsages with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Israeli Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, or when we listened to her stories about her tireless travels and speeches raising money for the United Jewish Appeal.

I never saw Big Grandma give a speech, and I’ve never been to Israel. But as a child, my speechifying grandmother and the Jewish State were virtually synonymous in my mind: equally exemplary, indomitable, flawless — and distant. In time, as I began to question certain Israeli policies, and as my aging grandmother’s personal trials started to upstage her public accomplishments, these shining myths seemed to fade.

But seeing past the mythology didn’t bring the situation in Israel, or my fervently Zionist grandmother, into much sharper focus. Since she died last year, three days short of 93, I’ve been reading through the words she left behind in travel diaries, speeches and newspaper articles. I’ve been trying to fill in the nuances of her story, to span the gulf between myself and the cause that consumed so much of her life.

Big Grandma’s early life is a well-known family story. Born Mathilda Feder in Philadelphia in 1907, just a few years after my great-grandparents emigrated from Vitebsk, Russia, she was one of 12 children, and the only Feder daughter to attend college. After one semester, she married Alexander Brailove, a dapper dentist, irrepressible wit and ace tennis player.

Al set up practice in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Mathilda gave birth to my mother and her two younger sisters. Through most of the 1930s, as other Americans struggled through hard times and Hitler rose to power overseas, the family lived comfortably swaddled with nursemaids, dancing lessons and fur coats. But the plot shifted in 1939, the year Hitler invaded Poland. My grandmother, who could have simply continued to enjoy her bridge parties and tennis, started devoting her time and dollars to local causes like the USO, the Urban League and Community Chest.

What motivated her to become involved? At root, it was an act of self-defense. In a 1964 speech, she recounted her growing sense of unease in a world that seemed to have “neither room nor affection for the Jewish people.” At a time when most American Jews were still largely insulated from their non-Jewish neighbors, my thoroughly assimilated grandmother saw herself as a bridge to the broader community. “I was determined to persuade my Christian friends and neighbors that the Jewish people were a solid part of Elizabeth,” she explained, and not “pariahs, or part of an international conspiracy.”

At the end of the war, when she learned what had happened to Europe’s Jews, she took her concerns to the board of the Council of Social Agencies, on which she was the only Jewish member. But her colleagues struck her as “un-touched, unmoved,” and my grandmother felt abandoned. Convinced that Jews could only depend on other Jews, she resigned from the board and started working exclusively for the United Jewish Appeal.

My grandmother’s — and Israel’s — transforming experience came in early 1948, two and a half years after the war ended in Europe. The British had been ruling Palestine, under mandate from the League of Nations, since 1922. But the continuing struggles between Jews hoping to establish their own state and Arabs opposing their efforts had led to a United Nations blueprint partitioning the land into separate Arab and Jewish entities.

The plan, which was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs, was scheduled to take effect in May. But it would never reach fruition. A coalition of Arab states would attack the Jews. The coming conflict would result in the formation of a State of Israel whose borders exceeded the United Nations agreement, with the remaining Arab lands annexed by Jordan and Egypt and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs left stranded in refugee camps.

That February, 300,000 Jewish Displaced Persons were still waiting to immigrate to Palestine. My grandmother, who had been raising money to help smuggle Jews and military supplies into Palestine, joined a delegation sent to investigate conditions there, and among the refugees still in Europe. Forty-one years old, with two daughters in college and a third at home with her husband, she cut a smart figure in her jaunty hat and stylish shoulder pads. She was a woman who enjoyed the attentions of chivalrous men, and as the only female in the 29-person delegation, she seems to have gotten plenty. Her diary of the trip fluctuates, with an almost surreal seamlessness, between heady encounters, heart-wrenching revelations and gratifying solicitousness.

At the send-off in New York, surrounded by reporters and newsreel cameras, Mayor William O’Dwyer presented the delegation with a gift to bring to Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, the provisional government of Palestine’s Jews. In Paris, the group met children who had spent the war hidden in closets and convents, or had been rescued in sacks from the burning Warsaw ghetto. The night before they left France, one of their local hosts sent violets to Mathilda’s hotel room.

The most difficult stop was in Germany. At the Föhrenwald Displaced Persons (DP) Camp outside Munich, my grandmother was stunned to be “actually talking to people” who had seen their infants “thrown against the wall in order to save a bullet.”

She shared one family’s supper — “a plate of pea soup with a potato in it, a bowl of oatmeal and a beverage I still can’t identify” — and left the camp the next morning taking to heart the camp directors’ message: “Get the DPs out as fast as possible.”

At a pioneer training facility in Italy, Big Grandma visited refugees who were learning to make fishing nets — a skill they would need in Palestine. Then, in another quick shift, it was on to the opera, and in the morning, an audience with the Pope. At a reception with the Chief Rabbi of Rome, the delegation admired Torah scrolls that had survived an earlier attempt at Jewish eradication: the Spanish Inquisition. If my grandmother was struck by the whiplash contrasts of her itinerary, she didn’t record these thoughts.

In Europe, the delegation witnessed one conflict’s aftermath. In Palestine, they experienced the inception of another. “We’re facing a full-scale war here,” Ben-Gurion told the group their first night in Tel Aviv. Everywhere they went — from the mined airport in Arab-occupied Lydda to Jerusalem’s bullet-riddled Hebrew University — the American visitors were guarded by commandos armed with Sten submachine guns.

It wasn’t just a precaution. Singing around a piano late one night at a seaside hotel in Tiberias, the delegation heard gunshots and grenade explosions outside. In the morning, they saw the bullet that had shattered a window and broken a picture in one of the guest rooms. If the sniper had waited half an hour, my grandmother noted, “he could have bagged an American.”

