Jerusalem Day: American Jews and Israel's capital

Growing to love Jerusalem takes on many forms. On this Jerusalem Day, we can point to some of the streets in Jerusalem named after American Jews.

 ERETZ YISRAEL (Land of Israel), Paris, 1925 by Arthur Szyk (1894-1951). (photo credit: Courtesy Irvin Ungar/Historicana, www.szyk.com)
ERETZ YISRAEL (Land of Israel), Paris, 1925 by Arthur Szyk (1894-1951).
(photo credit: Courtesy Irvin Ungar/Historicana, www.szyk.com)

“But, when I came to Jerusalem all my plans changed.” So wrote Dr. M.J. Wissotsky to William Topkis, his Zionist ally in Wilmington, Delaware on September 11, 1922, the day when Sir Herbert Samuel became the first High Commissioner of the Palestine Mandate.

Wissotsky and his wife traveled from their home in Los Angeles to Palestine in the spring of 1922. He had a brother in Tel Aviv, a noted dentist, and so he wanted to make aliyah.

In the letter he wrote:

“After I walked around (having arrived in Jerusalem July 20, 1922) for a few days on these narrow, crooked, hilly, stony, funny and at the same time most wonderful streets, where every stone speaks to you of our forefathers.”

He continued. “After I lived over on these streets, the anxiety of the Mandate, which we got, and of a pogrom for which we were prepared and which happily did not realize. After those few days in Jerusalem, Mrs. Wissotsky and I both felt that we cannot leave this place. We must live here whatever happens to us.”

“After those few days in Jerusalem, Mrs. Wissotsky and I both felt that we cannot leave this place. We must live here whatever happens to us.”

Dr. M.J. Wissotsky
 FRONTISPIECE FROM The Haggadah, Lodz, 1935 by Arthur Szyk. (credit: Courtesy Irvin Ungar/Historicana, www.szyk.com) FRONTISPIECE FROM The Haggadah, Lodz, 1935 by Arthur Szyk. (credit: Courtesy Irvin Ungar/Historicana, www.szyk.com)

Sadly, since he could not find a job as a chemist, they returned to Los Angeles at the end of 1923 and there he continued to be a leader in the West Coast chapter of the Zionist Organization of America.

Growing to love Jerusalem takes on many forms. On this Jerusalem Day, we can point to some of the streets in Jerusalem named after American Jews.

A favorite of mine is Judah Touro. Born in Newport, Rhode Island in the late 1700s, he was the son of Isaac Touro, the cantor of what became known as the Touro synagogue. Because of a broken heart, the woman he loved would not marry him, Judah moved south to New Orleans. When fighting in the War of 1812, he was seriously wounded and nursed back to health by a close friend.

Once he recuperated from his wounds, he began a career in business in which he excelled, becoming one of the richest Jews in the US. In the 1840s, a gentleman from New York, Gershon Kursheedt, moved down to New Orleans and Touro befriended him. The biographers of Touro suggest that Kursheedt helped draft Judah’s will, a major document in 19th century America Jewish history.

When Touro died in 1854, his will provided funds for every synagogue then in existence in the US. There were many other bequests for institutions in the US. A major gift was $60,000: $10,000 of which was to purchase land and $50,000 was to build a new hospital in Jerusalem. In his will, he appointed his friend Sir Moses Montefiore to oversee the project.

Under Montefiore’s guidance, the funds were used instead to build Miskenot Sha’ananim. Completed in 1860, it was the first residential building erected outside of the walls of Jerusalem. Today, the building is used for conferences, artists and writers in residence. Currently the Kivunim Gap program, founded by my cousin, the noted educator, Peter Geffen, is housed there for its annual year study program.

David and Jerusalem

NOW MY personal tale: David and Jerusalem. Not sure why, looking back, I realize how little I knew about Jerusalem. Jerusalem appears frequently in our daily prayers; at the Seder, of course, “Leshana Habaah b’Yerushalayim” and then we added the word habenuyah (rebuilt). At our family Seders in Atlanta, they were led by my grandfather, Rav Tuvia Geffen. My grandmother, Sara Hene Geffen, required us to stand and sing “Hatikvah,” with “Yerushalayim” poignantly completing the Seder.

