The dolls' journey to Israel

A little girl's entourage of dolls makes aliya - and a lifetime of cherished memories.

doll lady 88 298 (photo credit: )
doll lady 88 298
(photo credit: )
Most new immigrants look a little frazzled when they first arrive. In 1933, an especially rag-tag group arrived from Cleveland. Some lacked shoes and even body parts! The eldest was Shoshana, who was always elegant, fully attired in white. Next came Shulamit with her raven hair, wearing a polka dot dress. Poor Miriam had lost her right leg, so she had only one shoe and sock. Lovely Leah was all decked out in blue. Yellow-haired Ruth wore a white gown down to her feet - which was good because she'd lost both shoes. Riveleh didn't have shoes either, but she did have a pink dress and a red coat. Worst off was the smallest, Bitya: She had no clothes at all. There were boys, too, of a sort. Popeye was a tall fellow, all metal with a key in his back. When the key was turned, Popeye did an odd little sailor's jig. Thingumbob was the strangest: "Made in Russia," it said on his back. He was an egg-shaped kid, really just a head on a ball, but his structure made him impossible to knock over. If you tipped him, he just rolled right back up. Whatever the new olim might have lacked in body parts or clothing, the one person who didn't care at all was their ima, three year-old Sharona Regelson, who six months previously had also made aliya from Cleveland. Not only Sharona was delighted when the dolls arrived. The Regelsons' entire Tel Aviv neighborhood turned out to see the newcomers and marvel at the idea: Who could imagine one little girl having nine dolls? "Israel in 1933 was a very different place," laughs Sharona Tel-Oren, now a great-grandmother and translator of The Dolls' Journey to Eretz Israel, a book written by her father, Abraham Regelson, a respected Hebrew/Yiddish poet. "At that time, people in Jewish Palestine were concerned with survival, not toys. A whole kindergarten might have had only one or two dolls, so when my nine dolls arrived from America, it caused quite a sensation," she recalls. It was such a memorable occasion and caused so much joy in the whole neighborhood, that Regelson decided to write a children's story about the dolls. He was the right man for the job. Regelson was a feature writer for the now-defunct Hebrew daily newspaper Davar and co-founder of a weekly children's supplement. So every Friday, a new segment of the dolls' adventures was published, each telling about something that happened on their long journey to Israel. After a time, the segments were collected and published as a book. "It was a classic," says Tel-Oren. "Many people remember it from their childhood. Naomi Shemer mentioned it as her favorite book as a child, saying she giggled through countless readings. Then things happened - in Israel and in our family - and the book went out of print. But I grew up with that book. It was important to me, both because it was my father's and because of the history it told. So finally I decided to translate it and have it published in Hebrew and English," she explains. "There was a time when we didn't look back; but today, there seems to be a growing awareness of what was lost. People are remembering the past and like to show their children and grandchildren what life was like back then, when they were children themselves." The dolls' stories were published as fiction, but hardly surprisingly their adventures mirrored events that the Regelson family experienced when making aliya. "My parents were both immigrants to America. My father came in steerage as a child from Russia, and my mother from Poland when she was 18. Both of them revered Hebrew as their mother tongue. After they married, they settled in Cleveland, where there was a community of Zionists who dreamed of returning to their homeland in Israel. At home, they spoke only Hebrew to us. It was finally my father's passion for the language that made them decide on aliya," says Tel-Oren. Regelson was fluent in Hebrew, English and Yiddish, and longed to express himself in Hebrew poetry. Life in the US during the Depression was bleak, so the young couple decided to take their four children - Raim, 10; Naomi, 7; Yochai/Leon, 5; and Sharona, 3 - to live in Israel. Mother Chaya, pregnant with a fifth child when they set out, struggled on the long, difficult sea journey, where everyone but Raim was seasick - a situation that makes for a hilarious tale in the book, where the same thing happened to the dolls. "Is it fantasy or family history?" Tel-Oren asks. "A bit of each, actually. The truth is, when my parents left on aliya, they took very few possessions so I wasn't able to bring my beloved dolls. I said a tearful goodbye and gave the dolls to my friend Phyllis in Cleveland. After we'd been here for about six months, Phyllis's family decided to send the dolls to me, so they really arrived in a package, which my father claimed from customs. But most of the things that happened to the dolls in the book actually happened to us." In the book, the journey begins with the dolls showing Phyllis how to celebrate Shabbat. They don't want to miss the songs and candles, so they try to teach Phyllis, who endeavors to be as good a mother as Sharona was. In time, she realizes that she can't do it, so she decides to send the dolls to their real mother in Israel. Her first step is to visit Mr. Berg's toy shop, fronted by a huge sign that reads "Kids and Dolls, Tall and Small, A World on Wheels, Here for all!" Phyllis wants to find a car big enough to hold all nine dolls so they can set off on their journey. "There really was