The question of British allegiance was a source of great concern. Amid reports that Jews were being disarmed while Arab attackers were ignored, the Jewish military Haganah warned that weapons should not be surrendered to the British at any cost. Riding from Tiberias to Haifa with a group of Haganah commandos, my grandmother wrapped her coat around a machine gun and slipped grenades into her purse. When snipers ambushed them, Mathilda’s bus escaped with a bullet bulge in the wall near the driver’s head. But the attackers blew out a tire on the other bus, and the commandos on board returned fire. British troops arrived, demanding to search the passengers for arms. The Americans held them off for more than two hours, and the hidden weapons remained in Jewish hands.

“We had a gay dinner with toasts and speeches for only our delegation and security staff,” my grandmother reported. “It was a narrow escape.”

It’s easy to understand the upsweep of hope she must have felt, traveling from Dachau — where the ashes of Jews were processed for fertilizer — to the freshly cultivated fields of the Sharon Valley and bustling Tel Aviv, where all the shop signs were in Hebrew. “We are absolutely unaware that we are so far from home,” my grandmother wrote.

Reading her diaries in 2002, one cannot hear about a place like Jaffa — which in 1948 was a city of 130,000 Arabs and by 1950 had become home to just 6000 Arabs among 70,000 Jews — without recognizing that one people’s miracle was another’s disaster. But 54 years ago, coming from the crematoria of Europe, with Jews’ own survival so terrifyingly at stake, my grandmother saw only the survivors’ desperate need for a safe home and the Zionists’ determination to provide one.

On a more intimate level, she was also falling in love with the pioneers themselves, admiring their fearlessness, their “vitality and sparkle” — and their looks. At Hebrew University, she noticed the “pretty 18-year-old girl” who guarded the tour, a submachine gun tucked under one arm as she browsed in the library stacks. At a military training ground, a solider named Yankele presented Mathilda with flowers he’d plucked from between the rocks. A major took her dancing at a Tel Aviv nightspot that reminded her of war-time New York — “jammed, gay, dancing, drinking.”

My grandmother devoted two entire pages to a certain World War II paratrooper and spy. “Reuven is a man about whom prose, poetry and songs could be written,” she gushed.

By the end of her stay, Mathilda’s devotion to and identification with Palestine’s Jews had clearly forged her sense of herself as a woman with a mission and the capacity to carry it out. “I have made many good, loyal friends and I am pleased,” she wrote her last night in Palestine. The Jewish settlers “are easy to love, their standards are high and there was every indication that I was accepted.”

Back home, my grandmother took her passion on the road, barnstorming 53 cities in seven months, raising awareness and dollars. Over the next 50 years, she returned to Israel at least 60 times and frequently toured the United States. Just as she’d once seen herself as a Jewish representative to Christians, she now served as a conduit between Jews, linking refugees to non-refugees, Israelis to American Jews, and officials to would-be donors.

My grandfather accompanied her to Israel just once before his early death in 1960. He scripted some of her first speeches. But the rest of the time she was on her own, moving audiences with her charming demeanor, her flawless Philadelphia diction, her vivid word pictures and inspiring idealism. One newspaper account called her “spellbinding.”

My grandmother’s job was to persuade other women to make donations in their own names in addition to whatever pledges their husbands made. She succeeded by evoking in her audiences the same sense of responsibility and self-respect she’d discovered in 1948. Giving is a sign of maturity, she maintained. Exercising one’s capacity to help others is part of becoming a fully developed human being.

But a fully developed female was distinctly different from a fully developed male, my grandmother believed. She flourished in her role as a public figure, but when she came home she left whatever feminism she harbored packed away with her fancy clothes. Though she lauded Eleanor Roosevelt for taking women out of the kitchen, Big Grandma scolded my mother for expecting my father to take care of us children after work. A proper wife, she believed, should keep the kids quiet and let hubby relax.

Relatively few married women were wage-earners in those days, which meant the so-called “plus dollars” Mathilda raised often came from wives persuading husbands to free up extra cash, or stretching grocery allowances to set money aside for the cause. My grandmother wasn’t interested in changing the system, but in convincing women to exercise their power within it.

“Women realize that theirs is a position separate and apart from the men, but equal to them, in this emancipated period,” she told an audience in 1952.

In another speech 35 years later, she talked about how Jewish women had a history of establishing cultural and benevolent institutions, only to see them taken over by men who relegated the female founders to more traditional pursuits, such as visiting the sick. “It happened all the time,” my grandmother commented. “But the important thing is that we’re the innovators and the inspiration. That is our role.”

Big Grandma continued to speak in public through her seventies, and even into her eighties. In time, the women who came to hear her were more independent. But Mathilda never relinquished her own ladylike persona. For her particular audiences, this old-fashioned elegance probably just made her all the more appealing and persuasive. It was as if she were telling her female listeners, “We can walk onto the world stage and still expect men to hold the door for us.”

In fact, even if you weren’t a man — even if you were, say, a granddaughter — holding the door was a sure way to gain Big Grandma’s approval. She was never a climb-into-my-lap sort. Better to sit up straight and think of some achievement to report or, better yet, some deferential question to ask.

It was probably no coincidence that while my grandmother was devoting herself to Israel, my mother — who had been raised with nannies and summer-long sleep-away camp — devoted herself to us kids with such a vengeance. It was probably also not just chance that, for all her family vacations and her strong identification as a Jew, my mother never got around to visiting Israel. Big Grandma was basically an impossible-to-follow act.

It’s not clear, however, that my grandmother expected, or even wanted, to be emulated. Above all, what she did want was to be respected, as a woman and as a Jew. And that is what she got.

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Ruth Horowitz


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