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.
- Zipporah Porath is one of many strong women who helped create the State of Israel.
- Personal letters can provide us with a great deal of insight into people’s life experiences and perspectives.
- How does Zipporah’s gender affect the role she plays both during and after the war?
- How does Zipporah’s perspective inform our understanding of the creation of the State of Israel?
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. They had two sons and four grandchildren. Zippy made her life in Israel, where she worked as a freelance writer, editor, and publications consultant. In her final years, Zipporah was a popular lecturer who brought 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. She died on December 30, 2020.
- For youth:
Fateful Decisions: "Reliving" 1947-1948 - Lesson Plan for Junior High/High School
- For family/congregational education:
Letters from Israel - Lesson Plan for Family/Congregational Education
- For adults:
Realizing a Dream: Hopes and Challenges - Lesson Plan for Adults
Letter from Haifa Bay
Letter from Haifa Bay, November 29, 1948
November 29, 1948
Dearest Mother, Dad and Naomi,
From the roof of the hospital, I watched this morning's parade, a parade of soldiers of the Jewish State. Not partisans or fighters. Soldiers, standing erect and proud, in rain puddles six inches deep, wearing shabby outfits—winter uniforms still haven't reached us—listening to lofty words of accomplishment and tribute.
I, too, listened but my thoughts wandered—drifted back to last November 29th, 1947, Jerusalem, the courtyard of the Sochnut building, the spontaneous joy that filled the streets when the United Nations resolution calling for a Jewish State was approved.
And now we march, we form ranks, we listen to speeches, we salute officers: Natan, as they taught him in the Russian army; Lev, as he learned in the RAF; Aryeh, as they do in the Polish army; Uzi (the Sabra), reluctantly; Moshe, in Turkish style. All of them, saluting the Jewish Officer in Command, representing Tzva Haganah LeYisrael (Israel Defense Forces). The same people who were partisans last year are soldiers today, and civilian citizens of the State of Israel tomorrow. I wondered whether “tomorrow” would be another year or an eternity?
The command rang out, “Chofshi” (dismissed). The ranks broke to the count of three and everyone dashed to the canteen where they mimicked each other marching, saluting and even drinking tea. Nobody mentioned the words we had heard, nobody referred to the historic importance of the day or the momentous events that had transpired, transforming us into a State with an Army. Nobody marveled at the wonder of it all. Were these miracles already being taken for granted?
For me, this pathetic parade was a fulfillment, a consummation. I kept thinking that it had been mustered from all the lands of the world, had taken not one year but two thousand years to materialize. Next year, the parade will probably be more impressive. We'll have smart uniforms, everyone will salute in the same way, stand in straight lines and know all the marching commands. We will have learned so much and, possibly, forgotten so much.
The talk in the canteen was about leave time, the latest movie, tonight's party, who has an extra blanket or what's the biggest gripe of the day. I looked at the faces of those around me and thought of the patriots who had fought the American Revolution. Faced with a Fourth of July celebration 1948-style, would they have the same sober thoughts I was having?
Like everything else here, it has happened very fast, too fast—the twenty-ninth of November is just a red-letter day on the calendar. A fighting people hasn't time to be sentimental.
But I couldn't help thinking of Moshe, Oded, Zvi, Amnon, Yaakov, Aryeh, Matty, Nachum and a hundred others in Jerusalem, who a year ago danced and sang through the night with me, but didn't live long enough; they fell before the dream came true. The lump in my throat was too big in my mouth.
Was it only a year ago? No, it was worlds ago, each a separate world: the University, the Haganah, Deir Yassin, the Burma Road, Sheikh Jarrah, Katamon, Talpiot, Tel Aviv, Haifa—worlds of people, places and events.
I can't believe this year. So much has happened, but the most important thing by far is the birth of the State. I've been part of it and it will forever be part of me. I guess that means I am telling you I intend to see this war through and then remain on, whatever happens. This is now my HOME.
Letter from Jerusalem
Letter from Jerusalem, November 30, 1947
Sunday morning, 11:00 A.M.
November 30, 1947
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” (David, King of Israel, lives and is alive), 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.
The light in my room was still on from last night. I had planned to go to sleep early since rumor had it that voting at the UN on the Partition Plan would probably be postponed for another day. But, at about 11:00 P.M. there was a knock on the door: “We're getting through to America. Come on down. The voting's tonight.” Ten pajama-clad bodies crowded into a room with space enough for five and sat tensely around the battered radio for what seemed like hours while vain attempts were made to get clear reception from Lake Success. We got through just as the announcement of the majority vote was made: thirty-three in favor, thirteen against and ten abstentions.
Ecstatic, we hugged and kissed each other frantically, then stood rigidly at attention and sang Hatikvah fervently. Out came bottles of wine, biscuits and candy. We ate and drank and held a solemn little ceremony, then dashed to our rooms, hurriedly slipped on whatever clothing was on hand and banged on all the doors to wake up those who had slept through the good news. All the students in the building scrambled up to the roof and, under the warmth of moon glow and wine, danced deliriously. Then we made a snake line to the nearest houses, banging on the shutters and doors, shouting the news as we went. In a seemingly endless column, we wound our way to the next community, Bet Hakerem, where the Teachers Seminary is and where most of its students live. The streets were already full, ring upon ring of dancing groups circling in a frenzied hora. Ours was the last and largest circle.
