"Revolutionizing Experiences: Henrietta Szold’s First Visit to the Holy Land" - Henrietta Szold - Jewish Women on the Road

Henrietta Szold with nurses at a hospital in Haifa, n.d.
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

Reprinted from Generations: The Magazine of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, 2007/08, pp.35-41. www.jewishmuseummd.org.

Henrietta Szold (1860–1945) has long been celebrated for her role in building a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The founder of Hadassah and the force behind Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, she virtually created the public health system in pre-state Israel and also ran the Youth Aliyah, which safely brought thousands of Jewish youth out of Nazi Germany and into Palestine during the 1930s. Remarkably, all these achievements occurred after Szold turned fifty. Though she had been involved in Zionist circles in her native Baltimore and later New York City, it was not until she traveled to Palestine with her mother in 1909 that she made improving conditions there her life’s work.

Not that Szold was a late bloomer. From 1889, when she became superintendent of the nation’s first immigrant night school in Baltimore, to her many years working as an editor at the Jewish Publication Society of America, she had been an important contributor to American Jewish cultural affairs. But in 1908, when leading Jewish scholar Louis Ginzberg, with whom she had worked closely and fallen in love, rejected her for a younger woman, she suffered an emotional crisis that led her to question her previous twenty years in service to male-run institutions. She needed a new direction, and her trip to Palestine enabled her to find it. She came to see that her longstanding belief in “spiritual Zionism”—the development of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land as a way to bring about spiritual renewal for modern Jewry—could be advanced by encouraging women to engage in practical work to address the dire health conditions she had witnessed during her trip.

This realization did not occur immediately, as demonstrated by the letter printed here, one of the gems of the JMM archives (1995.206.1). Writing to her mentor, Judge Mayer Sulzberger, just after leaving Palestine, she expresses doubts about herself as well as the state of the Zionist movement. But she also vividly describes the transformative effect the visit had on her. Upon her return to America, she embarked on a new path that led to the founding of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in 1912. Another visit to Palestine in 1920 resulted in her settling there permanently to oversee the various projects she had initiated.

Szold did not always agree with the Zionist establishment; in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, she publicly supported a bi—national state. Her strongly independent thought is on display here, in her honest critique of the Zionist project as she saw it “on the ground.” But her belief in the Holy Land as a way to renew the Jewish people shines through as well.

The Mediterranean, between Alexandria and Trieste
November 28, 1909

Dear Judge Sulzberger:

My very indefinite dating of this letter indicates only one thing definitely—that my face is at last set westward and homeward. I feel that this is the time when I may venture to give you a little account of my impressions—don't be alarmed, I shall not subject you to a catalogue of sights and scenes. This is the proper time because I cannot help believing that Italy, even Italy, which is to fill out the rest of my long vacation, must be in the nature of an anti-climax after my Oriental experiences. If I were younger I should call them revolutionizing experiences. At all events, if I had undergone them earlier in life, they might have had a decidedly shaping influence upon my Jewish attitude and work. As it is, they will probably be a very stimulating memory without much noticeable result in action.

It was not due to any conscious arrangement on my part that my trip abroad arranged itself as it did. I spent the first month in Scotland and England, and all the time I was there I tingled with the feeling that I was in my intellectual home. My Anglo-Saxon education announced itself at every step. I had no right to feel that blood was thicker than water, to be sure, but I discovered that brain tissue is not a negligible element in appreciating relationships.

From there we went direct to Vienna and Hungary, my mother's home, from which she had gone away fifty years to a week when we returned. And there I did learn that blood is thicker than water. I found a really huge circle of relatives, ready-made and ready to receive me as though I had had the same intellectual and sentimental antecedents with themselves. It was as rare an experience as cathedrals and picture galleries to me, for we are a very small family in America and I have never known the pleasure of the intimacy that stands between family ties and friendship. And it was curious to observe how America had done little more than modify external characteristics, the family soul had remained unimpinged by time and distance.