a Mr. Berg's store. A woman from Cleveland read the book and wrote to tell me it was exactly as she remembered it from her own childhood," says Tel-Oren. A suitable car was found, and the dolls set out with a Viking driver who was always a bit tipsy, being addicted to liquor. "Our driver, when we left, did the same things the dolls' driver did. Nowadays, it would be unthinkable that a driver would drink, but back then, that's what really happened. When he said they needed more 'fuel,' he'd pull out his flask and drink!" Along the way, the dolls encounter all manner of adventures: a foodless diner, the inevitable car trouble, and one event that was purely fictional. "One of the few things that changed in the sequential printings of the book occurs in the tale of their rescue by airplane," Tel-Oren recounts. "In the dolls' journey, they are running very late in their drive to New York and are afraid they are about to desecrate Shabbat, so they're rescued from Hopewell, New Jersey, by an airplane piloted - in the first edition - by Charles Lindbergh. In later editions, after Lindbergh's pro-Nazi position became known, the pilot is changed to Orville Wright." Most of the other stories were true, so the Dolls' Journey is actually a fairly reliable history of what aliya was like in the early 1930s. "After we arrived, life was very difficult. We lived in Tel Aviv, but there were almost no paved roads, just sand dunes and camels. In the book, Thingumbob goes wandering around, exploring, and finally comes riding home on a camel. My brother Raim actually did that. He went wandering, too, and rode back on an Arab's camel. Yes, there were hostilities and casualties back then, but not like today," says Tel-Oren. One of the greatest problems was disease, a factor that led to the Regelsons' reluctant return to the US. "My mother was pregnant when she arrived, and my brother Yedidya was born here. But malaria was all over. Yochai was critically ill, and then Yedidya, who was just eight months old, got sick and died of dysentery in hospital. We'd been here three years: Yedidya had died, Yochai was very ill and my mother was pregnant again. They just couldn't face it and decided they had to return to the US. It was a defeat for their Zionist dream, but they were determined to come back as soon as they could." The family returned to the US and moved to the Bronx, where Regelson eked out a meager living as a freelance translator and writer for the Yiddish press. Sharona was aged six then, and spent her formative years in New York. Fifteen years later, the family began returning to Israel, one by one. "My father came back alone in 1949, to get things ready. My mother and sister returned in 1950, but by that time I was at Julliard on a full scholarship. I didn't return until I fell desperately in love with a classmate - I left (school) in mid-semester - and we both came to Israel." Sharona married her classmate Hanoch and had seven children. The Tel-Orens lived in Jerusalem, where both parents were flautists with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, balancing their lives between concerts and diapers, practice sessions and family meals. Things were fine until March 11, 1978, when everything changed. "We were in our station wagon, driving along the coastal highway," Tel-Oren recalls. "We saw something odd ahead - a bus, but it seemed to be stopped. Then we saw someone lying on the road. There was shattered glass all over, children screaming. Then we heard the gunshots." What became known as the Coastal Road massacre was the deadliest Palestinian terrorist attack on Israel since 1948. American photographer Gail Rubin was killed, the bus was hijacked and burned, and before it was over, 37 Israelis were dead, including the Tel-Orens' 15-year-old son, Imri. "Imri was asleep in the back seat. The bullet passed though the front seat and hit his head, killing him instantly. My husband was shot in the arm, and lost the movement in his fingers. It was devastating. No one thought he'd ever play the flute again," says Tel-Oren. The tragedy shattered the whole family. A cousin, writer Cynthia Ozick - who appears in the book as cousin Shoshana - wrote a powerful article condemning the terrorist attack, and songs were written commemorating the horror. The massacre was regarded as a turning point in Israeli history, but it also upended the Tel-Oren family. The trauma was overwhelming, and the parents eventually divorced. "I was lost. After the tragedy, we both resigned from the Jerusalem Symphony and I found myself with no husband, no son and no job. I decided to move to the quiet Negev village of Omer, and there I started to recover. I played with Beersheba's Sinfonietta, co-founded and produced LOGON, the Light Opera Group of the Negev, and ran myself silly for four years. And then I burned out," says Tel-Oren. The one thing that remained as a touchstone was the family's own history book, the story of the dolls' journey. "The book was out of print, but not forgotten. Kibbutz Yagur, on its 60th anniversary, turned it into a musical for their celebration, and segments had been serialized as a children's radio program. I decided I wanted to be sure that our own family's grandchildren had a copy, so I began the translation into English. And then I wanted to make it available for all of Israel's children, both to simply enjoy and to remember their history, as well. Now, when my grandchildren plead, 'Tell us a story, Savta, about that time when…' I really have something I can give them." For more information about the book, visit Illustrated copies are available from or in Israel through