Arms linked, marching six abreast, singing all the way, the battalion of students advanced, shouting the news to neighbors who poked their sleepy heads out of windows and doors to see what the commotion was about, straight to Hamekasher, the bus terminal. Confronting the watchman with the news, we demanded a bus to take us to town. He was so excited he provided three. In a mad scramble we piled in, body on body; down the road we raced like a million hearts on fire, headed for the heart of Jerusalem.
The streets in the city were beginning to fill as the news got around. People poured out of their homes in a continuous ever-thickening stream. In the center of town crowds of happy people, hugging each other, dancing horas and jigs, headed spontaneously, as we were headed, drawn by some magnetic force—to the courtyard of the fortress-like Sochnut (Jewish Agency) building, which for years housed the hopes for a Jewish State in Palestine. Out came a flag and onto the balcony came Golda Myerson [Meir]. There were no words to suit the moment. Choked with emotion, she managed to say “Mazal tov,” and down came tears, oceans of unrestrained happy tears. All night streams of joyful crowds assembled in the courtyard milling in and out—to pay homage, to give vent to exultant feelings that welled up from deep inside.
A group of us marched to the press room of the Palestine Post to get the latest news from Morty and Dov, our friends who work there. Another round of drinks and embraces and crazy dances while we waited for the historic First Edition to come off the presses. At 4:30 in the morning, flushed with excitement, ignoring the wet ink, we passed our copies around for everyone to autograph, including an English Tommy who wandered in for a drink. Then Morty, Dov, Milt, and Ray Sussman, and I and several student friends who had come with me headed back to the Sochnut building, just in time to see a streak of warm beauty spring up out of the horizon and smile good morning to us. We looked at each other, drew closer together, wrapped arms about each other's chilled shoulders and felt the thrill of experiencing a historic wonder, dawn bidding Shalom to a Jewish State.
Our group consisted of about fourteen fellows and a few from about as many countries. We made our way singing to Morty's room, not far away, where we found the landlord so elated he didn't know what to do for us first. Ever the practical person, I suggested food and prepared sandwiches, fruit and coffee while we drank yet another “Lechaim.” Leaving the house, we were met by scores of morning crowds, some from the night before, some fresh out of bed, kissing and embracing and shouting “Mazal tov!” And as we rounded the corner into Keren Kayemet Street, where the Sochnut is, whiz came the motorcycles, lorries, cars and the children, now awake, and took up the gaiety where we had left off. Spontaneous parades formed, led by a flag bearer and a couple of drunken British soldiers—this time, thank goodness, unarmed.
The sun was getting warmer and warmer, a glorious day. The end of November, and seventy-five degrees of heartwarming sunshine was bearing down on a happy city. The foreign correspondents and Pathé men were on the job photographing the British tanks which were suddenly converted into flying transport for anyone who could climb aboard, sing, shout and wave a flag. We joined the crowds, going from one end of King George V Street to the other, meeting friends and fraternizing with the English soldiers, who were as happy as we were about the end of tension and ill feeling between us. All they wanted was to go home. With each round we ended up at the Sochnut again; every crowd did.
Rumor had it that Ben-Gurion had just arrived from Tel Aviv and would make a personal appearance. Sure enough, there he was, standing on the balcony of the Sochnut building. He looked slowly and solemnly around him—to the rooftops crammed with people, to the throngs that stood solid in the courtyard below him. He raised his hand. An utter silence waited for his words: “Ashreynu shezachinu layon hazeh.” (Blessed are we who have been privileged to witness this day.) He concluded with “Techi Hamedinah Ha'ivrit” (Long Live the Jewish State—it doesn't have a name yet) and called for Hatikvah. A solemn chant rose from all sides. The moment was too big for our feelings. There were few dry eyes and few steady voices. Ben-Gurion tossed his head back proudly, tenderly touched the flag that hung from the railing and charged the air with electricity when he shouted defiantly, “WE ARE A FREE PEOPLE.”
How I wished you could have heard his words and been here for this memorable night and never-to-be-forgotten morning. It was too unbelievable. Making my way to the bus to go home for a camera and a wash, I noticed that all the cafes and wine shops had flung open their doors—drinks on the house. Flags were hoisted everywhere and shopkeepers had decorated their windows with photos of Theodor Herzl, whose words have inspired and sustained Zionists until this day: “If you will it, it is no dream.” Now that it was happening, it seemed more than ever like a dream. My heart was bursting from joy.
Later that night…
I grabbed my camera, changed clothes and joined my friends to return to the city and the excitement. Notices were already prominently displayed announcing a mass meeting to be held in the Sochnut courtyard at 3:00 in the afternoon, and a very impressive affair it was. We had already heard that there were incidents of Arab ambushes on the road from Haifa to Jerusalem. The crowds were more sober and, when told to, dispersed in an orderly and disciplined manner, everyone going to his own home and his own family celebration. We had ours too, then a hot bath and off to sleep, trying to make up for about fifty non-stop hours of delirium.
Your loving daughter,
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "A Young American Jew in Israel, 1947-1948." (Viewed on September 21, 2023) <https://jwa.org/teach/golearn/apr08>.