Hassia Yehuda gives credence to the saying that 90 is the new 70. Resilient, active and opinionated, she witnessed in her youth some of the seminal events in the history of modern Israel, spent almost 60 years living in the United States, and returned to Israel three years ago.
On a recent Friday morning, I visited Hassia in her Jerusalem home as she recounted the fascinating details of her full and active life. Though we have a long acquaintanceship, since she is the mother of my wife, there were many parts of her story that I had never heard.
Hassia Subar was born in 1932 at Bikur Cholim Hospital in Jerusalem. Her parents lived in Haifa but went to Jerusalem for her birth because her mother’s family had been living in Jerusalem for six generations, and she needed their assistance following the birth. Shortly after she was born, the family returned to Haifa, where Hassia lived with her parents and her older brother, Elitzur. Life in Haifa was pleasant, and she recalls the view from their apartment porch into the bay, where they could see the ships arriving in the port.
The tranquility of her life was shattered in June 1940 when Italy bombed the Haifa oil refineries. “I knew that war was coming,” she recalls. “People were building shelters in buildings and homes.” Hassia was in a school building, waiting for the school nurse to administer eye drops. “We were waiting on the porch of the school, facing the bay,” she explains, “and I saw two planes coming from the west. I saw something drop, I heard an explosion, and the siren sounded.”
Hassia ran home and breathlessly told her mother, “Bombs! War!”
Families had already begun to leave Haifa, and Hassia’s parents decided to move to Jerusalem.
“Everyone said that Jerusalem was the safest place to be,” she says.
There were few apartments to be had, but one of her aunts found a small apartment on Or Hachaim Street in the Geula neighborhood.
“In those days,” she explains, “Geula was a mixed neighborhood. It was not haredi, and both religious and non-observant people lived there.”
Jobs were scarce, and Hassia’s father did not find steady work for a year until he purchased a grocery store on Shmuel Hanagid Street, located in the center of Jerusalem.
Hassia began her high school studies in 1946. Although she was too young to serve in the Hagana, she helped fill sandbags and acted as a courier, delivering messages from Hagana headquarters in Jerusalem to outlying outposts on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Hassia’s brother joined the Hagana at age 16 but did not tell his parents about his clandestine activities.
“Whenever Elitzur had to go for a few days on an assignment,” she says, “he would say he was going on a tiyul (hike) with the school.”
On November 29, 1947, excitement mounted as the UN voted on a plan to divide the British Mandate territory of Palestine into two states – one Jewish and one Arab. Recalling the partition vote, Hassia smiles and says, “We were sitting next to the radio, listening to the vote. Everyone was calculating the numbers. By the end, we knew we had enough votes. All the youth ran to the Jewish Agency and KKL [Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael] headquarters, and we danced in the square until morning.”
Immediately after the passing of the resolution, the Arab militias placed a siege on Jerusalem, blocking and ambushing the roads linking Jerusalem to the rest of the country. Water supplies were cut off, and water rationing began in May.
“People had very little to eat,” says Hassia. “There was no chicken, no meat and no fish.”
Jerusalem residents began cooking hubeiza (wild mallow), an edible green plant that grows in abundance throughout the city.
“My aunt would prepare vegetable cutlets with hubeiza, and people would make soup and salads with it,” she says.
Soon the faucets were dry, but ancient cisterns were used to store rainwater.
“My uncle lived in the Knesset neighborhood,” recalls Hassia, “and they didn’t have water. They had a big jar at home, and when the cisterns were full of rainwater, it was blocked with cement so no one could take water from the pit. Two people would come and open the cistern, and people in the neighborhood would come and receive their water ration.”
Though there were no newspapers or phones, says Hassia, word came on Friday, May 14, 1948, that David Ben-Gurion was declaring statehood. “Mimeographed newsletters were printed with the news, and some had shortwave radios.”
Everyone was ecstatic to learn of statehood, she says, except for her mother, who was worried about her son, stationed in the Old City, where fierce fighting with the Jordanians was taking place. Later, they learned that Elitzur had been captured by the Jordanians. He was released some nine months later.
In the spring of 1950, Hassia was looking forward to finishing high school and joining the Nahal IDF group with her fellow Bnei Akiva group members.
Tragically, her father died suddenly on the first day of Passover.
“I couldn’t leave my mother,” she says, and she put her plans on hold. She helped her mother in the grocery store and took classes at the nearby Hebrew University branch during quiet periods in the store, studying English and Hebrew literature.
Hassia loved music and began her studies at the Academy of Music, where she studied piano, voice and conducting. She taught music in two schools and the music conservatory. In the summer of 1957, she was invited to provide teacher training courses in music to educators, where she met her future husband.
“It was summer, and it was hot, as there was no air-conditioning then,” she recalls. “The doors were open, and you could hear every word of the lectures.”
Hassia recognized the voice of one of the speakers. It was Rabbi Zvi A. Yehuda, who was well known to the Israeli public not only for the Torah classes that he presented on the radio but also for his work writing portions of the Kehati Mishna commentary. “He came into the office,” says Hassia with a smile, “and the rest is history.”
Leaving and returning
HASSIA AND Zvi were married in 1958 and lived in Bat Yam. In 1960, they went to New York with their infant daughter, Rachel, for a two-year stint in the US as shlihim (educational emissaries). Rabbi Yehuda taught at Flatbush Yeshiva, and Hassia taught at the Shulamith School for Girls. When the two years ended, the administration persuaded Zvi and Hassia to remain for another two years.
In the summer of 1964, Hassia was preparing to return to Israel. Like most returning Israelis, she had purchased her share of household items to bring back to Israel. A representative from the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies came calling, offering Rabbi Yehuda a professorship at the college for a five-year term. Hassia and Zvi reasoned that becoming a college professor would improve his résumé when they returned to Israel, so they accepted the offer
What had been planned as a brief interlude in Cleveland turned into a 30-year sojourn that lasted until 1994. Two more children – Talli and Yechiel – were born in that period. Zvi completed his PhD in Talmud at Yeshiva University and enjoyed a distinguished career at the College of Jewish Studies, while Hassia taught Hebrew school and music.
In 1992, the couple moved to Cincinnati, where Rabbi Yehuda was a visiting professor and a congregational rabbi. After becoming empty nesters in 1994, they journeyed southeast to Orlando, Florida, where Rabbi Yehuda became a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Florida.
In 2001, they retired to Boca Raton, Florida. Rabbi Yehuda taught a weekly Bible class and the daily Talmud class at the Boca Raton Synagogue, and Hassia taught classes in Hebrew poetry.
Rabbi Yehuda died in 2014, and Hassia moved to Israel in October 2019.
Israel has changed
ISRAEL HAS changed dramatically since 1960, and Hassia is uniquely qualified to address those changes.
“People speak Hebrew incorrectly,” she says. “When I speak Hebrew, people say to me that I am speaking ‘Ivrit shel Shabbat,’ which means a higher level of the language, because I don’t make grammatical mistakes.”
On the other hand, she notes that businesses treat their customers with a greater level of courtesy than they once did. “People got the message that being polite is good for business,” she says.
Recalling her life in the United States, Hassia reveals, “I enjoyed life in America and made many friends, but I never felt I belonged there. I knew I belonged in Israel.”
The difficulty was not in leaving America, she notes, but in the process of packing and moving, which she had to do on her own.
Sitting in her Jerusalem kitchen, she says, “When I pray, and I say the words “and there we will go up and will appear before you,” I want to say thank you because it is no longer a wish – it has come true. I am very happy just to be here. I am home.” ■