This letter, describing the evening of the UN vote for partition, was written by my father the following day in Jerusalem. Mordecai Chertoff made aliyah from New York in 1947 and promptly joined the staff of The Palestine Post, later renamed The Jerusalem Post. He was also secretly inducted into the Hagana.
His press credentials, which gave him carte blanche to travel all over Jerusalem, across British roadblocks and security zones, was invaluable to the army. Being both a soldier and a journalist enabled him to be extraordinarily well informed.
He began his tenure at the Post as the foreign news editor, but as a result of a laudatory piece he wrote about a Palmah operation, was “adopted” by the Palmah and became a war correspondent. He accompanied the Portzim unit of the Palmah and wrote about many of their operations.
My father’s family was intensely Zionist and had spent a year in Mandatory Palestine in 1935-1936 when my father was 13. My grandfather, Paul Chertoff, escaped Russia in 1900 and was an Orthodox rabbi. Although religious, he adored secular literature and Western culture, and would go on to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University on Thomas Carlyle, and a doctorate in Hebrew Literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he taught Talmud for many years.
Throughout the War of Independence, my father carried on an active correspondence with his parents and siblings back in the US. He saved their letters and they saved his. I collected, edited, contextualized and annotated this correspondence in my book, Palestine Posts: An Eyewitness Account of the Birth of Israel (Toby Press, 2019). Most of the correspondence is in English, but the letters between my father and grandfather are in Hebrew – beautiful Hebrew written with beautiful penmanship. (Left-handed, my father believed that he was destined to write in Hebrew.)
Throughout their correspondence, it seems that neither was capable of writing more than a couple of lines without a biblical or rabbinic allusion. Both men lived and breathed Jewish religious texts and had no doubt that redemption was nigh and that the State of Israel would come into existence and thrive.
MY FATHER’S description of the night of the UN vote for partition is one of the most beautiful and moving in the correspondence. It is four pages long, in Hebrew, and was written in a single sitting – without the benefit of word processor, editing, erasers, etc. It is a long, coherent, emotional account of the hours following the vote. It describes the factual events, the important historical figures and the jubilation felt by the Jews of Jerusalem. This was an experience he could only express in Hebrew.
My father quotes extensively from the Torah, from the prophets, from the High Holy Days’ liturgy, from Zionist thought and poetry, and from other Jewish sources. The correspondence throughout the period of the war frequently compares the birth of Israel to the exodus from Egypt and, like the Haggadah of Passover, which includes many types of sacred Jewish writing, my father tapped a variety of Jewish sources to describe the rebirth of Jewish nationhood. This English translation is by my daughter, Rachel Kaminetsky.
Marking important historical events every year is fundamental to Judaism. Not satisfied with simply telling the stories, our holidays reenact them – leaving Egypt, receiving the Torah, camping in the desert. This is how history is inculcated and made personal. When I was writing my book, journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi observed that Jewish history is made up of memories. Jews have an historical consciousness and personal family experiences are inextricably bound up with Jewish history.
Having a vivid, eyewitness account like the night of the UN vote helps us experience that incredible event and the emotions it generated. My father’s accounts have become my memories. By publishing them, I offer them to everyone, to make them their memories.
In a recent editorial for The New York Times, columnist Bret Stephens writes that “[Israel is] a young and improvising state resting atop an ancient and profound civilization. At the heart of the civilization is common memory… Memory is the true land of Israel.”
The writer is the author of Palestine Posts: An Eyewitness Account of the Birth of Israel (Toby Press, 2019). Before retiring, he worked in various capacities in the investment industry in both the US and Israel. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Arlene.