On December 11, 1917, the second day of Hanukka 5678, the two main headlines on page one of the Atlanta Constitution underlined the great victory across the sea. "Jerusalem Falls into the Hands of British Troops; Jerusalem Is Freed from Turk after Virtually 12 Centuries - British Capture the Holy City." Further down on that same page was a story linking Jerusalem and Atlanta.
"Jerusalem's Fall Brings Happiness to Atlanta Father" was what you read initially. The story, now, became more specific. "With city in British hands, Amato believes he will be able to bring his wife and children here." The newspaper, aware of the situation of this Atlanta native, played a role in this joyous event. "With a face wreathed in smiles, A. Amato, at his quaint little shoe shop, 85 Capitol Avenue, received the glad tidings of the capture of Jerusalem, from a Constitution reporter yesterday afternoon."
It was to take almost four years for the family to be reunited, but the members of the Atlanta community were now personal witnesses to the meaning of the "capture of Jerusalem."
Abraham Amato was born on the isle of Rhodes where Sephardi Jews had lived since 1000. In 1900 there were between 2,000 and 3,000 Jews on Rhodes. Because of the noted rabbinic figures and their teachings, because of the rich cultural ties and because of the economic success of the members of the community, a true sense of closeness existed.
However, as the 20th century began, the pull to emigrate, either to the US or elsewhere, was felt in particular. Born in 1893, Abraham had developed a deep love of Zion, growing up in his formative years under the influence of Theodor Herzl and Zionism, so he chose nearby Palestine as the country to which to relocate.
His granddaughter, Leah Amato Franco of Atlanta, who knew him quite well, supplies the details of Abraham's Jerusalem experience. "He was probably the only one of the young men of his generation who went to Israel from Rhodes. He was only 15, and he had a difficult time finding work. Since Abraham had a beautiful operatic tenor voice, he found an unusual type of employment. He would climb a minaret and call the Arabs of Jerusalem to prayer, three or five times a day."
Then his fortunes changed. "When his shoes wore out, he went to a cobbler in the Nahalat Zion neighborhood late one Friday afternoon before Shabbat. The owner of the shop, Mr. Amin, struck up a conversation with my grandfather. Mr. Amin was appalled how Abraham was earning a living. Mr. Amin said to him that singing in the minaret was not the type of vocation a young Jewish man should have."
Amin made it clear that Abraham could work for him and said, "I will teach you my trade." An invitation was made to join the family for Shabbat. "The other objective of this kindness was to introduce Abraham to his daughter Leah Amin, who was to become my grandmother."
The courtship was not a lengthy one. Abraham and Leah were married and established themselves in Nahalat Zion near the Amin family. The first child, a daughter, Kadan, was born in 1909. The second, a son, David, Leah's father, was born on the first night of Hanukka 5673, December 4, 1912.
ACCORDING TO the noted historian of Jerusalem, Prof. Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, "Nahalat Zion was one of several neighborhoods erected near Jaffa Road. The land was acquired in the early 1890s by Albert Antebi, director of the Alliance Israelite Universelle society, who, according to one source, resold it with no profit to those in need of housing... Antebi obtained loans from the Alliance for a group of Aleppo Jews who then proceeded, in easy payments, to build a large neighborhood, called Nahalat Zion, for poor workers and artisans." By 1915 there were 295 families, 925 people, in Nahalat Zion.
In this section of Jerusalem, Abraham became a successful shoemaker, but he was one of 148 in the same profession, according to Ben-Arieh's statistics. Moreover, the Turkish rulers of Jerusalem were constantly raising the taxes which the self-employed had to pay. When Abraham applied for visas at the office of the American consulate, headed by Otis Glazebrook, he was informed that he would receive permission to immigrate to the United States, but his wife and children, as Turkish citizens, could not.
Finally, the decision was made early in 1915 that Abraham would leave to start a business in Atlanta and thus pave the way to bring the family. Atlanta was chosen because Jews from Rhodes had started a congregation there, and also Abraham's brother would be immigrating to the city as well. It was a very difficult good-bye for Leah, Kedan and David, but there was no other choice.
By October 1915, Abraham had opened his shoe store in Atlanta.
At the time Abraham left, the situation in Jerusalem had grown much worse because of the pressure placed on the Jewish community by the Turkish rulers. Drives were going on in the US to collect funds for assistance to the Jews in the city. President Woodrow Wilson permitted the funds amassed by the Jewish Relief Campaign to be transferred to Henry Morgenthau Sr., the American ambassador in Istanbul.
Morgenthau arranged for these funds to be placed in an account in Jerusalem to which his consul, Otis Glazebrook, had access. In America and Holy Land Studies, it is noted: "The money was distributed through Glazebrook who showed sympathy and understanding for the suffering Jewish population. His actions won high praise and were considered paramount in saving the Jewish community in Palestine from total ruin... His main and most consistent activity was concerned with the yishuv's economic life."
David Amato first attended a kindergarten organized by Hava Sukenik-Feinsod. She wove into her curriculum the love of the land and the important recognition of the character and spirit of the Jewish people. Interestingly enough, David, who is now 97, utilized many of his Jerusalem lessons in promoting closer ties between Israel and the people of Mexico, the country where he spent 40 years of his adult life. David has fulfilled the hopes of his earliest education "to spring forth from the earth, tough, daring and full of life."
