American import

Caught in the events of history, Ziporah Porath made her life here.

Zipporah Porath will never forget the night of 29 November, 1947. Porath - then Zipporah Borowsky - and nine of her pajama-clad colleagues had crowded around a beaten-up battery radio in a student's room to hear the United Nation's vote from New York about the Partition Plan to create a Jewish and an Arab state. For Porath, a passionate Zionist who had left her native New York for a year of study at Hebrew University, the vote was "a dream come true." Upon hearing the news, she and her friends shared ecstatic hugs and kisses, made toasts with wine and sweets, and sang "Hatikvah" like soldiers. They were soon celebrating with other jubilant Jews in the streets of downtown Jerusalem. "I walked in a semi-daze through the crowds of happy faces, through the deafening singing… past the British tanks and jeeps piled high with pyramids of flag-waving, cheering children," wrote Porath the following day in a letter to her parents and sister. "I dodged motorcycles, wagons, cars and trucks which were racing madly up and down King George V Street, missing each other miraculously, their running boards and headlights overflowing with layer upon layer of elated, happy people. I pushed my way past the crying, kissing, tumultuous crowds and the exultant shouts of "Mazal tov" and came back to the quiet of my room... to try to share with you this never-to-be-forgotten night." As Porath, who today lives in Givat Savyon, reads this letter - one of many published in her book "Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948" - her voice still quivers and her eyes become moist. The series of vivid, personal letters, which she discovered in a dilapidated folder following her mother's death in 1986, have brought her back to these historic moments. The letters also touch on another issue close to her heart - the significant contributions that overseas volunteers in Israel's War of Independence, or Mahal, made at the time. Porath, whose father Samuel J. Borowsky was well-known for promoting the study of Hebrew language in North America, came to Israel on a Zionist Organization of America scholarship in the fall of 1947. But the 22-year-old soon found herself caught up in the war. The hostilities began immediately after the UN approval. History was being made and Porath was determined to witness and record the most thrilling and terrifying details in letters for her family back home. While most Americans chose to go home, Borowsky said she and some of her American friends remained to "stand up and be counted." "I wasn't going to be caught leaving these guys to defend my Jewish homeland," the feisty octogenarian and grandmother of four said from her Givat Savyon apartment this week. "They didn't count us in. We were American. They didn't believe for a minute any of us would stay." But she did and when her friends challenged her about her decision to come to Israel, Porath took them on one by one and gave them a piece of her mind. Israel is a country for all Jews, she told them, and she had just as much right to be there as they did. Americans, she argued, bring not only coffee and instant cigarettes, but valuable assets such as education, training and a democratic tradition. It was not long before Porath was recruited into the underground Jewish defense organization, the Hagana. In a dark basement of the Rehavia High School, she was sworn in and questioned by three men - whose faces she could not see - sitting at a table draped in a Jewish flag. "Then confronted with a Bible and a pistol, I was sworn in: a simple, powerful, pertinent pledge. Only a select group had been chosen, those whose background, loyalties and attitudes had been quietly investigated, and I was proud to have passed muster," she wrote in a December 1947 letter to her parents. She guarded her neighborhood and carried hand grenades, strapped under her bra, to other Hagana members to circumvent British inspections of male officials. A local boy caught with arms could be punished by death. Nicknamed "Zipporah Ha'america'it" (Zipporah the American) she earned a reputation for her skill and resourcefulness. One of their trainers nicknamed his gun "Zipke" after her. She was a good markswoman and helped train other women to handle their weapons. And when the trainer mentioned that "Zipke" would attend an event, it was a code for members to bring their arms, she said. But Porath soon realized that she was more interested in treating the wounded than carrying arms or doing guard duty, and began training as a medic. After the triple-vehicle explosion that destroyed much of Ben Yehuda Street and killed over 50 people on 22 February, 1948, she took her Magen David Adom banner to the site the next day and insisted they let her through despite the locals' reservations about her American-accented Hebrew. When she couldn't find any First Aid stations, she took her lipstick and created a Magen David Adom star in a sheltered doorway. Soon, she was collecting