Veterans: From Chicago to Merkaz Shapira: Yaffa Ganz

Her accomplishments include three books of essays on contemporary Jewish life, and a two-volume illustrated Jewish history book for teens.

Yaffa Ganz 88 248 (photo credit: Abigail Klein)
Yaffa Ganz 88 248
(photo credit: Abigail Klein)
While her kindergarten classmates dreamed of becoming ballerinas or princesses, Yaffa Siegel imagined herself as a shepherdess in Israel. Now a grandmother, Yaffa Siegel Ganz can see flocks grazing in the valley below her home in Ma'aleh Adumim. She may not be a true shepherdess, but she has created her own "herd" of children's books as a well-loved author. LIFE BEFORE ISRAEL Ganz was born on the West Side of Chicago into "a perfectly regular, normal, traditional Jewish family that was very involved in what was happening in Israel at the beginning of the state." She and her husband, Avraham, came into the world in the same hospital and were educated in the same local Jewish schools. Both spent a year in Israel following high school. Ganz says that moving here permanently was a natural step in their lives. "My ties to Israel were kept firmly in place by Bnei Akiva," she says. "In the 1950s and '60s, Chicago Bnei Akiva was known as a unique group. Israel today is full of rabbis, educators and heads of yeshivot who came up through the ranks of Chicago Bnei Akiva and made aliya." After their marriage in 1958, she and her husband finished their schooling - he as a rabbi/educator, she as a teacher specializing in history. They both taught in the school they had attended as children. "We figured we needed about five or six years to save enough to pay for the fare and set up here," she says. In the meantime, they had two children and spoke to them exclusively in Hebrew. DEPARTURE The family was booked on a ship, a common mode of aliya transportation in the '60s. But two weeks before the departure date, one of the Ganz children developed what looked like German measles, and the liner management did not want the child aboard. Disappointed, they made plane reservations instead. Saying good-bye to her parents was difficult. "One of the worst days of my life was leaving America," she says. "In those days, Israelis didn't even have telephones in their houses and you couldn't speak to people frequently. So it really was a separation." ARRIVAL For the first few weeks, until their lift arrived, the family stayed with Avraham's sister in Kfar Haroeh. "One of my first impressions was that all the kids there were wounded, because they all had gauze on their hands and feet. I soon learned that they didn't have Band-Aids in Israel then, so whenever the kids got a cut they wrapped a meter of gauze around it." Friends had arranged for Avraham to teach in a yeshiva in Merkaz Shapira, near Ashkelon. The family moved into a 45-square-meter house with two small bedrooms, a central room and "a pitzkele little kitchen," with a muddy yard outside. "My first purchase was a pair of farmer's boots because it wasn't paved and there was heavy black dirt that you just sank into," Ganz recalls. "Now it's gorgeous and lush there. We went to see the town with our grandchildren, and you can't even recognize our original house anymore." The young mother discovered that milk cans arrived each morning outside the local market at four, "and by eight o'clock it was cheese," she says. "I didn't buy any milk till Tnuva started bottling it - there was a limit to my pioneering spirit." Nevertheless, she remembers those "raw" days fondly. "It was a different Israel, much more people-oriented. It was just pulling out of the rough years of the tzena [austerity]. But we felt privileged to be here, and we were happy." SETTLING IN About a year later, the Ganzes moved into a slightly larger house across the street. Over the next five years, they had two more children - one of whom is now living in Merkaz Shapira and teaching in the same yeshiva as his father did. Their friends from Chicago began arriving as well, though larger numbers of immigrants did not land until after the Six Day War in 1967. "Being here for the Six Day War was very emotional," she says. "The country was in a despondent state the two weeks beforehand; nobody knew what was going to happen and all the foreigners were leaving in droves. Then, after what happened in six days, we realized... that you really don't have a clue as to what the morrow will bring. It was a very uplifting experience." In 1969, the family moved to Jerusalem, where Avraham taught at Boys Town. They had a fifth child there and remained until 2004. When her children were small, Ganz began spinning ad-libbed stories about a Jewish grandmother named Yenta Hochenshpretzel. "After I'd been telling these stories a couple of months, I realized there was a book here," she says. She renamed her lead character Savta Simcha and wrote an episode that she brought to Feldheim publishers. Not only did Savta Simcha get published - and become the first of a popular English-language series - but Ganz also got a job setting up the publisher's young readers division. Over the next 10 years, she oversaw the publication of many books, including some of her own. She now has about 50 titles to her credit, the majority of them for children. "Some of my books have been translated into French, German, Spanish, Russian and Hebrew - which to me is the most important language, because none of my grandchildren speaks English," she says. "My children can all speak English with varying degrees of fluency, but they are Israeli. To them, America is a foreign country." DAILY LIFE The Ganzes followed two of their married children to Ma'aleh Adumim in 2004. Yaffa continued writing children's books and contributing to several periodicals. Recently, Feldheim released Four in One!, a quartet of her best-loved stories. Her accomplishments include three books of essays on contemporary Jewish life, and a two-volume illustrated Jewish history book for teens, Sand and Stars. She would like to write a book of poetry for adults some day. In August, the Ganzes moved into an airy new apartment that still requires some finishing touches. "Things take longer to get done here," she says. "You have to walk with God here, and He has His own time schedule. Eventually things will put themselves in order." BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "It's God's land and I'm at home. I haven't been out of the country for about 10 years. Every time I left I felt so insecure, like I was ripped away from everything important to me." ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS "You have to take a long view. I have friends who came and just didn't have the patience to sit it out and they left. Now I think they missed out on something great." It is crucial, she added, to learn as much Hebrew as possible before arriving. "You see intelligent, professional people who come here and all of a sudden they're like a two-year-old and feel like an idiot when they can't talk to their child's teacher. It's so important to be able to read the newspaper, listen to the news and just express yourself." To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: