Mordecai Chertoff recounts events that occurred over 60 years ago with a clarity of thought and description, as if they were etched in his memory like hot type on a printing galley.
But considering that the 88-year-old retired rabbi experienced a lifetime of events by the time he was in his mid-20s – living in pre-state Palestine, serving in the Hagana, working at The Palestine Post and surviving the 1948 bombing of its Jerusalem office, and witnessing the creation of Israel – it’s no wonder that his recollections are still so vivid, as if the events took place yesterday.
Another helpful factor in helping to erase the years may be Chertoff’s return to Israel in 2008 as a new immigrant, 58 years after leaving the fledgling country for a life in the US.
Chertoff’s romance with Zionism and the Land of Israel was cemented in 1935 when his father, the late Conservative rabbi and Talmudic scholar Paul Chertoff, brought the 14-year-old Mordecai and his siblings for a sabbatical year in Jerusalem from their New York City home.
A decade later, while following in his father’s footsteps and studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary for three years, Chertoff returned to Palestine solo.
“I was getting fed up with my studies and they let me go,” chuckled Chertoff, sitting in the living room of his comfortable apartment in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood.
Chertoff’s Palestine was one where vaunted figures like Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett were part of the everyday fiber of society, not a security-heavy, privileged upper crust. They might just as easily be found working next to you, with sleeves rolled up, sharing the same snacks of black bread and halva.
But the Palestine Chertoff found in 1946 was also considerably different from the backwater place he had lived in a decade earlier, and was now a center of increasing strife, subterfuge and impending war.
“The first day here, I’m walking down the street in Jerusalem, and I run into a woman who had been our neighbor when we were here in ’36.
“I said ‘Hello, Mrs. Zozpacher!” She turned to me and glared and said, “I’m no longer called Mrs. Zozpacher,’ and walked away.
“So I located a friend who I had studied with 10 years before in yeshiva and who was by now a big shot with the Hagana, and said, ‘What’s with Zozpacher?’
“He said, ‘Very simple, we discovered that her husband was a spy for the British.’”
With a note in his pocket, written by a family friend and aide to Weizmann, Meir Weisgal, Chertoff walked into the offices of The Palestine Post
on Rehov Hasolel, just off Zion Square, and approached editor Gershon Agronsky.
“I had no experience, I was just looking for a job. Agronsky read the note, looked up at me, and said, ‘Meir wrote some nice things about you. But I’ll take you anyway,’” said Chertoff.
Gainfully employed as a copy boy, Chertoff began acclimating himself to Jerusalem, 1946, and thriving as a young, energetic single person in a dynamic environment.
“At 24, nothing can happen to you. You’re immune to every illness, every bullet, nothing can hurt,” he said.
Then, one day he was contacted by the husband of his sister’s teacher from 10 years earlier who asked Chertoff to meet him at Café Atara, known as the informal headquarters for the Hagana.
“We drank coffee, catching up. After a while he said to me, ‘go to Kupat Holim.’ I said, ‘what do I need to go there for? I’m young, I’m healthy.’ He kicks me under the table and says ‘go there and ask for Yehezkel.’ And suddenly, it penetrated.”
Chertoff went to meet with Yehezkel, and after a short interview, was sworn into the Hagana.
“I knew walking down the street after, it was written on my forehead,” Chertoff recalled.
Burning the candle at both ends, Chertoff juggled his job at the Post
with his Hagana duties, which included training at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, and taking a course in fireman skills.
“They taught us how to handle the hoses, to connect and fold and unfold. Until one day, one of the guys said, ‘you know, there’s only one problem. There’s no water in any of the hydrants.’ That was the end of that course,” laughed Chertoff.
Because he was fluent in English and Hebrew, Chertoff was also recruited to do translation work for the Voice of the Hagana, the radio station that was the forerunner to the Voice of Israel and the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
“I used to go to the Sochnut [Jewish Agency] building on King George and work there,” said Chertoff. “One day I was working there having the usual black bread with halva on it, and I heard a high voice behind me. ‘How’s the food?’ And without turning around, I said, ‘It’s crap.’
“And I heard this cackling laugh and turned around and there’s Ben-Gurion. I said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ And he responded, ‘No problem, I know that it is.’”
CHERTOFF’S ABILITY to get along also worked to his advantage at the Post
, where editor Agronsky one day called him in.
“He told me that Reggie Weston, who was the foreign news editor, was going to Paris to launch his art career,” said Chertoff. “‘You have three nights – the first night you watch him, the second night he watches you, the third night you’re on your own,’ Agronsky told me. So that’s how I became foreign news editor of The Palestine Post
The elation over his promotion didn’t even have time to fade away, when Chertoff almost lost his life when on February 1, 1948, a five-ton army-type truck planted by Arab terrorists exploded outside the Post
building at 11 p.m., destroying the two adjacent buildings and setting fire to the Post
’s press and offices.
According to Jerusalem Post
historian Alexander Zvielli, the building survived the blast, perhaps because it was built in 1933 following an earthquake, and the owner had invested in an especially reinforced steel construction. But the flying pieces of lead, shattered glass and ensuing fire killed and maimed many of the editorial staff and press workers. For Chertoff, it was a night in hell.
“It was a Sunday night, which was usually a dead news day in Jerusalem. Agronsky and [managing editor Ted] Lurie were both in Tel Aviv that day,” said Chertoff.
