‘Post’marks from yesteryear

‘The Palestine Post’ had been the center of his father’s existence.

DANIEL CHERTOFF: ‘The Palestine Post’ had been the center of his father’s existence. (photo credit: ARLENE CHERTOFF)
DANIEL CHERTOFF: ‘The Palestine Post’ had been the center of his father’s existence.
(photo credit: ARLENE CHERTOFF)
The interview was almost but not entirely unnecessary. In the engrossing 12 page preface to his book Palestine Posts, Daniel Chertoff answers nearly all the questions that a journalist might think to ask.
The book is in many respects a tribute to his father Rabbi Mordecai Chertoff, with whom he candidly admits he did not have a good relationship.
In that same spurt of honesty, he lists his father’s character flaws, which contributed to the emotional distance between them.
Daniel Chertoff – who used to work as an investment analyst, financial counselor, venture capitalist and senior executive in a large Israeli hi-tech company – has a very orderly mind and an orderly way of doing things.
When he interviewed business executives prior to preparing his analyses, he came with a ready set of questions. He knew exactly what he wanted to ask and why.
A product of the digital era, he was not prepared for the treasure trove of mostly hand-written letters, post cards and photographs that he discovered among his father’s belongings following his death in Jerusalem near the end of December 2013.
The discovery was particularly surprising in view of the fact that in his father’s twilight years, Daniel had helped him to write a memoir in which there was no reference to the box of letters.
Three weeks prior to his demise, Mordecai Chertoff’s blood sugar took a spike, as did his pancreatic cancer. In those last three weeks, Daniel had his father identify people in photographs to ensure that there would be more substance to the family legacy after his passing.
Daniel Chertoff, who has a passion for English literature and is an associate editor of a journal devoted to English literature and the history of ideas, prefers to read works of fiction rather than those of fact.
But suddenly, while disposing of his father’s estate, he came across a box of letters, post cards and photographs that he had never seen before and had been totally unaware of. The correspondence was largely between Mordecai, his parents and his siblings. After reading this material written seven decades earlier, Daniel realized that he had a plethora of eye-witness accounts in his grasp and felt that he had to do something with it for his own children and grandchildren, and possibly for a wider public.
IN 1947 at age 25, his father had come to what was then Palestine with the aim of somehow contributing to the emerging Jewish state.
It was not his first time there. In 1935, Mordecai’s mother Esther had brought him and his older brother and sister to Jerusalem for a year-long stay. The young Mordecai had fallen in love with the country, and had written amazingly mature letters to his father about his impressions. He had even asked his father to keep those letters and not throw them away.
In order to better understand the background to his father’s correspondence, Daniel Chertoff immersed himself in extensive research, reading many books and articles, along with every available issue of The Palestine Post of that period (forerunner of The Jerusalem Post).
The Palestine Post had been the center of his father’s existence. Mordecai Chertoff had been one of several young American Jews who had come to Jerusalem in the final years preceding the end of the British Mandate, and had found employment at the Post or some other news outlet.
By reading back issues of the paper, and especially when he came across his father’s byline, Daniel Chertoff was able to absorb what his father had experienced – and sometimes felt, as if he was standing right next to him. It was not like reading a history book: It was much more personal. By researching the newspaper, he was reading about day-to-day events. The paper devoted many articles to the travails of the passengers on the Exodus, describing the route they sailed, their frustrations, the crowded conditions on the ship, the seasickness, the forced detention in Cyprus and more.
From perusing the yellowed pages of The Palestine Post, Chertoff also learned about what was happening elsewhere in the world at that time. The whole project was an education.
He also learned a lot about his family through the letters that they wrote to his father.
He was not alone in pursuing his project. All of his immediate family advised and encouraged him, and pitched in as did several friends. Thus, it became a family project not only for the family, but by the family.
Friends told him that he should not keep the information that he had gleaned solely for his relatives; they were certain that other people would be interested. It turns out that they were correct in that assessment.
IN HIS LETTERS, Mordecai mentioned people with whom he worked at The Palestine Post as well as others who, in many instances, went on to achieve fame, but who are no longer living.
In his research, Daniel Chertoff contacted the descendants of these people to find out if their parents had spoken about the period leading up to the establishment of the state and the immediate aftermath. Some had, some had not.
Chertoff asked them if they wanted to read the letters in which their parents were mentioned, or in a few cases, which had been written by their parents – and of course, the responses were affirmative.
Realizing that simply reprinting the letters would not suffice, Chertoff built a narrative around them.
The end result is an absorbing 466 page historiography, written partly in the first person and partly as an almost detached report interspersed with the letters.
From his own reading of the history of the period, Chertoff reached the conclusion that while so much attention has been given to 1967, 1948 has been all but neglected.