But I feel that my real experiences began when I left Buda-Pest and was whirled though Servia, Bulgaria, and Turkey to Constantinople. Again, in the ordering of my Oriental trip, chance was kind to me. I cannot be sufficiently thankful that I had the opportunity of seeing Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria, Beirut, and Damascus before I entered the Holy Land proper. Also, it was lucky for me that I did not, like most tourists, enter by way of Jaffa and Jerusalem. That was intentional maneuvering on my part. I wanted to see the land with my own eyes, or spectacles if you will, not through the spectacles of the warring factions in the two intellectual centres. The other chance gave me a true Oriental setting for the Holy Land, the proper atmosphere. After seeing half a dozen cities and the country districts, even if only from the car window or the carriage seat, I knew enough to distinguish between what is peculiarly Jewish and generally Oriental. It was eminently useful knowledge. I know it to be such when I remember what other six-weeks-tourists of Palestine have reported on their return.

I confess that as I approached Palestine I trembled more and more in anticipation of what I should find, especially in the colonies. The black gipsy tents in the Hauran, the tolerant mixture of races, languages, and religions on the bridge of Galata at Constantinople, the fierce mien of the Bedouin on all the highways, the disregard of what the Occident looks upon as elementary conventions in social life, the unspeakable filth and disease that meet the eye at every turn in the cities, the riot of costumes, color, and jewels that fills the courts and byways and mountain sides—they are all picturesque and interesting—but would I care to find the Jews, my own people, Arabicized to this degree, become an indistinguishable part of the variegated Eastern, Turco-Arabic world? As I went along, I said again and again, if only the colonies are not like this! The Jewish city communities were sad enough, I warrant you. As communities they have no dignity, no independence, indeed, no life. And if I have a criticism of the Alliance to make, it is this, that after nearly fifty years of work in the East, she has not made as much as a dent in the Jewish mass. The reproach that she is not Jewish does not touch the core. She is philanthropic, but aristocratically philanthropic—the Occidental Lady Bountiful going to the East End. Therefore she carries away from the East every fine talent she discerns, instead of educating it to be an organizer of the people from which it has sprung. But that is a long chapter, to which the Hilfeverein is adding a few German touches that are more than literary in their effect, and far from innocuous.

But if Damascus had no Jewish Kehillah, I wept and consoled myself. I had not set my hopes upon Hasskeuy or the Jewish quarter in Smyrna. The colonies, they were the thing, upon them depends my "new Jerusalem," and you will have guessed by this time, from the way I am working up to a climax, that in the fourteen which I visited there was much to hearten the Zionist. The new spirit is abroad among the colonists, and the old Jewish spirit lives among them. After my first Sabbath in a colony, at Zichron Yaakob, the originally Rumanian colony, and after a service at the respectable and not-little synagogue there, and after seeing the zest with which exegetical points were debated by the worshippers on their way home, my fears were allayed that a superior civilization, strengthened as the Jew is by his two thousand Wanderjahre in the West, would be crushed and strangled by an inferior civilization. I was not jubilant even then, for as the colonists issued from the synagogue they were met on the outside by the very large number of fellaheen that work their fields and live in their villages, lowering the standard of living before the eyes of Jewish children. That was my purest disappointment in the colonies, the small number of Jewish workmen, the large number of fellaheen. I can talk as wisely as the rest in America and Palestine about laws of economic necessity, and supply and demand, and all the other well known and easily acquired jargon. The truth of the matter is that Palestine colonization, as well as all Jewish colonization wherever it may be, is an artificial process. Indeed, I maintain that in the twentieth century all colonization, even of Germans, the most colonizable of peoples, is factitious. If then, I criticize the presence, the excessive presence I mean, of Arab workmen as compared with Jewish workmen, I cannot be met with arguments from political economy.

