It has taken Mordecai Chertoff, a former staff member of The Palestine Post, the precursor of The Jerusalem Post, a very long time to come home again. As a child, the New York-born Chertoff spent a year in what was then Palestine, where he learned to speak Hebrew without a trace of an American accent.
He came again toward the end of 1946, "theoretically as a student" as he puts it, mainly because the British were still in power and the only way he could obtain a visa was by enrolling at the Hebrew University. "It was the most expensive visa I ever got. It cost me $200, which was a lot of money in those days," recalled Chertoff, 85, who has now returned permanently to Jerusalem after a hiatus of some 60 years.
He did of course visit in the interim, initially on Zionist business and later to see his son Danny, daughter-in-law Arlene and their children - but he was so busy that he simply didn't have time to think about where he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
However, after his wife died four years ago, his son told him that he really ought to move back to Israel while he was still independent, instead of waiting for someone to fetch him when he could no longer decide for himself.
In 1946, he came by ship. Chertoff and some of the other young American Jews who didn't have much money slept on deck. Not all of them had visas and the arrangement was that they would stay near the cargo hold until they received instructions.
When the boat anchored in Haifa, a Hagana representative came on board and told them to remain below deck till noon, when the British official at passport control would be replaced by an Arab who was in the pay of the Hagana. Those Americans who didn't have visas, later came up on deck dressed in the style worn by the locals, and walked past passport control. No one stopped them and they went to Kibbutz Yagur. Chertoff and those who had visas proceeded to Jerusalem.
There was a rumor in the Chertoff family that they were related to Moshe Shertok, later Sharett, and Israel's first foreign minister. So on Shabbat, Chertoff went to Shertok's home to introduce himself. It transpired that they were not related, "but Sharett always treated me as a member of the family," he recounted.
After Chertoff had been at the Post for a few weeks, someone made an appointment for him to meet a stranger in the famed Atara coffee.
The stranger told him that he should go to the health fund clinic.
"I don't need to. I'm fine, I'm healthy," protested Chertoff.
"Go," the stranger persisted, "and ask for Yehezkel." The sense of urgency prompted Chertoff to do as he had been ordered.
It was all very quick. He was asked if he wanted to side with the aspirations of the Jews. His answer was in the affirmative, and he was promptly sworn into the Hagana.
One of his initial assignments was to prepare defensive explosives for Jews who worked in British offices, and who might be apprehended. The explosives were harmless but created a lot of noise and smoke - a sufficient diversion for a successful getaway.
The explosives were tucked into packets of cigarettes. Each packet contained two units of 10 cigarettes. Chertoff used to remove one of these units and replace it with an explosive block, which was then rewrapped to look like one of the cigarette units.
Explosives were also placed in night sticks of the kind used by British policemen. This was easy, said Chertoff, because the sticks were hollow. "If trouble hit you, you released the catch and threw the stick on the ground and it exploded," recalled Chertoff.
HE NEVER told anyone at the Post that he was a member of the Hagana, but presumably he wasn't the only member of the staff who had been recruited. Even though he had not informed editor Gershon Agronsky of his dual role, when he came to ask him for a week off, the response was "you want it or you need it?" "I need it," replied Chertoff, and Agronsky asked no more questions.
Because he had a press card which enabled him to move around freely, Chertoff was subsequently transferred to an intelligence unit, where he did the English translations for the Hagana broadcasting service.
After independence and the creation of the IDF, Chertoff found himself in the army, which put an end, temporarily, to his work as a journalist. While in the army, he became ill with jaundice. He was supposed to go to Latrun as a communications officer, but had a weekend's leave. So he called an American friend who took him for a black-market meat meal.
"It was the last good meal I had for a long time," said Chertoff. Weakened by his illness, he was sent for treatment and then to a rehabilitation center. When he asked how to get there, the laconic reply was: "Walk or hitchhike." After he recovered he was told to report to Tel Aviv to work for a new army magazine, but the assignment didn't last very long for a variety of reasons.
He then got himself a job with a publication called Hador which sent him back to New York to report on the UN. His salary was supposed to come via Barclay's Bank, but it never arrived. The publication had gone bankrupt.
Chertoff returned to Israel in 1950 and worked briefly for the Palestine Economic Corporation before returning to the US in that summer.
Around that time, he also married his first wife. Because he came from a well-known rabbinical family and had a rabbinical degree, he secured a pulpit with a Conservative congregation in Austin, Texas. After working for several years as a Conservative rabbi, with his last pulpit in Pittsburgh, he decided that the rabbinate was not really for him. He was a communicator, whether as a journalist or in PR - and that's what he really wanted to do. He got a job with a Zionist organization and soon after the Six Day War in 1967, launched a program which gave American Jewish high school students the opportunity to spend a year in Israel. He was later named editor of Herzl Press "which published books that were needed but which were not financially worthwhile." All the while he had been writing articles and books.
Chertoff is truly excited to be back and catching up with old friends. One of them is Marlin Levin, the former bureau chief of Time magazine, whom Chertoff met by chance on Jaffa Road soon after his arrival in Jerusalem. Chertoff asked Levin what he wanted to do, and Levin replied that he wanted to be a journalist. Chertoff introduced him to Agronsky, who gave him a job.
Chertoff got his own job at the Post with the help of a letter of introduction from noted Zionist activist, theater director and Chaim Weizmann's personal representative in America Meyer Weisgal, whose daughter Chertoff had tutored in Hebrew.
Agronsky's wry reaction to the letter had been: "Meyer writes nice things about you, but I'll take you anyway."
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