“There are a lot of unsung people who are seemingly innocuous, but who turned out to be incredible,” he said in a pre-launch interview about the book.
Chertoff confessed that he knows very little about his paternal grandparents other than that his grandmother came from Romania and his grandfather from Belarus. He knows more about his grandfather than his grandmother. His grandfather was a prodigy who studied at the renowned Volozhin Yeshiva. In 1897, at age 17, he was ordained as a rabbi. Not long afterwards, together with five brothers and two sisters, he left for America where he changed his name from Shraga Faivel to Paul.
He had a brief stint as a pulpit rabbi, discovered it was not for him, went into a failed business and wound up teaching Talmud for forty years at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
The letters between Mordecai Chertoff and his father were in Hebrew. The father’s letters always contained a Biblical or Talmudic reference. Some but not all of Mordecai’s letters were in similar vein.
THE MOST important letter as far as Daniel Chertoff is concerned, contains the long, vivid and detailed description of the bombing of The Palestine Post in February, 1948, in which Mordecai managed to rescue seven people – one of whom, Robbie Rabinowitz, later succumbed to his injuries.
Rabinowitz was the father of three children, the youngest of whom, David Nevo, barely knew him. When Daniel Chertoff asked if he was interested in reading Mordecai’s account of the explosion, Nevo was of course curious about any scrap of information pertaining to his father.
As for Daniel Chertoff, through the letters, he had the rare privilege of knowing his own father as a young man.
In those days in which several newspaper offices and those of international news agencies were in close proximity to each other in downtown Jerusalem – and where journalists often hung out at the Atara coffee shop which, from 1938 to 1996, was a Ben Yehuda Street landmark – everyone knew everyone else. When the Post was bombed, not only those journalists who had been out of the building rushed to evacuate the injured, but also fellow journalists from other media outlets ran to help.
Despite the situation, the uninjured staff, including Mordecai, managed to put out a somewhat condensed edition of the paper from other premises for distribution the following day. That edition contained a full account of the bombing.
Daniel Chertoff writes in the book: “The bomb was ordered by Abdul Khader al-Husseini, the leader of the Arab irregular forces, and constructed by Fawzi al-Kutub. Kutub was assisted by Abu Khalil Janho, a Christian Arab and two British deserters: Corporal Peter Marsden and former police captain Eddie Brown. The original plan was apparently to attack the Zion Cinema, but the bombers arrived after the film had ended and the audience had gone. Instead, they headed toward the nearest building that was still lit up.”
He continues: “In an interview broadcast over Damascus radio in the early 1950s, al-Kutub detailed how he placed a 1,500 kg. land mine in a truck stolen from the British and had it driven to the building housing the Post.”
According to his son, Mordecai hated the British with a passion. In one of his letters he complains about what the British are doing to the Jews in the name of security.
Although Daniel has tried to remain apolitical in telling the story around the letters, the grievances expressed by his father are very similar to those which the Palestinians have against the Israelis today.
WHILE WORKING on the project, Daniel Chertoff was essentially interested in finding out how his father became the person he was.
He had always been ambivalent about his father, but after completing the project he is less so, because he knows him better than he did when his father was alive.
“I think I like him much more and feel I understand him more, and have infinite respect for what he went through and how he participated in and contributed to the birth of the State of Israel,” he said. “I am much less ambivalent now. Coming to grips with your father is important to all men.”
Mordecai was a member of the Hagana, and joined the Israel Defense Forces after the establishment of the state.
In his readings of the period, Daniel learned a lot more about the War of Independence than he had known previously, and this in turn caused him to know more about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, especially as his readings included the perceptions from the Palestinian side.
The book is intentionally not political, he said. “It’s not a polemic. My book is a mosaic with many pieces. I tried to fill in the gaps.”
Israel is central to his own life, and he therefore felt a need to write the book and acknowledge his father’s participation as a reporter, an editor and a fighter.
“I spent four years researching and writing – and now I want to share what I learned.”
The biggest revelation for him in reading the letters was in discovering his grandfather, who died when Daniel was 12. His grandfather had always appeared frail, distant and disinterested in him, but in the letters he is a warm, strong “incredibly empathetic” family man.
“I think we would have been kindred spirits. I got to understand how my father dealt with his father and what he wanted from me.”
It prompted Daniel to wonder about his relationship with his own children and grandchildren, with whom he is much closer than he was with his father.
“The book opened up multiple issues and inter-generational issues, and made me much more conscious of my relations with my children and grandchildren,” he revealed.
What pleases him most is that nearly all of his grandfather’s great grandchildren are in Israel living as religious Zionists. “It’s amazing.”
Palestine Posts will be available in book stores from September 1, and will be officially launched and introduced by Jerusalem Post Editor in Chief Yaakov Katz at Nitzanim synagogue in Baka, Jerusalem, on September 22. See review, Page 39.