Veterans: High on pride

The first difficult years after making aliya didn't deter children's book author.

pnina moed kass 300 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
pnina moed kass 300
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
On the wall of her Herzliya apartment, next to framed pictures of poems by Yehuda Amichai and an Andy Warhol-like portrait of herself, Pnina Moed Kass has framed and hung a Hebrew crossword puzzle.
It’s not too hard to guess why.
“I was one of the clues,” says the 74-year-old ex-New-Yorker who came to Israel in 1968.
And the clue? “Who is the author of the children’s book series ‘Berele’?” With nine “Berele” books to her credit plus a novel for teenagers, Real Time, which won the 2004 Sydney Taylor award for Jewish Children’s Literature, the author is living proof that Anglos can make an impact in the literary field, even with only a superficial knowledge of Hebrew.
In fact, Pnina’s first book was submitted to Keter publishing company in Hebrew but written phonetically in the English alphabet.
“What do you call that? asks the dynamic writer who is short on height but very large on personality. “Chutzpah? More like dementia,” she laughs. Either way, the book was accepted and she went on to write another eight.
The mother of three boys, she got the idea for a book about a snail when she used to find copious numbers of them in her boys’ trouser pockets. She gave one a name – Berele, a personality – “He’s small, hesitant and shy – but a penchant for really trying.”
In one of the stories, Berele, who is the slowest creature in the neighborhood, offers to deliver the mail. Because he is so slow it piles up and he just can’t cope, until he has a bright idea. He puts all the mail around him and invites the neighbors to come and pick it up.
He muddles through, with creativity and initiative, not unlike his creator, who came here in 1968, a young mother with a six-month-old baby, no Hebrew and nothing much to keep her going except a passionate love for Israel, at the time all of 20 years old.
“I wouldn’t for any amount of money relive those days,” she says now.
It wasn’t just the hard conditions – making her own baby food, washing the cloth diapers by hand – but the feeling of being a total outsider.
“For an Anglo, or any foreigner, to try and adjust to the closed Israeli society around you was very difficult,” she says. “They had all been together, in kindergarten, school, the army – and one had no sense of any of those things. With no one to help you, it was sink or swim. I swam – survived – because I really wanted to stay.”
She also encountered total non-comprehension from the Israelis she met at the fact that she had left America, the “goldene medina,” to come and live in Israel at that time. But for her it was the right decision. The only thing she really missed, setting aside the physical hardships, was being able to communicate on a level she was used to – and having “a good literary conversation.”
Living initially in Ramat Gan, she picked up Hebrew from the corner grocery store and talking to other pram-pushing mothers in the street. And there were good things too in those days.
“I immigrated before Rav Bariah [door locks],” she says. “You left your front door open and there was always a pad and paper at the entrance so friends could let you know they had called if you weren’t in. Of course there were very few phones then.”
Looking back on the Israel of 1968, there was an enviable simplicity about life then.
“Every morning at 6 on the radio there was an exercise program and you could hear it pouring out of the different apartments,” she recalls. “Everyone had a transistor radio and people used to walk along the street with it glued to their ear. You always had to know what was going on.”
Eventually she broke through the language barrier and remembers with affection the neighbors who understood her problems and provided a helping hand.
She gave birth to another two sons and once they were all in school she began to think about work.
In New York, after earning degrees in art history and political science, she had always worked in writing. She wrote for the Metropolitan Opera News and lyrics for songs but once she knew she was moving to Israel she earned a teaching certificate, knowing – or at least believing – that she could never write in Israel.
She began teaching high school English.
“That was an education – for me,” she recalls. “They stood up when I walked in the room.”
Her three sons are now 43, 41 and 39 and all live here.
“If they dare leave I’d stand at Ben-Gurion Airport and barricade the exit,” she laughs.
Today when she goes to the to collect one of the six grandchildren at preschool and she sees the children nudge each other and whisper that she is the author of the Berele books, it’s a great high for her.
That and being a clue in a crossword puzzle.