When Harry Met Eddie

Did the relationship between Harry Truman and Eddie Jacobson really lead to Israel’s creation?

08/30/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
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Were it not for Eddie Jacobson, a Jewish haberdasher from Kansas City, the State of Israel might never have come to be. So contends Mark Weston in his play, “Harry & Eddie: The Birth of Israel,” which traces Harry Truman’s decision to recognize the fledgling Jewish state to his long-time friendship with Jacobson. Directed by Bob Spiotto, the play has its premiere Off Broadway next week at St. Luke’s Theater in Midtown. Rick Grossman, Dan Hicks and Lydia Gladstone are all in the cast.

“Harry & Eddie,” which runs 90 minutes with no intermission, attempts to hew closely to historical fact. The play begins with Jacobson’s father’s decision, not long after arriving in New York from Lithuania, to give up sewing garments on the Lower East Side and start a new life as a milkman in Kansas City. Jacobson (Grossman) and Truman (Hicks), who were from the same neighborhood, first met in 1917, when the future president was the commanding officer of Jacobson’s army brigade at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. After the war, they went into business together, opening a fashionable men’s clothing store in Kansas City.

When the store failed two years later, Truman went into politics. Beginning as a local judge, Truman was elected senator, then replaced Henry Wallace as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s running mate in 1944, and finally ascended to the presidency when FDR died less than three months after the start of his fourth term, while the Allies were liberating the Nazi concentration camps.

Jacobson remained a close friend of Truman’s, and a frequent visitor to the White House. Although he moved away from his Orthodox upbringing and became a Reform Jew, his interest in Jewish peoplehood intensified in the wake of the Holocaust. As Jacobson learned of the plight of the Jewish refugees, he pleaded with Truman to help. As Jacobson says in the play, “How many more yahrtzeit candles will be lit?”

Truman, who ended the Second World War with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had resisted pressure from Rabbi Hillel Abba Silver to formally recognize the State of Israel, citing his distaste, as the play has it, for “pushy” Jews. But Jacobson, the play suggests, was instrumental in getting Truman to sympathize with the Zionist cause. The play builds to a climactic scene in which Jacobson, accusing Truman of being “hard-headed,” prevails upon him to meet with chemist and Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. The meeting convinced Truman to recognize Israel on May 14, 1948.

Weston is a former actor who turned to writing after he contracted Bell’s palsy in 1970. He is the author of numerous plays, including “Bagels and Luck,” about a Jewish family in the Bronx that hosts a movie star for dinner after their son wins a magazine contest, and “The Sacred Trust,” about the relationship between Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis and Judah P. Benjamin.

“Harry & Eddie,” which was first written in 2005, has been performed as a staged reading throughout the country, featuring either Ed Asner or Eli Wallach in Jacobson’s role. It was last performed in 2008 at Hofstra University as part of a celebration of Israel’s 60th birthday. This is the first time that the play will be performed as a full production.

While Margaret Truman wrote in a biography of her father that a “great deal of myth and exaggeration has been wrapped around” Truman’s meeting with Jacobson, and that the idea that the two maintained a close friendship is “absurd,” Jacobson’s friendship with Truman has been well documented by historians. Indeed, David McCullough, whose biography of Truman is considered the most authoritative, calls them “fast friends.”

Truman’s wife, Bess, was, however, openly anti-Semitic; when talk show host David Susskind conducted a series of televised interviews with Truman in 1961, he asked why their conversations needed to take place on the porch of the Truman home in Missouri. According to historian Michael Beschloss, Truman explained that “This is Bess’ house,” and Jews were never granted admittance.

How pivotal was Jacobson’s role in getting Truman to recognize the State of Israel? Weston described his play as the story of a “traveling salesman who befriends a man who becomes a president, and through this friendship a nation is born.” In his plays, Weston said, “I like to find things underneath the rug that are hidden or not known and bring them up.”

Ronald Radosh, the co-author, with his wife Allis, of the critically acclaimed book, “A Safe Haven: Harry Truman and the Founding of Israel” (HarperCollins), views the story as more complicated. Radosh told The Jewish Week that there were “lots of players behind the scenes” who influenced Truman. Radosh asserted that a number of people played prominent roles in convincing the White House to buck pressure from both the State Department and Defense Departments to reject the United Nations’ plan for partition. These included a Reform rabbi, Arthur Lelyveld, and a prominent attorney, A.J. Granoff, both of whom accompanied Jacobson on some of his visits to the White House.

“The play may exaggerate Jacobson’s role,” Radosh said, “but “Jacobson did play a role” — one that is especially impressive in light of the fact that he spent his own limited resources to travel back and forth from Missouri to the White House. “He had all these Zionist agencies enlisting him to work for them, but he didn’t take any money from any of them,” Radosh noted. “He was really honorable and principled.”

Their book tour, Radosh said, took him and his wife to cities and towns throughout in America. In every audience, he recalled, someone would inevitably get up and ask about Jacobson. “The most non-political person knows about Eddie Jacobson,” he said. “Everyone wants to hear about a Jew who influenced the president.”

“Harry & Eddie: The Birth of Israel” opens on Thursday, Sept. 8 at St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W. 46th St. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 p.m., Thursdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets, $36.50-$59.50, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.

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