Say Goodbye To America
03/27/98
Associate Editor
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A cardboard sign, taped to a mirror in the lobby of a Flatbush apartment house, informs old friends that “Belle Goldstein is making aliyah. Come and say goodbye.”Belle Goldstein, approaching 103 years, is moving to Israel to start a new life. Better, to culminate a life.Two roses sit on her kitchen table. The living room is strewn with half-packed books and mementos, the autumn leaves of a life well lived.She is a surviving link to two American Jewish icons: She was present at the creation of Mizrachi Women (now the 80,000-member Amit), founded by sister-in-law Bessie Gotsfeld; Belle was president through the critical years of 1944-46. And Belle’s father was a Horowitz of the famous matzah company; Aunt Regina was a Margareten.Belle is saying goodbye to America, but for too long America has been saying goodbye to the likes of her. There are precious few babies left from the storks of 1895. She remembers night streets illuminated by gaslight; someone singing “Sweet Adeline”; horses clopping through New York’s dirt roads.Imagine history from the perspective of having a birthday closer to Washington’s Farewell Address than to Clinton’s last State of the Union. In 1895, Alfred Dreyfus was in his first year of jail. Theodor Herzl had yet to call the first Zionist congress.Yet so much was the same, if only on Shabbat. “Cholent was a big thing,” she recalls. Father sang “Yom Ze Michubad,” the wine was purple and the challahs soft.She’s getting on an airplane, Sunday, but the trip began in those sepia-toned memories, spun from the gossamer of old Zionist songs. Belle’s daughter, Leona Goldfeld, 73, sits with Belle in the kitchen.Belle says there were few, if any, Zionist songs when she was a girl, “but there were, by the time of my children.”Leona recalls, “There was ‘Anu Banu Artza,’ that everybody sang. ‘We will build the land and be rebuilt by it.’ And ‘Artza Alinu.’ We have already plowed and planted, but we haven’t yet reaped.’ ”Belle adds, “And then there was the famous song we sang about Jerusalem ... ”Leona starts singing about Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus: “May’all Pisgat Har HaZofim,” and the old woman sings along. It is Friday afternoon, and mother and daughter are harmonizing at the kitchen table.Belle turns to Leona. “What about the one that starts ‘Vayulai’?”Leona sings, “Vayulai, lo hayu hadevarim, vayulai. Perhaps these things never were, it was a dream, perhaps.”“I used to have a beautiful voice,” says Belle. “But my voice now is ... My daughter has a gorgeous voice. Daddy had a good voice.” Daddy Samuel died in 1964, longer ago than it seems to their hearts. They can hear him singing still.“He had a good voice,” says Belle.“He sure did,” says Leona. “He used to daven for the amud, for the congregation, on Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur.”Two pictures hang in the living room. A painting of Rachel’s Tomb, in its elegant simplicity before military fortifications concealed it from view; and a picture of stone buildings in Tiberias, by the banks of the Kinneret.She’ll be moving, as if into those paintings. “Otherwise, I’d have to go into a nursing home, or have someone move in,” says Belle. “My daughter said to me, ‘Mother, the better part of your life was connected to an organization [Mizrachi/Amit]; all their work was focused on Israel. Come to Israel and live with me.’ I had no arguments anymore. I debated with myself, and said this is what it has to be and will be. It is what every good Zionist should fulfill: Making Israel the place you live.”The two women say that few Zionist songs were more seductive than the ethereal ones about the Kinneret.Leona begins humming “ ‘Al sfat Yam Kinneret’ ... There is a garden by the shores of the Kinneret. Someone sits there and studies. ‘Mi gar sham, rak na’ar.’ Who lives there? Only a young boy. In the silence ... he learns Torah from Elijah.”Belle looks at her daughter through thick glasses that magnify her eyes. “The thought of going has never been new to me,” says Belle. “I have one daughter that moved to Israel in 1946 — my son-in-law went to Hebrew University on the GI bill.”Belle remembers 1946. President of Mizrachi Women in the last years of the Holocaust and the first years of refugee relocation, she led Mizrachi’s building of children’s villages in Petach Tikvah, Tel Raanan and Bnai Brak. Mizrachi was particularly helpful in the resettlement of child survivors from Bergen Belsen.“It was a difficult time,” says Belle. “My first trip to Israel was in 1946. Jerusalem then looked very much as the Arab quarters do now. We went to the Kotel. Oh, this was before they opened up the big plaza after 1967. When we first went, oh, it was very narrow; you had to go almost in an alley, right up to the wall. At that time, I remember, there was no division at the Wall between men and women. It was a high wall, it seemed higher when you had to stand right up to it.”She looks at the walls of her kitchen. “I have such mixed feelings. Is it possible I’m giving up a home? Is it possible I’m uprooting myself? Is it possible? And then I say to myself, look, it’s time. It’s time I went to Israel,” says Belle. “Not everybody in my position has children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Israel, and friends. Why should I feel anything but comfortable?”The family long ago sold the Horowitz-Margareten label, but Leona tells her mother that in Kfar Gidona, the moshav where they will live, on the eve of every Passover, the villagers go out and hand-bake matzah in an oven deep in the fields. This is what the Horowitz-Margaretens do in Israel.“She’ll love it,” says Leona. “We’re right on the Gilboa [the mountain]. And we’re right near Mount Tabor. If anyone wants to watch the final battle of Armageddon, come right to my front porch, we’re right near Megiddo. We’ll see it all!”In the yard will be geese and chickens. Next door lives a shepherd girl who tends to a flock of sheep. “When my son-in-law is too busy to mow the lawn,” says Leona, “we invite the sheep over and they take care of it for us.”“My heart is torn,” says Belle. Maybe, someday in the gloaming, sitting on the porch, someone could sing her “Sweet Adeline.”

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03/06/2012 - 21:24

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