The POSTman Knocks Twice: B-G’s foibles, quips and dishes

He never shirked, even at giant receptions held during his visits abroad.

Ben Gurion 370 (photo credit: courtesy prime ministers office)
Ben Gurion 370
(photo credit: courtesy prime ministers office)
‘This is not a democracy!” B-G said, with a broad smile, as a dozen photographers’ flash bulbs lit up the pugnacious face and trademark puffs of hair. “This is a photocracy!” B-G was not a man to tell jokes, anyway that I ever heard, but quips, often barbed, came with oratorical skill. Often he’d repeat “This is a photocracy,” when lines of overseas contributors would be led one-by-one to get a photo shaking hands with him.
As B-G developed arthritis in his hands, it was painful for him to press flesh. “Shaking hands is a barbaric custom! In Burma they just join their hands in front of their face and bow. Much better.”
Still, he never shirked, even at giant receptions held during his visits abroad.
Barbed quips came in Knesset debate. In the 1950s, the Israel Communist Party replayed the line dictated by Moscow constantly and unchangingly. In one Knesset session, B-G countered each speaker’s criticism of his government, responding at length to all but one. To the Communist leader, B-G said, “To MK Mikunis I have nothing to say. You cannot debate with a phonograph record.” (Older readers, please explain to the young what a record was.) His great love was the Hebrew language and Bible. In unusually lyrical terms he wrote: Only when our people merge with the land and its landscape, and Hebrew “becomes its natural language in which it thinks and dreams, only to this nation will the Book unfold the secret of its heart and soul; and the soul of the Book will become one with the soul of the People.” In this rationalist’s statement, one hears echoes of Kabbalistic terminology.
When B-G was in his later years, and I a relatively new immigrant, he would vehemently correct my idiomatic spoken Hebrew. His pet peeves were words changed from their biblical sense in modern usage. In today’s spoken Hebrew “Betach” means “Sure!” Not acceptable! B-G: “You don’t say betach – you say “vadai!” Betach means safely, in security, as in “ Israel will live in safety” (Deuteronomy 33:28).
A foible. B-G wrote that he did not know Yiddish or Polish. That is inconceivable. Not in a little Polish shtetl like Plonsk. Possibly he did not know Polish as well as he did Russian, the language of the empire which then ruled Poland, but certainly he knew Yiddish; and certainly he used it as his main language of communication with his Labor Zionist comrades when he was in exile in the US during World War I.
B-G claimed he learned Hebrew at his grandfather’s knee. He certainly became a master stylist and orator in Hebrew. Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, (wife of B-G’s long-time friend and political colleague, and the second president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi), knew him from their earliest days here. Years ago she said to me: “And what a Hebrew he spoke!” Why was Yitzhak Ben-Zvi the second president of Israel and not Albert Einstein? Ben-Gurion had a profound understanding of the role of science and technology for preserving Israel and for its future. Einstein had been a Zionist since his early years, and had made an important visit here in 1923. B-G wanted the greatest scientist of his time to symbolize Israel and science. Einstein turned down B-G’s offer of the presidency.
Science was a cornerstone of B-G’s policies: Only quality can overcome quantity. His office had a special unit to support scientific research. As minister of defense, he pushed forward young colleagues (Shimon Peres is a prime example): people who would develop what has become Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Israel Military Industries, Israel Aircraft (now Aerospace) Industries and nuclear studies. All of his initiatives and those of his Young Turks have borne amazing fruit today.
He once told me that if he were young again he would have become a biologist. He was an avid reader of the monthly Scientific American, which then was not an easy read. Of his three children, he was proudest of his PhD microbiologist daughter, Renana. I once helped Renana fill out a form related to her passport application. In the space for “Father’s Profession,” she had written “Civil Servant.” Yes, B-G was the prime minister at that time.
B-G’s wife, the tart-tongued Paula, worshiped the ground he walked on, but had her own mind. One day, while I was there with some guests, B-G rushed home in mid-afternoon, ran (he never walked) up the stairs and took to bed. The blood ran out of Paula’s face. She ran out to speak to B-G’s driver. She came back shaken and said, “He doesn’t feel well.... If he should fall, what would be?”
But on another occasion, she asked me what was new? What do you tell the PM’s wife? – “Uh, my wife is pregnant.”
– “How many children do you have?”
– “This will be the third.”
– “Why so many?”
– “Mrs. Ben-Gurion, you know B-G has said we should all have 10 children?”
– “Ten children. Let him bring them up!” B-G expressed his love for her in a deep and typically Ben-Gurionic way. His book Letters to Paula and the Children was dedicated to her, with the biblical quote from Jeremiah: “Thou followed me through the desert, through a land not sown.”
He was referring to retiring to the Negev kibbutz, Sde Boker, in the Wilderness of Zin. She loyally went along, leaving Tel Aviv, friends, gossip and a very comfortable family home on what is now the boulevard named for B-G. Their lonely graves face the “howling wilderness” of the Zin Valley.
B-G was not above “helping out” around the house. The legendary US newsman Edward R. Murrow once interviewed B-G in his simple Jerusalem parlor for his TV show. In those days movie cameras, lighting and sound equipment were so cumbersome, it took much time to pack it all away.
Meanwhile, Murrow went looking for B-G to thank him again.
He found the founding father at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes.
“Ah,“ Murrow said, “If only I had my camera now. This would have made the story!” Avraham Avi-hai held senior positions in the offices of prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol. His novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams, was recently published on
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