Zipporah Porath: ‘Letters from Jerusalem’ revisited

When Jonathan told me of his mother’s death I reached for the miniature Irish whiskey she gave me before I mounted my bike for the ride back to Jerusalem seven years ago, and drank to her memory.

 Zippy Porath proudly displays her highly personal account of events surrounding the birth of the State of Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Zippy Porath proudly displays her highly personal account of events surrounding the birth of the State of Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Zipporah Porath, universally known as Zippy, was a live wire. Once in a while you come across someone whose zest for life simply bowls you over and sweeps you along their merry way. Zippy was just that.

She died exactly a year ago at the age of 98 and, although I hadn’t seen her since our second rendezvous, at her apartment in Ganei Tikva in 2014, I thought of her from time to time and wondered how she was getting along.

A few days ago, her New York-resident son, Jonathan, dropped me a line telling me his mother had passed away, on December 30, 2020. He very much wanted to mark the first yahrzeit, and I was only too happy to write a little something about a person who left such a lasting impression on me.

I first met Zippy – calling her by her family name doesn’t pass personality-emotional muster – around 10 or 12 years ago I think. She was one of three interviewees I sat with for an article about MAHAL – a Hebrew acronym for foreign volunteers – which came into being when some 3,000 idealistic youngsters came to the fledgling state of Israel, in 1948, to swell the ranks of the motley inexperienced crew that made up the Hagana and then-nascent IDF.

Typically, New York-born Zippy was miffed at not getting what she considered to be sufficient temporal leeway to tell me her full story. I took her rebuke in good spirit but simply had to move on to the next MAHAL veteran.

 The morning after the night before - Porath in downtown Jerusalem, November 30, 1947 (credit: Courtesy) The morning after the night before - Porath in downtown Jerusalem, November 30, 1947 (credit: Courtesy)

Luckily, a few years later I found myself cycling over to Zippy’s home to be regaled by some remarkable tales from her days in Jerusalem in the lead up to, during and immediately after the creation of the State of Israel. I also realized that our previous slot could not have possibly accommodated even a half decent overview of what she got up to here at such a pivotal time in local history.

I noted in the article I wrote in the aftermath of our second encounter that history books are generally written by cerebrally inclined folk who wade through the relevant literature and research their chosen topic before producing some tome or treatise about an era and/or event of their choice. However, it is nearly always the case that said historians are offering their – albeit learned and considered – subjective view of the matter in hand, of events they did not witness with their own eyes.

Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948, which Zippy first published in 1987, is just about the most personal and individually fact-based account of a momentous passage of time you could ever hope to find. It primarily comprises letters Zippy sent home to her family in New York in which she describes, in excellent vivid prose, what she was living through, during what turned out to be a watershed juncture for this part of the world, and for Zippy herself.

She came here from New York, in her mid-twenties, for a year of study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus. She ended up joining the Hagana, in a clandestine ceremony that would do justice to some 1950s Cold War spy movie, and thereafter served as a medic during the War of Independence. The young Zionist woman living life to what she thought was the full in New York became a battle-hardened full-fledged Israeli.

She wrote about events as they unfolded, from her ringside berth, and endured all kinds of trials and hardships – material and bodily – she could never have imagined back home in the States. “I told it as I saw it happen. I was there!” she exclaims in her Author’s Note.

The street-level facts in Letters from Jerusalem, the inestimable historical value of which was affirmed by renowned British historian Sir Martin Gilbert in his foreword to the original 1987 edition, came from epistles Zippy wrote home to her parents and sister Naomi from the moment she set foot on the ship at New York Harbor and set sail for Haifa. She had no idea the letters had been lovingly kept by her mother. She unearthed them from a box almost four decades on.

Letters – long before emails were even a twinkle in some techie’s eye – can be the most intimate of communicative formats, and Zippy’s are no exception. While she takes some pains not to overly concern her parents as the war clouds gathered over pre-state Palestine, and on into the 1948 war, reading the book gets you as close as possible to the emotions, excitement, fears and proverbial blood, sweat and tears without experiencing it all firsthand yourself.

If I thought Zippy a feisty character when I got that ticking off at our first meeting I had no idea just how driven, determined and what a tough a bird she was until I read the book, and sat down with her at her home.

She was brought up in a Zionist household so might have naturally slipped into the sociopolitical flow here. However, as any of us who made aliyah at some stage or other of our lives know, there is always some cultural behavioral divide to be negotiated.

Zippy came here with basic Hebrew so she was able to converse with Sabras on a utilitarian level but managing the day-to-day nuts and bolts occasionally left her stumped and open-mouthed. Still, she had a knack for adapting, and “the thrill of being here” she describes in October 1947 gave way to a more sober appreciation of the lay of the land, even as she maintained an objective outsider’s viewpoint on “the locals.”

Zippy’s account of the emotional outpourings and celebrations sparked by the UN Partition Plan vote on November 29 is delightful and palpable. You almost feel you were there yourself as she describes Jerusalem streets filling with joyous revelers, spontaneous hora dance circles, a tearfully euphoric address by Golda Meir (then still Meyerson) at the Jewish Agency building, and even a visit to the press room of The Palestine Post, the forerunner of this paper, “to get the latest news.”

Most revealing are the letters Zippy sent back with American students and others setting sail for the States, in which she did not have to couch her words to slip by the official censors. Here we learn about her military training and some of her heroics as an IDF medic.

But through it all, the privations, dangers, horrors of war and mosquito bombardments, she retained her sense of humor, but also her humanity and empathy for the victims of the political and military developments here. Notwithstanding her Zionist zeal and unbounded pride of being a Jew in “the land of the Jews,” she expressed her disgust at the killing of “innocent men, women, children, dogs and mules” that were “wiped away with a callousness that clogs the mind with its incredibility” in the Arab village of Deir Yassin, now the Jerusalem district of Givat Shaul. Her description, in that May 1948 missive, is also a veritable literary tour de force in which she paints an evocative picture of “air thickened with dust and an overpowering stench. Everywhere colorful shreds of clothing fluttered in the dry breeze and pots and pans rocked futilely on the porches of abandoned houses.”

I felt blessed to have spent an hour or two with someone who lived life to the fullest, and would take no prisoners, but mostly dispensed good humor to all and sundry. That picture was confirmed by her son. “She was a big fighter,” he told me. “She was together until the end. But she had had enough. I think, maybe, the corona left her a bit confused. She said goodbye to everyone, took an afternoon nap and never woke up.” As British psychedelic band The Incredible String Band put it back in the sixties, simply and a little simplistically, “live till you die.” Zippy certainly did that and then some.

When Jonathan told me of his mother’s death I reached for the miniature Irish whiskey she gave me before I mounted my bike for the ride back to Jerusalem seven years ago, and drank to her memory. L’chaim.