Letters from here to there

The ‘Post’ talks with Zipporah Porath, who witnessed the birth of the state firsthand.

Zipporah Porath (photo credit: Courtesy)
Zipporah Porath
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As indebted as we are to Josephus, Herodotus, Barbara Tuchman and Sir Martin Gilbert, said celebrated historians from across the centuries are just that – they researched events of the past and delivered their learned and reasoned understanding of history. But Zipporah Porath’s delightful tome Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948 is not the result of some painstaking exploration of a particular period. It is a collection of epistles sent while the events were taking place, and which were corporeally and emotionally experienced, and even contributed to, by the writer herself.
Now a feisty 90-year-old resident of Ganei Tikva, near Tel Hashomer, Porath arrived in Palestine in October 1947. In terms of timing one’s arrival to coincide with momentous historical events, Porath hit the jackpot.
Porath came from a religious Zionist New York family. Her father, Samuel J. Borowsky, was a prominent Zionist and well-known Hebrew scholar who founded Young Judaea, and his then- 24-year-old daughter had just completed a journalism degree at Hunter College in Manhattan. She was active in Zionist youth groups and had a job at the National Jewish Welfare Board producing promotional material for Jewish community centers, as well as other material that was distributed to Jewish chaplains serving around the world with the US Army.
Unbeknownst to Porath, her father submitted an application in her name for a one-year Zionist Organization of America scholarship to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“My father was a leading Hebraist, and I knew Hebrew, which was one of the conditions for getting the scholarship,” Porath tells The Jerusalem Post. “He sent in an essay I’d written on the need for a Jewish state, together with the application.” The composition obviously did the trick, and Porath was asked to attend an interview.
The whole thing was like a bolt out of the blue, she says. “Every Zionist thinks, hopes and dreams of going to Eretz Yisrael, but not tomorrow. No one was more surprised than me when I was asked to attend the interview, and then when I was accepted. It was the last thing on my mind. As I said, every Zionist expects to go [to Israel], but not today or tomorrow – sometime in the future. It was August and I was due to leave in September. I had to make a decision in a hurry.”
SURPRISE NOTWITHSTANDING, Porath duly grabbed the opportunity to spend a year here with both hands. “I wasn’t going to turn down an offer of a year’s tuition and a visa to British Mandatory Palestine, was I?” she says. “It was very difficult to get a visa from the British. The only institutions that were eligible to offer a visa were the Technion and the Hebrew University.”
Little did Porath know, but she was soon to witness the materialization of the subject of her essay from very close, and tangible, quarters.
The temporary sojourn soon turned into hands-on involvement in the rapidly developing pivotal changes taking place in the Middle East, and Porath found herself completely on board as the State of Israel came into being and the security situation became ever more precarious.
Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948 is a self-explanatory title. The first correspondence home is dated September 28, 1947, shortly after Porath set sail from New York harbor, and the last was written on November 29, 1948, exactly one year after the fateful United Nations vote which led to the creation of the new State of Israel. Porath was an avid writer, and a skilled one at that, and the 99 letters she wrote home during the 14-month period offer a compelling and dynamic eyewitness account of events as they unfolded.
The voyage to Palestine lasted two and a half weeks, and the youngsters on board had fun together, irrespective of ethnic background. “There were Jews on their way to study at the Technion and the Hebrew University,” says Porath. “There were Jewish veterans of the US Army, who took advantage of the GI Bill to go to Palestine to study. And there were also Arab Americans, who were also using the GI Bill to go to the American University in Beirut.”
It seems the Jews and Arabs on the ship had a grand old time of it. “We get on a boat with Arabs, and we talk about everything except for religion and politics,” Porath explained. “There were no seats, and we were back-to-back and stomach-to-head. It was a troop ship, just a slab of gray. We were very friendly. There was an Arab named Eddie, and I taught him a Hebrew song and he taught me an Arabic one. By the time the Arabs got off the boat in Beirut, we all said we’d meet in Jerusalem. No one had any idea of what was happening [in the Middle East].”
However, Porath and her shipmates got their first inkling of political divides when the ship docked at the Lebanese capital. In Porath’s first letter home, which was written over the course of the trip to Haifa, she noted: “the ship… finally arrived in Beirut.
We had to remain on the ship overnight in Beirut – there were no shore passes for Jews, who are strictly taboo in Lebanon.”
“That’s when it hit us,” Porath tells the Post. “It was very unsettling.”
THE NEXT letter was sent from Haifa, on October 13, 1947, and Porath is elated to have finally made it to Palestine. She opened with “I keep pinching myself to make sure that I am really here,” and notes in the closing paragraph that she is due to join some people for dinner: “my first meal in Palestine and my first decent one in two days. I have been too excited to eat.”
Although Porath noted that she had to withhold certain information in her ongoing correspondence, because of the eagled-eyed mail censors, she talks about the evolving political and security situation quite openly. The book also contains letters which were secretly taken back Stateside by friends, and which were not vetted. Just a few days after taking up university accommodation on Mount Scopus, Porath already noted that the British were not keeping order, and mentions that members of the Irgun Zva’i Leumi strung up a banner on the corner of Jaffa Road and King George Avenue protesting the UN Partition Plan for Palestine.
By November 1947, things had deteriorated to the point that Porath advised her parents against sending parcels or any postal item that entailed her having to go to the post office to collect them as it meant venturing into unsafe parts of Jerusalem.
Porath is blessed with a keen sense of humor, and between the descriptions of political and security machinations, she talked about the absence of standard Western creature comforts, even noting in the letter home that one student “sent an SOS to America for food, plus, of all things, shower curtains.” Ever the pragmatic young lady, Porath observes in her letter that “what this country needs is not so much shower curtains as a law against outhouses without toilet seats or sewage disposal.”
