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
The first American Jewish community began in September 1654, when the ship the Sainte Catherine docked in New Amsterdam. Among the passengers were 23 Jews—a group of men, women, and children—who had started their journey in Brazil. Along the way, the ship was attacked by pirates, and all of the worldly goods that the emigrants had brought with them were taken. Nonetheless, the travelers were hopeful as they reached the shores of what we now call New York.
These first arrivals were Sephardic Jews, Jews whose families were originally from Spain and had fled from the Inquisition, which forced all non-Catholics to convert or leave by August 1492. Some Sephardic Jews fled to countries across Europe and the Mediterranean, while others settled in Portugal until 1580, when Portugal and Spain were united under one rulership, and again the Jews were forced to leave.
Holland, in northern Europe, was a haven of tolerance for the Jews, as well as a booming center of business. In 1630, Holland took over the Portuguese colony of Brazil, and many Dutch citizens moved to the new colony or traveled back and forth to do business there. The Dutch Sephardi Jews were at a real advantage in this trade because they knew both the Dutch and Portuguese languages. A thriving Jewish life existed in Brazil, with synagogues, a rabbi, a Jewish school, and approximately 5000 Jews at the community’s height. But in 1653, Portugal regained control of Brazil, and the province’s remaining Jews took flight once again.
Some of the Brazilian Jews returned to Amsterdam and others found homes across the West Indies, but 23 found their way to a small Dutch outpost in North America, trusting that New Amsterdam would match the tolerance of its namesake. When they arrived, however, the Governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, believed the Jews would “infect and trouble this new colony,” and he ordered them to leave on the next boat. The Jewish community protested, confident in their status as upright Dutch citizens. Prominent Jews in Amsterdam wrote a letter on their behalf to the Dutch West India Company, stating their case. Months later, the answer came in the form of a letter to Governor Stuyvesant, saying that barring the Jews from New Amsterdam would be “unreasonable and unfair.” The letter did require, however, that in order for the Jews to stay, they would have to look after their own people and not depend on any charity from Christians.
Life was not easy for these first Jewish settlers. Governor Stuyvesant was still unhappy about the presence of Jews in the colony. He forbid them to trade along the upper Hudson River and refused to let them enter the militia (a task all other free men engaged in). But both Jewish assertiveness and practical realities overtook Stuyvesant’s discriminatory principles; Jewish men fought for the right to greater trade, the Dutch West India Company overruled Stuyvesant’s restrictions, and as necessity required more able-bodied men to fight the Native Americans, Jews were soon allowed to take on that role as well.
Jews continued to arrive in the newly British colony throughout the 1600s and 1700s. These were both Sephardim and, increasingly, also Ashkenazim (Jews of Central and Eastern European descent). In some regions of America, they met certain restrictions because of their religion, especially in the devout Puritan areas, such as Massachusetts, where Jews were not allowed to settle or build synagogues until the 1800s. In other regions, Jews were welcomed, built synagogues, and had thriving communities. Records date the first congregation to 1693 at the latest, in New York; in 1730, this congregation built the earliest North American synagogue. The oldest synagogue that still exists is the Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, built in 1763.
Overall, Jews enjoyed much more freedom in the new country than they had in Europe. Jews in America could own land, engage in any type of business, employ Christians, and mix socially with Jews or non-Jews, and they had access to the same legal system as Christians. Though they were sometimes received coldly, Jews in early America were ultimately accepted, in large part because of their commercial roles. Jewish business networks spanned from Europe to ports throughout the New World, and the first significant Jewish communities in America were built in the port cities of New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston, and Savannah.
- For youth:
Seeing your Jewish community through different eyes
- For family/congregational education:
Pioneering spirits: A personalized history of our Jewish community
- For adults:
The Jewish community in America, past and present
Letter from Haifa Bay
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.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "A Young American Jew in Israel, 1947-1948." (Viewed on January 18, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/golearn/apr08>.