The POSTman Knocks Twice: You know Teddy?

Teddy played a major role in getting the Rothschild family to finance the Knesset building.

Tamar and Teddy Kollek 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Kollek family)
Tamar and Teddy Kollek 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Kollek family)
David Ben-Gurion’s face was creased into the gleeful smile of a doting father.
“You know Teddy?” he asked a visiting American. “He’s my manager. He’s a real mamzer.”
Now for you literalists, mamzer in this sense is a Yiddishism based on a legend that illegitimate offspring are brilliant. Many a doting mother has sighed over her little Yankeleh, “Oy what a mamzer-kop.” It was equal to another kvell-word, ‘minister-kop.’ And for you nit-pickers, yes, Teddy Kollek was director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office at that time. Did B-G not know the official terminology (based on British government usage)? Or did he really feel that Teddy managed all of his affairs. Teddy did all that and beyond.
As B-G’s “manager,” he made sure the government ran properly, since the Cabinet Office was under him, and B-G’s small inner secretariat cleared all major matters with Teddy. As I recall the office in the early 1960s Teddy met regularly with the directors-general of the other ministers, and telephoned them to make sure things were getting done, or to liaison. In my mind, I called Teddy Kollek “the switchboard of Israel’s government.”
He had on his staff a specialist in foreign affairs and intelligence, (in my time, the future ambassador Shlomo Argov, a brilliant and original-thinking civil servant) while his own contacts with the CIA, the State Department and British intelligence were dramatically important and secret. The advisor for Arab affairs worked for him. The Authority for Science and Development, the Great Translations from World Literature, which eventually became Keter Publishing, Voice of Israel radio, all were under Teddy’s watchful eye. He formed a Center for Information (Merkaz Hahasbara) whose film section had an important impact on the development of Israeli film production.
His relationship with important Jews in the US, Canada and Europe as well as with a formidable list of overt and covert US government and political figures was managed from a plastic Rolodex file of cards. Teddy took the time and effort to write a personal birthday card, his generous signature spread across it.
Teddy played a major role in getting the Rothschild family to finance the Knesset building. Later, when he became mayor of Jerusalem, it was his vision and power of conviction that saw them give the funds for the start of the Israel Museum. Thus the Givat Ram area went from a provincial government center with a world-class university to the beginnings of a great and world-level museum and culture center, straddled by the Hebrew University campus on the one end and the Israel Museum with its Shrine of the Book on the other.
How did he do all this? He was a born leader, a charismatic person who led by example.
Teddy started before 8 a.m. and would work through most days till late evening. Those of us who kept pace with his hours also had easy access to him. He cared for every project he led or initiated but equally cared for every one of his subordinates and multitude of friends.
He was the least formalistic of any director- general, and cared nothing for bureaucracy.
His loyalty was legend. His backing for anyone who worked with him and had earned his trust was total. He chose well, so that top people in most fields worked for or with him.
In other cases he selected young people whom he believed were worth cultivating.
When I had the good fortune to be added to his team I was still in my 20s. I was charged with overseas information. I received no more than a title from him, and had an entirely free hand in how to carve out the job description.
I reported to him regularly, and if he could not see me during the day, I would call him at home as late as 10 or 10:30 of an evening to keep him up to date.
To work for Teddy meant to work like Teddy and we knew it. Once when on separate missions to London, my colleague Uri Lubrani and I could only find time to meet at 10 p.m. at my hotel, Uri said, “If Teddy can do it so late, so can we.”
Besides Teddy’s innate charisma, stamina, dedication to Israel and personal ties with Ben-Gurion, I have often theorized about another powerful factor behind his fabulous drive. True, his Zionist father marked his fate by naming him Theodor, after the founder of modern Zionism, but there was probably a stronger immediate drive. Teddy, like his colleagues who had been back and forth to Europe before and after the Shoah, were driven by the necessity imprinted into their souls through the loss of loved ones. They had been all but helpless to save their families among the millions murdered. Creating Israel was more than an ideological mission. It was to create the only place where Jews controlled the portals of entry, where Jews would not experience dehumanization and mass murder.
Above, I have traced a few lines about Teddy in only one phase of his leadership. There is more to come, because if Ben-Gurion was the visionary prime force in creating Israel, Teddy was one of the greatest movers and shakers in realizing that vision.
Avraham Avi-hai was director of the Overseas Division in the Prime Minister’s Office under director Teddy Kollek and prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Avi-hai’s novel A Tale of Two Avrahams reflects the author’s immersion in modern Israel as well as in Jewish history.