David Amato, a Hanukkah baby who spread his wings

The story of an exceptional man honored with Mexico’s Order of the Aztec Eagle.

A young David Amato attempting to learn how to play the trumpet, despite an injured right hand (photo credit: Courtesy)
A young David Amato attempting to learn how to play the trumpet, despite an injured right hand
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On December 11, 1917, the second day of Hanukkah 5678, the two main headlines on page 1 of The Atlanta Constitution underlined the great victory across the seas: “Jerusalem Falls into the Hands of British Troops”; “Jerusalem Is Freed from Turk after Virtually 12 Centuries – British Capture the Holy City.”
Further down on that same front page was a story linking Jerusalem and Atlanta: “Jerusalem’s Fall Brings Happiness to Atlanta Father” was the headline, and the underline read “With city in British hands, Amato believes he will be able to bring his wife and children here.”
 Aware of the situation of this Atlanta native, the newspaper played a role in this joyous event. “With a face wreathed in smiles, A. (Abraham) Amato, at his quaint little shoe shop, 85 Capitol Avenue, received the glad tidings of the capture of Jerusalem, from a Constitution reporter yesterday afternoon.”
It was to take almost four years for the family to be reunited, but members of the Atlanta community were now personal witnesses to the meaning of the “capture of Jerusalem.”
Abraham Amato was born in 1893 on the isle of Rhodes – a place Sephardi Jews had lived since the year 1000 – where he developed a deep love of Zion growing up in his formative years under the influence of Zionism. Whereas his contemporaries immigrated to the US, he chose Eretz Yisrael and made aliyah in the first decade of the 20th century.
His granddaughter, Leah Amato Franco of Atlanta, writes: “Since Abraham had a beautiful/operatic tenor voice, he found an unusual type of employment. He would climb a minaret and call the Arabs of Jerusalem to prayer, three or five times a day.”
Then his fortunes changed.
“When his shoes wore out, he went to a cobbler in the Nahalat Zion neighborhood late one Friday afternoon before Shabbat,” says Leah. “The owner of the shop, Mr. Amin, struck up a conversation with my grandfather. Mr. Amin was appalled how Abraham was earning a living. My great-grandfather, to be, said to him that singing in the minaret was not the type of vocation a young Jewish man should have.”
Amin made it clear that Abraham could work for him, and “I will teach you my trade.” An invitation was made to join the family for Shabbat. ”The other objective of this kindness was to introduce Abraham to Leah Amin, who was to become my grandmother.”
Abraham and Leah were married in 1908 and lived in Nahalat Zion near the Amin family. Their first child, a daughter named Kaden, was born in 1909. The second, a son, David, Leah’s father, was born on the first night of Hanukkah 5673, December 4, 1912.
Abraham became a successful shoemaker in Jerusalem, but there was too much competition. He decided to take his family to America. He applied for visas and was surprised to learn that he could receive a visa to immigrate to the US, but his wife and children, as Turkish citizens, could not.
In 1915, he left alone to start a business in Atlanta, which was chosen because a number of Jews from Rhodes had moved there. It was a very difficult goodbye, but he saw no other choice. By October 1915, Abraham Amato had opened a shoe store in Atlanta and advertised it in the American Jewish Review, an Atlanta monthly.
The British and Turks were battling for Jerusalem. David was wounded seriously. His daughter, Leah Amato Franco, who lives in Atlanta, explains: “When dad was five years old in 1917, he was hit in the head by a truck during a battle in the city. My father was in a coma for about a month. Since the truck hit him on the left side of the head, the right side of his body was paralyzed. Eventually, he gained limited use of his right arm and leg. With limited medical equipment available, he could not begin rehabilitation until the family moved to Atlanta in 1921.”
After the war ended, the American consulate in Jerusalem was overwhelmed by requests for visas. Leah, Kaden and David Amato joined Abraham in Atlanta only in 1921.
“My grandfather, Abraham, had been waiting for his son, David, to reach Atlanta since there was a Shriner’s Hospital for Cripples in the city, and south of Atlanta there were the therapeutic waters at Warm Springs,” Leah says. “The extensive therapy helped my father acquire more use of the right side of his body. He studied in the Atlanta public schools, graduating high school in 1931.”
David transformed the treatments he underwent into a way of dealing with the challenges of life. In his first report in 1941, as an employee of the US Department of Labor, he wrote that statistics prove “that people who go through physical rehabilitation can become even better workers in their fields of endeavor.” That became his credo.
After graduating high school, he was awarded a scholarship to George Washington University in Washington. Upon graduating college in 1935, David made a romantic decision: to return to Rhodes to find a bride. Leah’s mother, Rose, was chosen by David. They were married in January 1936 and honeymooned on a ship voyage back to the US. David had forebodings about the future of the Jews of Rhodes. It took three years, but he obtained visas for Rose’s mother and sister to join them in America.
In a newspaper article, David described the character of the elders of Rhodes. “They exported brains by encouraging their children to seek their fortunes elsewhere.... These people have enriched the countries to which they migrated.” Amato is most dramatic when he writes that “this foresight” of sending the children away “was heavenly inspired... for all the 4,000 remaining Jews on Rhodes were slaughtered by the Nazis.”
THE LIFE of David Amato, the Jerusalem Hanukkah boy, was one of dramatic service and exceptional achievement. His first position was with the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor in Washington. At a conference in October 1941, he made the chilling pronouncement that because of 90,000 individuals suffering permanent impairment and 1,782,000 temporary disabilities, 125,240,200 man-days of employment were lost in the US in 1940.
When World War II began, he was invited to become a member of the National Labor Board, where he assisted in creating methods to transform vocational rehabilitation into a key proponent for providing sufficient workmen to man the military industries of the country.
In 1952, Mexico needed help to develop its rehabilitation facilities so that the graduates could more readily enter the nascent industries in the country. David was offered a position in the American diplomatic corps to bring his expertise to Mexico.
This was an exciting step forward for him, and he took it gladly. The Amatos – David, Rose and their daughters, Leah, 14, and Diane, 9 – moved to Mexico City that year, where David’s career was meteoric as he fashioned for the Mexican government and people a modern sense of what rehabilitation can achieve in all fields. Not only did David work in his chosen field, he became a correspondent for The News, an English-language newspaper in Mexico, writing hundreds of articles both in his area of expertise and on many aspects of Israel and Judaism.
In 1989, David was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Mexico’s highest decoration given to foreigners, by the president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
In 1998, the Mexico-Israel Institute, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the State of Israel, presented the Mexico-Israel award to 25 people in different fields. One of those honored was David Amato.
The great love he had for Israel can be seen in the many newspaper columns he wrote and in the many visits he made to Israel.
David died in 2012 in Atlanta, a few months short of his 100th birthday. “Throughout his 99 years of life, nothing stopped him from trying,” Leah says.
On the 107th anniversary of his birth on Hanukkah in Jerusalem, I quote from one of his most powerful articles, titled “Jerusalem, a Unique City.”
“Regardless of religious affiliation, the city’s spirituality frequently makes one tingle at the mention of the name, so that one is prepared, emotionally, to grasp the unique beauty Jerusalem has acquired in spite of century-long struggles.
“On one thing the great majority of Jews living in and out of Israel seem to agree: Jerusalem’s present status has to be preserved. Ever since King David declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, Jerusalem has been the principal concern of the Jewish people.... Israel without Jerusalem would be an Israel without a soul, since Jerusalem is the catalytic inspiration for Jews everywhere.”