disoriented children looking for parents at the scene, helping rescue workers tend to their cuts and bruises and finding shelter for displaced persons. That was the day, she said, that she stopped referring to the local Jewish population as "them" and started saying "we." "Are there words to describe senseless human tragedy?" she wrote in a 24 February, 1948 letter to her family. "Will I, can I, ever forget this day? I am becoming like the Jews who live here: every shock and sorrow nurtures them to grim restraint and fierce dedication." The mood in Jerusalem was desperate, she recalls. The city itself was isolated by a more than two-month siege that started in April, and residents struggled with lack of food, water, electricity and a discontinuation of mail services. Porath was posted at front-line First Aid stations. She worked at Deir Yassin (now Givat Shaul) after the Hagana took over the village from paramilitary groups, the Irgun and the Lehi, who had killed over 100 villagers. "It was terribly haunting for me," Porath remembers. "They were removing bodies. I had to set up a First Aid station, go to Arab homes, take beds, take things and make it all useful. You have to numb your head out. I was thinking of my patients (at the Hagana infirmary at Deir Yassin) who would need these things and not these people that would have no use for them anymore. "And that switch in my head is what I continue to do all my life here. You can't be on two sides of the fence. You are either with it or against it." When the fighting stopped, Porath was assigned to the Army Publications Department to research and collect material for a book on American West Point colonel Mickey Marcus. In late 1949, Porath planned to return to the States for a short visit but ended up working as executive secretary to Arthur Lourie, the Israeli consul general in New York, for a year. While acting as hostess at a reception in honor of the first Israeli foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, she met Joseph Porath - Israel's then assistant military attache and her husband to be. They married at the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C. and future President Chaim Herzog, who was then military attache, served as best man. She very proudly shows photos of the wedding - "the first diplomatic event of its kind" - that hang on the wall in her study. The couple returned to Israel in 1952, settled in Tzahala and had two sons. One son is currently working in America and the other lives in Israel. They later moved to upscale Savyon. Over the years, Porath has worked as a freelance writer and editor, a translator and a publications consultant, and has written children's books in both Hebrew and English. Her book "Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948" has been quoted repeatedly in historical accounts by Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill, and Gilbert has also written the foreword for her book. The final letter in Porath's book, written one year after the UN approval of the Partition Plan, is also included in "Letters of the Century" by Dial Press, together with letters from Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and John F. Kennedy. [see box] Today, Porath is optimistic that things will work out for Israel because they have to, she said, and because "she has witnessed too many miracles in her lifetime to believe otherwise." During the interview, it is clear that she prefers to think about her past exploits and the hopes she had then, rather than discuss today's realities. And she tells her stories with enthusiasm and idealism, almost completely undimmed by recent events, unfulfilled dreams or even on-going political corruption. There is nothing "post" about Porath's views or conclusions, and she can still relive the atmosphere and youth she represented so poignantly in her letters to her family. She says that Israel is "still fighting for the right to exist," but despite these challenges, the country has reached great prominence in the fields of technology, medicine and science. As a representative of World Mahal, overseas volunteers from more than 40 foreign countries who fought in Israel's War of Independence, she attended the peace signing ceremony in Jordan in October, 1994, just steps away from the table where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein were sitting. She has also been instrumental in helping educate Israelis and others around the globe about World Mahal. Recently, she spoke at the dedication of an Aliyah Bet and Mahal Museum in Gainesville, Florida. "We count here, people count here in Israel," she says. "Not what you own, not what you have. It was more so before, but now we still count... You can count as an individual. All you have to do is make your own way. Put yourself forward and do what you can... That hasn't changed." Autographed copies of Porath's book "Letters from Jerusalem: 1947-1948" are available in either Hebrew or in English for NIS 70 by contacting her by phone/fax at (03) 635-1835 or by email at