“I remember that Marlin Levin, an editor, was sitting in someone else’s chair who had also gone to Tel Aviv. When the explosion came, a piece of metal from the window came flying across where Marlin would have been sitting. It would have taken his head off. There was another guy, Dov Ben-Avraham from Boston. He had a metal plate in his head from World War II. When the bomb went off, he went under the table, which I can understand.
“There were two or three immediate deaths. My linotyper was blinded by flying lead and a week or two later, he died. There was another guy who walked out and disappeared. Nobody could figure out what the hell happened to him. He walked home to the Bukharan Quarter barefoot. He was in shock.”
Chertoff and other staffers made their way to the Atara, where Lurie’s wife met them with hugs and coffee.
“Then she said, ‘all right, now get over to Lipshitz Press, we’re putting out a paper.’
The newspapermen came, shlepping typewriters, and we sat and wrote the paper from memory. And it came out the next morning about six, seven o’clock, only two pages. By the end of the week we were back to normal size,” said Chertoff.
BECOMING MORE involved with the Hagana as the siege on Jerusalem and the declaration of the state on May 14, 1948, brought the newborn country closer to war, Chertoff began devoting less time to his Post
duties. On the day the nation was born, he commemorated it in a very personal way.
“In Jerusalem, there weren’t the kind of celebrations like there were in Tel Aviv. We were still under siege. I had a Steyr, an Austrian pistol with six cartridges. The only way I could celebrate was to go out in my backyard where I fired a shot into the air. That was my celebration,” he said.
A few weeks later though, Chertoff and a fellow journalist decided to travel to Tel Aviv for some real celebration. But getting there proved to be more complicated than they anticipated.
“We got a ride out to Kiryat Anavim, and then from there, we started to hike and blundered into an ambush near Latrun,” recalled Chertoff.
“So, when the moon was covered by clouds, we’d get up and run. When the moon came out, we’d get four flat and crawl. I had a pair of Austrian slacks and belt was too thick for the loops, so the pants would stay behind as I went ahead,” he laughed.
We finally made it past Latrun and we got a hitch into Tel Aviv. But we were filthy. So we went to a clothing store to buy shirts and pants. The clerk asked ‘where are you from?’ We told him Jerusalem, and he gave us the clothes on the house.”
Tel Aviv was incredible, recalled Chertoff. “There was good food and drink and regular newspapers from around the world, and water flowing in the fountains. We were there for a week.
“I wrote a couple stories and had the Tel Aviv office of the Post
send them to Jerusalem. I had been back in Jerusalem three weeks when a note finally catches up to me from Agronsky. It said, “Mazal tov on appointing yourself war correspondent. Keep up the good work.’”
Chertoff was moved by the Hagana into intelligence, because he was in prize possession of a press card.
“I was able to move around in places that others couldn’t,” he said. “One time, I went in to the Russian Compound. We called it Leningrad in those days. I couldn’t take pictures, but I noted where everything was, and when I got out, I made a quick sketch of the positions and rooms and turned it over to the Hagana. When the time came and the British left, our hevre
swarmed in and were in complete control by the time the Arabs got to the front gate.”
BY JUNE 1948, Chertoff had graduated from the Hagana to the IDF (“My transfer to the army was very complicated. My commander in the Hagana said to me, ‘Mazal Tov, you’re in the army.’”), and he received a new assignment – to edit a new Hagana magazine called Frontlines
He put out nine issues of the magazine, and in 1949, upon his discharge from the army, a new newspaper called Hador
offered him the plum position of traveling to New York and covering the UN for them.
“The deal was that they would deposit my pay in my Barclays Bank account in Jerusalem. So I went and stayed with my parents in Manhattan,” said Chertoff. “I don’t know how I got the chutzpah to write about these world events that I did which in my wildest dreams, I knew nothing about.”
After three months, he returned to Jerusalem and was met with a surprise.
“I checked my bank account and there’s not a penny in it. Nobody had bothered to tell me that Hador
had gone bankrupt. So I stayed around for a while, but in the summer of 1950, I went back to the States. I had the delusion that things were going to be boring in Israel,” he laughed.
Chertoff got married in 1951, settled back in New York and applied to the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“They asked me why do you want to be a rabbi, and I said, ‘well I thought it would be nice to go into my father’s business,’ he recalled.
A congregational rabbi in places like Austin, Texas and Pittsburgh, Chertoff eventually left the pulpit for a career in the World Zionist Organization, and married his second wife, Dr. Ida Golomb in 1978 after raising two children with this first wife.
Golomb, a nationally recognized expert in periodontology, and a professor of dentistry at Columbia and NYU, died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2004. Chertoff, who endowed a fund in her name at the Weizmann Institute of Science for Alzheimer’s and Brain Research, began thinking about moving back to Israel, where his grown son had been living since 1988.
“It took me a few years to get organized, but I made aliya in April 2008,” said Chertoff.
“It does, in a way, feel natural. I mean, of course, there are problems
with aliya, the bureaucracy and there’s so much BS you have to deal
with, but somebody from the US wrote a note to me and said, ‘Mazel tov,
you’re home.’ And it’s true, this is really home.”
It may be a far cry from the black-bread-and-halva reality that he
left, but Chertoff knows that those innocent times are far behind the
country 62 years later.
“I never anticipated that there would be the level of corruption among
leaders that I’ve found here,” admitted Chertoff. “When you think back
to Ben-Gurion and Golda [Meir] and [Menachem] Begin, I mean these were
straight, down-the-middle, honest people. These were people who put the
country first before their own ambitions. I think we have to learn the
lessons of their honesty.
“But you know, I still have confidence – I won’t say in an individual leader – but in the country.” Carmelle Wolfson contributed to this report.