Life Lessons

As we approach the 100-year anniversary of the US entrance into WWI and the Balfour Declaration, I keep thinking of Abraham and Sophie Steinberg.

There are very few people left who actually knew my Grandpa Abe and Grandma Sophie — and that is unfortunate.

Although my maternal grandparents have now been gone for many years, they left an important legacy. Their story is especially relevant in these tense and emotional times.

At a relatively young age, Abe decided to leave Poland so as to avoid yeshiva and make his way to the United States.  He was not anti-religious. He simply did not want to be a rabbinical student. Also, he could not stand living in Poland with its intense anti-Semitic atmosphere. In fact, for the rest of his life, he never identified himself as Polish.  Sophie and her family came from near Kovno, Lithuania and recalled hiding from the Cossacks who terrorized the Jews in her town.

Abe and Sophie each arrived in this country as teenagers a little over 100 years ago.  Like many immigrants, they ended up in New York City and took whatever jobs they could get to support themselves. Abe painted houses and worked other manual jobs. Sophie was a seamstress.

Not long after arriving in the US, Abe met another young Jewish immigrant and, through that friendship, became an ardent, modern religious Zionist.  In 1917, at the start of WWI, Abe was a young man who needed a job. He volunteered to serve in the US Army and fought in the Battle of the Argonne Forest. When I was young, he would often share a room with me when he visited–and he used to tell me about how tough it was to stand in the trenches even when the water was, at times, shoulder deep. During one battle, a piece of shrapnel broke the glass in his gas mask. As a result, he was injured just above the eye and inhaled mustard gas. He was awarded a Purple Heart. The damage to his lungs persisted for the rest of his life.

He was a dedicated Zionist.  Even while in the trenches, he collected funds from his fellow Jewish soldiers to assist Jews in the Holy Land.

After the war, Abe and Sophie were introduced through a mutual friend. Soon they married, started a family and began saving money with one goal in mind — buying land in and moving to Mandatory Palestine in order to rebuild our ancestral homeland. Well before the Shoah (Holocaust), they knew that the Jewish people needed a country of our own.

They were active in the Zionist community in New York. They knew many of the leaders of the Zionist movement during the time of the British Mandate — including David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir.

Eventually, they acquired land for a Jaffa Orange orchard near Bat Yam and for a home in Ra’anana. For emphasis, I note that they purchased their land in both these places. They moved there with their two sons in 1930 to join the other early inhabitants of Ra’anana. They built a modest stucco home with a red tile roof.  A short time later, my mother, Miriam Steinberg, was born in the hospital in nearby Ramat Gan.

We were fortunate to stay in that home for two months during my first trip to Israel in 1968.

It was a hard life, but by all accounts, they were happy to be a part of the rebuilding of the land. Unfortunately, the worldwide economic downturn during the 1930s also hit Ra’anana and because my grandfather was a landowner, he was not able to join the Histadrut (the labor union). As a result, he was not able to earn enough money doing other work while the orange trees matured.

Thus, they rented their home in Ra’anana and moved back to New York in 1938 to earn some money and return soon afterwards. World War II began within a year and their desire to return to their home in Ra’anana was postponed for years.

In the United States, they owned a series of small stores/ luncheonettes and sometimes lived just upstairs.  My uncles served in WWII and my mother grew into adulthood in New York.  Abe was quite patriotic, marching with other veterans from WWI and WWII (and later Korea) on Veterans Day.

Abe and Sophie never bought a house in the US because they knew they had a house in Israel to return to…Eventually, Abe and Sophie made it back to Israel…spending their later years there together with their long-time friends.  Grandma Sophie passed first, in 1967, not long after the Six-Day War.

Grandpa Abe was there waiting for us when we arrived for that first visit to Israel and the house on Rechov Borachov.  There were beautiful orange, plum and apricot trees in the backyard and the biggest carnations blooming in the front.  It is no surprise that carnations are one of my favorite flowers.  I will forever associate the smell of carnations with Israel.

Grandpa Abe would pick oranges before we awoke and squeezed orange juice for us each morning–by hand.  We picked delicious apricots and learned how to make whistles out of the seeds from the children in the neighborhood (a skill I have long since forgotten).

That year, we were also in Israel for Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (25!), a profoundly moving one for our father who had survived the Shoah. In the evenings, we would often walk the short block to Ahuza Street for falafel or a dessert.

It was also where we heard of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination by a Palestinian Arab, upset with RFK’s pro-Israel views. Interestingly and tellingly, this tragic episode is mostly absent when discussing the history of the conflict.

I formed a strong bond with Israel that summer and on subsequent trips. It has not diminished. In fact, it has only grown deeper and more layered as time has passed.

Soon, on December 17th, it will be Abraham Steinberg’s 120th birthday. Although the house was sold long ago and apartments were built there (in what is now a thriving suburb of Tel Aviv), Abe and Sophie are still there, off to the right, down the second or third row, not far from the entrance to the old cemetery in Ra’anana.  We still check in on them each time we go to Israel.

In this day, when too many are critical and conflicted regarding their feelings toward Israel and our Jewish heritage, Abe and Sophie taught us by their actions. They were never wealthy — they lived simple, yet rich, exemplary lives.  They worked hard for many years for what they had–but they were not bitter people. Although neither had a college education, they were wise in the ways of the world. They also understood how to balance religious observance with hard work in the secular world. Word had it that Sophie made excellent shrimp salad–but she never tasted it!  She also made terrific gefilte fish–and I remember grinding the fish with her during one of her visits from Israel.

Each day, after davening with Talit and Tefilin, Abe took his brisk morning constitutional (just like Harry Truman) and performed a few of the other exercises he learned as a soldier so many years earlier.  As young kids (and later as teenagers) we were amazed at how much work he could get done–and how sparkling he was able to get various pots and pans and silverware. It was with Grandpa Abe (in his mid-seventies) and my father that we planted the maple tree 40 plus years ago that now towers over our family’s backyard in St. Louis. Hard work never intimidated him.

Abe and Sophie also taught us that there is no conflict between a patriotic American and a committed Zionist!  As a result of our many family discussions, I know Abe saw imperfections in both Israel and the USA (they still exist) but he saw beyond them and believed strongly in both.

They understood what it meant to be proud, affiliated, observant Jews and contributing members in the modern world.  They saw no inconsistency between love of the USA and Ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel).

As we plan our visit to Israel next year, where we will see our family and friends there, these ideals are on our minds. We cherish these values and we hope that our children (and one day, their children) will pass them forward to future generations.

Thanks Grandma and Grandpa…We’ll be stopping by soon.

About the Author
Josh Schonfeld lives with his family in Potomac, Maryland. He is originally from St. Louis, Missouri. He has served as a board member for a number of Jewish communal organizations and is an active member of the community.
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