And this is the point at which I pass from the colonist to the administration—once upon a time all heart and no brain, and now, as far as I could see, no heart and no brain. The absence of Jewish workmen is but a single illustration of how a petty policy spoils a magnificent colonist. This letter is growing too long, as it is, I cannot tax your patience by telling you more in detail, and much of it would be unaesthetic detail how the JCA are despotic and not benevolently despotic—how from the country-Halukah system of the poor dear deluded Baron they have passed to a high-handed business policy in which, Has-ve-shalom [Heaven forbid!], there shall not be noticeable a streak of Jewish feeling. If my former criticism will be met by the political economist, my present one will be met by the wiseacres who remind me that I was in the country only six weeks. That, too, is cheap; I speak by the book, I can address chapter and verse. For instance, I might tell you, and I will on my return if you care to listen, how the homes are built without the least regard to sanitary science not to mention the demands of taste. Of course, I am prepared for the wiseacres here, too, I have already met them, who shrug their shoulders in pity of my limitations, and spread out their palms deprecatingly, and talk learnedly of the Palestinian climate, of which they know nothing definite. And when one reaches rock-bottom, isn't this whole scheme of Palestinian colonization so small and restricted that it is absurd for it not to be perfect?

However, I can understand a tourist's returning from Palestine with an opinion different from mine as to the value of colonization there for the regeneration of the Jewish people. What I cannot understand is any one's doubting the fertility and beauty of the land. I listened to a colonist—One? A dozen colonists!—a tale of thirty years war and tragedy, and then he wound up with saying, "Aber die Levonot in dem Land!" [But the moons in this land!] And that must be the refrain. It is not only the moon, the sky, the mountains, the caves, the air, that are beautiful with an indescribable beauty. I have been in Egypt since, and I was left untouched by all these climatic beauties. It is a sentiment, as indescribable as the physical beauty. Both are real assets, if intangible, and both are doubly valuable when they are consciously enjoyed by a sentient and enthusiastic colonist.

I promise you I'll not start a fresh sheet. There is enough space left here for me to complete my picture of Palestine by adding a word about the cities. I will tell you only this—my mother wept in Tiberias, she wept in Haifa, she wept in Jaffa, and she wept in Jerusalem. She wept because she saw so many eyes that had no function left but weeping, for they were blind from trachoma, and they belonged to owners whose lives were only worth weeping for. But even she learned to do more than weep on account of the physical misery everywhere. We went to the Ibrit-be-Ibrit schools and went to the Bet-Am with its books, newspapers, and lectures, and we spoke to scores of men of light and learning, the builders of wide streets, the founders of institutions of culture, the believers in the possibility of a new life. And I personally had a wee bit of insight into the life of the Halukah Jews, and I am convinced that there, too, over and above the ugly war of factions, there is a font of spiritual fervor that can be utilized in the new life. I beg you to believe that what I tell you I saw with my own eyes and not through a [word illegible]. I did not [word illegible] like the Baron, nor like Paul Nathan, nor even an American rabbi.—I beg you to give my kindest greetings to the members of the Publication Committee. I hope I have been missed at the meetings.

Sincerely yours,

Henrietta Szold

Szold's letter to Judge Suzlberger, February 24, 1910

Despite Szold's remark that her trip to Palestine would amount to nothing more than a "stimulating memory without much noticeable result in action," both she and the letter's recipient knew that something important had happened to her. Judge Sulzberger, recognizing the letter's significance, returned it to her for safekeeping. She promptly sent it back to him, with this response, written February 24, 1910 (JMM 1995.206.2).

Dear Judge Sulzberger:—

You are right, vanity (or self-consciousness) is next door neighbor to my humility. But I assure you, I did not remember how much emotion I put into the letter I wrote to you—I only remembered that it was the first I wrote about the Holy Land and the longest, and I supposed it to be the fullest on these accounts.

Now that I have seen it and some of those I wrote later on to others, I conclude that if it made itself worthy of a better fate than the waste basket, it must have been due somehow or other to the correspondent I was addressing.

Here is some more pride—outspoken pride. I have felt so complimented by your having kept it, that I am returning it to you in spite of your waiving your rights in it. I have made a copy of it, for I may want to use some of its points in a book which I am inclined to think, will get itself written.

Yours very truly,

Henrietta Szold


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Jewish Women's Archive. ""Revolutionizing Experiences: Henrietta Szold’s First Visit to the Holy Land" - Henrietta Szold - Jewish Women on the Road." (Viewed on May 20, 2024) <http://jwa.org/discover/throughtheyear/july/travel/szold/firstvisit>.