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A Young American Jew in Israel, 1947-1948

When Zipporah ("Zippy") Porath arrived in Jerusalem in October 1947, she expected to spend a year studying at Hebrew University and enjoying the adventures of life in the land of Israel. She did not expect to be caught up in a war or to become an underground fighter in the Haganah, but history intervened and changed the course of her life. In lively letters she wrote home to her family, Zipporah described the historic events in which she participated. This Go & Learn guide uses Zipporah's letters to explore the founding of the State of Israel from the perspective of a young American woman who joined the Zionist effort.

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Excerpt from Zipporah Porath's Nov. 30, 1947 letter

Dearest Mother, Dad and Naomi,

I walked in a semi-daze through the crowds of happy faces, through the deafening singing of "David, Melech Yisrael, chai, chai vekayam," past the British tanks and jeeps piled high with pyramids of flag-waving, cheering children. I dodged motorcycles, wagons, cars and trucks which were racing madly up and down King George V Street, missing each other miraculously, their running boards and headlights overflowing with layer upon layer of elated, happy people. I pushed my way past the crying, kissing, tumultuous crowds and the exultant shouts of "Mazal tov" and came back to the quiet of my room … to try to share with you this never-to-be-forgotten night.

Full text of Zipporah Porath's Nov. 30, 1947 letter

Biography: Zipporah Porath

Zipporah (Zippy) Porath was born and raised in New York. Her father, Samuel J. Borowsky, was a renowned Hebrew educator and prominent Zionist and one of the founders of Young Judaea. In 1947, Zipporah arrived in Jerusalem on a one-year scholarship to the Hebrew University, and like a number of other Jewish American students, was caught up in the War of Independence. She abandoned her studies and enlisted in the underground Haganah, where she served as a medic in the siege of Jerusalem and helped set up infirmary services for the fledgling Israel Air Force (IAF). She was later transferred to the Intelligence unit of the IAF and among her other duties, served as liaison to the foreign press.

Zippy captured her experiences in letters to her family, which they cherished and saved. These letters, rediscovered four decades later and published as Letters from Jerusalem: 1947–1948, provide an eyewitness account of Israel's birth. They describe vividly her impressions and feelings and depict her perspective on the historic events as they unfolded with freshness and immediacy.

Zipporah Porath is one of many strong women who helped create the State of Israel. Women from the diaspora communities of the U.S. and England founded some of the most well-known organizations still operating in modern day Israel. These women devoted themselves full time to the development of the Zionist dream and to some of the most pressing social issues in what was then Palestine and later, the State of Israel. One of the most famous examples is Hadassah, an organization of American Jewish women founded by Henrietta Szold to develop and modernize Palestine. (Szold herself ultimately made her home in Israel.) Other examples of the many Zionist women's organizations both inside and outside of Israel that helped to shape the country in its formative years and beyond include AMIT, a religious Zionist educational organization that has been involved in educational and resettlement issues of Israel's youth since 1925; the WIZO (Women's International Zionist Organization), originally a British organization, which focuses on the training and care of Israel's women and children; and Na'amat (originally Pioneer Women), an organization affiliated with the women's branch of the labor movement in Israel.

Zippy's letters combine the personal and the historic. In the letters we have reproduced here, we see the roller coaster of her emotions as she describes her excitement about the U.N. vote to partition Palestine on November 29, 1947, and later that night when news of attacks on the road from Haifa to Jerusalem reach the revelers her concern about the road ahead. A year later, we see the pride she takes in the shabby uniforms of the soldiers of the new Jewish state, while thoughts of the friends who lost their lives or who are still in imminent danger never leave her mind.

These letters have much to teach us. Reading them, we can explore what it means to be transformed into a citizen of a fledgling country, and how Jewish identity plays out in this young woman's willingness to give up family and security for the great unknowns of war and political turmoil. We also look at Zippy as a woman in a time of war. How is she viewed in a society that is not yet egalitarian? She serves in the Haganah, but how does her gender affect the role she plays both during and after the war? Her letters may also prompt us to consider how others viewed the events she described. What perspectives are not captured in her letters?

After the war, Zipporah returned briefly to the United States and served as the Executive Assistant to the Consul General in New York, where she met and married Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Porath, then Israel's assistant Military Attache. She is now a widow with two sons and four grandchildren and has made her life in Israel, where she has worked as a freelance writer, editor, and publications consultant. Today Zipporah is a popular lecturer who brings history alive for study missions in Israel and abroad, as well as a prominent member of the World MACHAL Committee, representing the thousands of overseas volunteers who fought in Israel's War of Independence.

Zippy Porath and other American students
Full image
Zippy (Borowsky) Porath and other American students in Jerusalem holding newspapers (Nov. 30, 1947) announcing the UN vote on the Partition Plan for Palestine, approving a Jewish State.
(Courtesy of Ray Noam).

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "A Young American Jew in Israel, 1947-1948." (Viewed on December 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/golearn/apr08>.

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