Porath’s November 30, 1947, missive opened with an emotive account of the reaction of the Jews of Palestine to the previous day’s UN vote in favor of the creation of a Jewish state. “I walked in a semi-daze through the crowds of happy faces, through the deafening singing of ‘David Melech Yisrael Hai Hai V’kayam,’ past the British tanks and jeeps piled high with pyramids of flag-waving, cheering children,” she wrote.
EVENTS BEGAN to gather pace. “Within weeks, the university campus on Mount Scopus was inaccessible, classes were suspended, tension mounted, studies abandoned,” Porath recalls today. “Arab hostilities began in earnest, tension mounted and most of the American students packed up and went home while they were still able to leave.”
But Porath was not about to abandon the rocking ship. “Only a handful of us stayed on,” she continues. “We felt it was time for Zionists to stand up and be counted by taking an active part in the Yishuv’s struggle for survival and independence.”
In December 1947, Porath took a decisive step in that direction when she joined the Hagana. She went into great detail about her recruitment and the brief induction ceremony in a letter she sent home with a departing student. Cautioning her parents and sister that the letter was “only for your information,” she related how, while sitting in Café Brazil, a Jerusalem student hangout of the day, she was passed a note in which she was asked “if I would do my share to help defend Jerusalem.” She described the swearing-in ceremony, which took place at Rehavia High School, as being “in the best cloak-and-dagger tradition, and very impressive.”
She was soon sent on a clandestine 10-day basic training course, which was followed by an intensive first aid course. It transpired that the latter instruction came not a moment too soon. On February 22, 1948, Porath was awakened by “a shattering explosion at about 6:45 this morning… It seems the damn British, or Arabs dressed in British uniform, drove up in three lorries filled with explosives, which they set off in the center of Jerusalem’s downtown.”
Over 50 people were killed and around 120 were wounded in the blast, and Porath quickly swung into action. “… waving my Magen David Adom armband I somehow pushed through the cordons to the stricken area on Ben Yehuda Street,” she wrote two days later. She quickly set up a first aid station. “I drew a big Magen David Adom with my lipstick. Before I knew it I was in business… There was plenty to do.”
Porath survived plenty of hairy moments over the following months, endured the bitter cold of the Jerusalem winter without heat and with precious little to eat, and had to scrounge paper for her letters as best she could.
She had her down times, especially when convoys en route to besieged Jerusalem were attacked and stopped, but she always retained her sense of humor and weathered it all.
SHE ALSO put her nursing skills to good use in the War of Independence. Early on in the war, she was stationed at Deir Yassin, an Arab village which is now part of Givat Shaul. Despite being an ardent Zionist, Porath was clearly not of the opinion that all means were justified in achieving the goal of a secure Jewish state. “Only a week before I came to Deir Yassin, more than 200 Arabs, including Iraqi irregulars but also innocent men, women, children, dogs and mules, had been killed there, wiped away with a callousness that clogs the mind with its incredibility,” she wrote home on May 9, 1948. The attack was carried out by the Irgun and the Stern Group. The killings were subsequently condemned by the Hagana leadership, and the Jewish Agency sent a letter of apology to King Abdullah of Jordan, which he rebuffed.
She missed hearing the radio broadcast of David Ben-Gurion proclaiming the creation of the state at the Tel Aviv Museum, as she had no electricity “light years away in Jerusalem.”
After tending wounded soldiers and dodging bullets for over two months, Porath eventually got a break from her fragile existence in Jerusalem. But when she did get away to Tel Aviv, she found it was hard to leave Jerusalem behind. “It’s 6:00 in the morning and I’ve just awakened from a very bad nightmare in which there was shooting and shelling, hunger and thirst, blood and tension and unbelievable bravery,” opened her June 22, 1948, letter. “I looked around and saw a cosy hotel room with a private tub. I listened to the honking of bus horns and neighbors on a nearby balcony arguing. I stared at the ceiling. I’M IN TEL AVIV!”
A month later, Porath was inducted into the IDF. By August she had been transferred to the air force and stationed in Haifa, where she helped to establish medical services for the fledgling IAF.
ONCE THE War of Independence finally ended, Porath returned to the States to visit her family and to wind up her affairs before returning to Israel permanently. Her Stateside sojourn ended up lasting over two years, during which time she served as assistant to Israel’s consul general in New York, and married Lt.-Col. Joseph Porath, Israel’s assistant military attaché. The wedding took place at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and was attended by ambassador Abba Eban and best man Chaim Herzog, later to become the sixth president of Israel.
In addition to Letters from Jerusalem, Porath wrote a biography of Col. David “Mickey” Marcus, a West Point graduate who played a pivotal role in the War of Independence and was tragically killed by a new-immigrant Israeli sentry by mistake. Porath has traveled the world to relate her firsthand experiences of the inception of the State of Israel.
Nigh on four decades after they were lovingly dispatched to her parents and sister back home in Borough Park, New York, Porath came across her communiqués, which had been carefully collected and stored away by her mother. “I found the letters 40 years after they were written,” says the nonagenarian. “I had no idea they had been saved.” Thankfully, Mrs. Borowsky had taken the trouble to stash her daughter’s letters away, and now we can be privy to the 24-yearold’s experiences in “real time.”
The book was first published in 1987. There have been two more English editions, and one in Hebrew. “I have sold thousands of copies,” says Porath, “and now you can get it on the Internet.” If you want some idea of what it felt like to live through the dramatic events surrounding the creation of the State of Israel, Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948 is a must read.
Print copies of the book have run out, but it is available in an Amazon Kindle e-book edition, at