Veterans: English-language legacy

In the early 1950s, Raphael and Yael did not have difficulty accommodating to rationing in Israel, because they were used to it from England. Purchases in Israel were made on credit.

By ALAN ROSENBAUM
August 8, 2019 10:35
Veterans: English-language legacy

YAEL GEFEN and her late husband pictured in a photo from her living room.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Yael Gefen, 86, and her late husband Raphael, who passed away this past May, arrived in Israel in 1953, lived through Israel’s formative years, and made vital contributions to English-language education in the country. Raphael was the chief English inspector for the Education Ministry, and Yael was the Librarian of the British Council Library in Jerusalem. The following is their story, as related by Yael.

“My family arrived in England about the time of Oliver Cromwell,” says Yael Gefen, matter-of-factly. Having established her British bona fides, Geffen next speaks of her Jewish background. Though she was raised in what she calls “a very assimilated family,” Geffen was aware of antisemitism and knew that she was Jewish. The turning point in her understanding of her Jewish identity was when she and her family learned about the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto. “I really realized that I was Jewish,” she says, “in 1943, when my grandparents cried after hearing the news about the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto on the BBC. My grandparents were living with us at the time, and my grandfather started crying.” In those days, notes Gefen, grandchildren didn’t speak to their grandparents, and grownups never cried.

Raphael, whose parents came from Lithuania, grew up in a more Jewish, less-assimilated atmosphere. In 1951, Yael and Raphael were married, and in 1953, they moved to Israel. “When I got married, I was a member of HaShomer Hatzair, the left-wing Zionist youth movement,” says Yael. “I was very Zionistic, and I still am. I still think the place for Jews to live is Israel.” In the 1950s, not many people moved to Israel from Western countries. “It was an elite aliyah because it was the cream of Jewish society,” she says. “People who came were very Zionist and idealistic. However bad it was, with rationing and getting used to a new country, it was different – but the big thing was that it was ours. Israel was quite a primitive country, but compared to the rest of the Middle East, it was extremely advanced.”

Yael and Raphael moved to Kfar Masaryk, a kibbutz located in the western Galilee, near Acre. Raphael, who had trained to become an English teacher, was invited to teach in the local high school. They remained in the kibbutz until the late 1950s, when they moved to Tivon.

“In that period, in the 1950s and 1960s, most people in Israel were very poor,” says Yael.

In the early 1950s, Raphael and Yael did not have difficulty accommodating to rationing in Israel, because they were used to it from England. Purchases in Israel were made on credit.

“When you got your wages at the end of the month,” says Yael, “you went to each shop – you went to the butcher and the grocer, the dress shop – and you asked how much you owed and you paid off a certain amount of your debt, which was written on your card.”

Gefen smiles, and says, “There were all sorts of little tiny culture shocks. In England, the Sephardim are the elite – the creme de la crème of Jewish society. The Ashkenazim are nothing special. When we got to Israel and saw the attitude to the Mizrahim, everything was in reverse. I couldn’t grasp it.” In those days, says Yael, “Israel was a socialist country. There were May Day parades, commemorating International Workers’ Day, and Kupat Holim had the red flag flying on May Day.” Yael says that it wasn’t difficult learning Hebrew, because, she notes, “You had no choice. People wouldn’t talk to you in English. The principle in Israel was – ivrit, daber ivrit – Hebrew, speak Hebrew.”

DURING THAT time, Yael raised their two children. Raphael served in the army, taught in Kfar Masaryk and Nahalal, and trained teachers in Oranim. In 1965, they returned to England, where Raphael received his diploma in applied linguistics from the University of Edinburgh in 1966, and a master’s in linguistics from the University of Reading. They returned to Israel in 1967.

That year, Raphael was appointed chief inspector for English in primary schools and in teacher training. In 1971, he became the chief English inspector for the Education Ministry, with authority over all of the educational institutions in Israel. During his tenure, he changed the way that English was taught in Israel, shifting the emphasis from teaching English as a cultural and literary subject, to one of communicative competence. Up until that period, explains Yael, “secondary school education was literature-based. The idea of teaching English was that it would teach English literature, and the British way of life.” Yael explains that her husband’s guiding principle was that “the major purpose of teaching English in the Israeli school system is so that students can read and understand English for university studies and professions with a great stress on oral expression as a language of communication. The purpose of teaching English was not to teach the culture of a foreign country, but to teach English as a language of communication.” Raphael removed Shakespeare, Bacon and Wordsworth from the matriculation exams, and introduced modern literature into the English curriculum.

After Raphael retired in 1993, he authored dictionaries, including the Oxford English dictionary that is used in schools throughout the country, and remained involved in the teaching of English in Israel. After his passing, the Education Ministry created the “Exceptional English Teacher Award” in his memory. Yael says that he was known among his colleagues for his “immense sense of humor and his willingness to listen to teachers in the field.” Two days after Raphael’s passing, reports Yael, a great-grandson was born in Israel, thus further perpetuating the memory and legacy of her husband.

Yael served as the librarian of the British Council in Jerusalem for many years, and under her leadership, the library boasted more than 2,000 members, and offered thousands of simplified English books that were loaned to schools throughout the city. After her retirement from the British Council, she volunteered in a medical clinic for 15 years.

Sixty-six years after arriving in Israel, Yael remains fiercely Zionistic.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she says. “Maybe I’m just stupidly idealistic, but I just feel that this is a Jewish country. It’s part of their life, from a very young age. For whatever things are wrong, it’s basically a Jewish country and we want to live in a Jewish country.”


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