Sadly, David's life in Jerusalem during the war between the British and the Turks was severely threatened by military transport. His daughter, Leah, describes that event: "When dad was five years old, he was hit in the head by a truck during the battle for Jerusalem when General Allenby was leading the British forces. My father was in a coma for about a month. Since the truck hit him on the left side of the head, the right side of his body was paralyzed. Eventually, he regained limited use of his right arm and leg."
David was hospitalized at Bikur Holim and was under the care of Dr. Helena Kagan. Kagan had made aliya to Jerusalem a few years earlier, and she became the guiding spirit in Palestine medicine in the field of pediatrics. Unfortunately, there was only limited equipment to deal with David's problems, so he was not able to progress in his rehabilitation until the family moved to Atlanta in 1921.
THE BUREAUCRACY was difficult so Leah, Kadan and David Amato only joined Abraham in Atlanta in 1921. By then the Sephardi congregation, Or VeShalom, numbered 65 families, and had built a synagogue at the corner of Central and Woodward avenues, costing $6,000 for the land and $8,000 for the building. The leading rabbis of Atlanta had participated in the dedication of the synagogue in March 1920. Although many sacred items were donated by members of the congregation, the first Torah had "been written on deerskin and sent from Jerusalem" in 1914 as noted by the Atlanta Constitution.
The following points are made by Leah Amato Franco. "My grandfather, Abraham, had been waiting for his son David to reach Atlanta since there was a Shriner's Hospital for Cripples in the city, and south of Atlanta there were the therapeutic waters at Warm Springs, Georgia. The extensive therapy helped my father acquire more use of the right side of his body. His mind had never stopped working, so once he was able to attend school in Atlanta on a full-time basis, he progressed rapidly ,graduating Boys High School in 1931."
The Amato family was very much involved with Or VeShalom and the children enjoyed growing up in a community like Atlanta which had such vitality. By the middle of the 1920s, after his bar mitzva, David began to show his talents as a thinker and a leader.
He found in the many treatments he experienced a means of dealing with the the challenges of life. In his first article in 1941, as an employee of the US Department of Labor, he made it clear that the statistics prove that people who go through physical rehabilitation can become even better workers in their fields. David has made his life, from the time of his injury, one in which he never gave up facing any task, as difficult as it might be.
At Boys High School, the leading academic preparatory school in Atlanta, David did exceptionally well and was awarded a scholarship to George Washington University in Washington, DC.
Upon graduating college in 1935, he made the decision that many other Sephardi men in the US did - to return to Rhodes to find a bride. Leah indicates that her mother, Rose Amato, who died last year at 96, was David's choice out of the three young women presented. They were married in January 1936 and honeymooned on a voyage back to the US. David perceived what might happen to the Jews of Rhodes and arranged, though it took three years, for Rose's mother and sister to come to America.
David captures the flavor of Rhodes in an article written 30 years ago in the News, a daily paper in Mexico City. "By the time the Italian government took over the island of Rhodes in 1912, the Jewish community was allowed complete freedom of religion. Although still segregated in a ghetto, they lived in peace and developed an unbelievable sense of satisfaction and happiness in their simple lives, difficult to find today in more sophisticated communities. In the ghetto, they developed their own educational institutions in keeping with the history of Rhodes as a cultural center."
He goes on to describe how the elders there "exported brains by encouraging their children to seek their fortunes elsewhere... these people have enriched the countries to which they migrated."
David is most dramatic when he writes that "this foresight" of sending the children away..." was heavenly inspired... for all the 4,000 remaining Jews on Rhodes were slaughtered by the Nazis."
THE LIFE of David Amato, the Jerusalem Hanukka boy, has been one of dramatic service and deep achievement for the last six decades. His first position was with the Wage and Hour Division of the US Department of Labor in Washington. He became a noted expert on the relationship of vocational rehabilitation to industrial hygiene. In his first public presentation in October 1941, just two months before Pearl Harbor, he made the chilling pronouncement that because of 90,000 individuals suffering permanent impairment and 1,782,000 temporary disabilities, 125,240,200 man-days of employment were lost in the US in 1940.
With the outbreak of World War II, since he could not fight, he became a member of the National Labor Board and assisted in creating methods to transform vocational rehabilitation into a key proponent for all the military industries of the country.
By 1952 David had achieved much success in American government circles. When Mexico needed help to develop its rehabilitation facilities so that the graduates could more readily enter the nascent industries, David was offered a position in the American diplomatic corps to bring his expertise to Mexico. This was an exciting step forward for him, and he took it gladly. The Amatos moved to Mexico City that year; David, Rose and Leah, 14 years old.
David's career in Mexico has been meteoric as he fashioned for the Mexican government and the Mexican people a modern sense of what rehabilitation can achieve in all fields. Not only did he work in his chosen area, he became a correspondent for the News, writing hundreds of articles both in his field of expertise and on many aspects of Israel and Judaism. In one article, "Jerusalem, a unique city," he writes, "Regardless of religious affiliation, the city's spirituality frequently makes one tingle at the mention of the name, so that one is prepared, emotionally, to grasp the unique beauty Jerusalem has acquired in spite of century-long struggles... On one thing the great majority of Jews living in and out of Israel seem to agree: Jerusalem's present status has to be preserved. Ever since King David declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, Jerusalem has been the principal concern of the Jewish people... Israel without Jerusalem would be an Israel without a soul since Jerusalem is the catalytic inspiration for Jews everywhere."
David turned 97 this Hanukka.