As an only child, I was permitted to go to the movies frequently. In the large budget film about King David, I know that I saw locales in Jerusalem created in Hollywood style. However, I don’t recall Jerusalem being in the movie Samson and Delilah. I do remember that at the Jewish Educational Alliance, where we went for programs of all types, and basketball and ping pong, there was once an evening where silent movies were shown about the Haganah. In some of those films, the walls of Jerusalem and the Tower of David were visible.

Previously, in other writings of mine, I have mentioned that, at 14, I had to lead the song “Yerushalayim, Yerushalayim” by Avigdor Meiri at our annual confirmation service. I can still recall that proud moment until this very day.

My saddest experience with Jerusalem in my teen years occurred at college in one of our Jewish fraternity meetings. It was 1957 and the Sinai campaign was underway. I thought that I would ask my fraternity brothers to contribute money to help Israel in that time of need. I was shocked by the reply from these nice Jewish boys. “Geffen,” one said, “let those Jews in Jerusalem do whatever they want – they don’t need our help.” Stunned that was it – except for the $10 I contributed – not another cent was donated.

Finally, in 1963, after my late wife Rita and I were married, we came to Israel to study. Back then, we literally sucked in the air of Jerusalem, it was so special.

We could not visit the Western Wall, or walk through the streets of the Old City, but the Jerusalem being built 59 years ago, had incorporated those ancient Jerusalem structures with modern architectural projects. In particular, where we lived, we watched the sculpture garden and one of the buildings of the Israel Museum come into being. We also saw the Knesset under construction whenever we walked out to Ruppin Street to catch a bus to the Central Bus Station or the heart of Jerusalem.

Today, it is Sacher Park and Ben Zvi Boulevard, but back then, six decades ago, it was a large green grassy area where you went to have fun – both barbecuing, not much of it, and soccer. Games were played throughout that valley or so it seemed. Other than Independence Park, the Sacher area (not sure it had a name then) was like a Central Park in the heart of the tiny little city then.

A close friend, Stuart Geller, is a Reform rabbi who made aliyah with his wife Ellyn in 2001. He and his wife’s deep desire to make aliyah was initiated in 1966-1967. Then Geller was a student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and he spent a year with his wife mastering Hebrew and many other subjects needed to be a rabbi.

“You asked me to share our memories of Jerusalem 56 years ago, when we came as students in July of 1966.” He began, “we did write letters home and our family saved them. On July 2, I wrote home that ‘Jerusalem is an amazing place – no big stores nor many tall buildings. Everyone here is a specialist. Little restaurants and little stores that specialize in certain types of jewelry. No Coke, no American drinks at any price. American cigarettes cost one dollar a pack’.”

“Fifty-six years have gone by,” he stressed. “I don’t know what cigarettes cost. Someone said a pack of Marlboros cost $10. Anyway, I quit smoking.” He wrote to his family back in Denver Colorado of what he saw in this ancient city.

“I felt very much at home 56 years ago with a little town. I wrote home and said ‘Look at a map, Jerusalem is surrounded on three sides by Jordan.’” Then he pinpointed one facet of the city today. “Now, tall buildings, once forbidden, are de rigueur.

“Back in 1966, we loved Jerusalem and we did tour Israel, but didn’t spend much time in any of the towns we visited. Mostly, we lived in Beit Giora, near Kiryat Hayovel. We had one room, that’s all.

“Even then, in 1967, we talked about staying and making aliyah. But, the realists around us said how will you earn a living? So, we went back in June 1967, just missing the Six Day War.” 

They were determined. “Nevertheless, we kept talking about making aliyah. At first it was summers spent here, including two different times in the Old City.”

They did it. “We came on a sabbatical and finally we became citizens in 2001. Our dreams came true, if you can imagine the differences we saw in those years. Now, we have air conditioning. Everyone has it. A garden, a parking place and many good friends. We belong to the Reform synagogue, Kol Haneshama and are happy about our decisions.”

I watched a reality show about people being selected to fall in love with each other. I am touched every time a couple has a symbolic marriage. Before the groom breaks the glass, he says “Im Eskachach Yerushalayim” (If I forget you, O Jerusalem). Mazel Tov Jerusalem, our eternal city! ■