From LIONESS by Francine Klagsbrun. Copyright © 2017 by Francine Klagsbrun. Reprinted by permission of Schocken Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.
THE MAKING OF A
by FRANCINE KLAGSBRUN
Born in Kiev in 1898, Golda Mabovitch immigrated to America in 1906 with her mother and two sisters. Her father had come earlier and settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he worked as a carpenter to bring his family over. Like many other immigrant Jewish children, Golda attended the public Fourth Street School, and by age eleven stood out as a leader to be reckoned with.
Golda’s first “public work” was organizing a group of schoolmates to provide textbooks to poor children. Accounts of that episode, like many narratives of Golda’s childhood, have an almost mythic cast, often told and repeated. Untold, however, is the background for this narrative, the real issue that prompted Golda’s actions and the recognition those actions received.
Although Milwaukee public schools charged no tuition, students were required to pay for their textbooks. Traditionally, they bought secondhand books or received them from older siblings, but in the spring of 1908 the textbook committee of the Milwaukee school board began a review to determine which texts might be outdated and in need of replacement. The very idea of replacement, which meant that children could no longer count on used books in those subjects, set off a firestorm of protest from parents and politicians. For months, newspapers carried editorials and news stories on the topic, sometimes allotting them equal space with pieces about the presidential hopefuls William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan.
Despite controversy, on June 3 the full board accepted the committee’s recommendations to replace eleven books. With school opening in September, The Milwaukee Journal noted that there had been 146 applicants for free books by people who could not afford new ones, 80 of the applicants from the “Russian Jewish section of the Sixth ward,” Golda’s neighborhood.
To young Golda, the situation called for action. With her friend Regina’s help, she rounded up a group of girls and formed a club with the ambitious name American Young Sisters’ Society to raise textbook money for the following year. Club members sent out invitations to their entire district announcing a public meeting and somehow managed to finagle a small hall for the event. On the scheduled Saturday evening, with dozens in attendance, Golda “said a speech from my head” explaining the purpose of the group. Afterward, she recited two Yiddish poems, “Der Schneider” (The tailor) and “Die zwei Korbones” (The two sacrifices), followed by little sister Tzipka, known now as Clara, who also recited a Yiddish poem. Their parents beamed with pride, while a sympathetic audience contributed generously to the cause.
For her, the prospect of office work was “worse than death.”
“We had the greatest success that there ever was in Packen Hall. And the entertainment was Grand,” Golda boasted in a letter on August 2, 1909.
A month later, a news story about the group appeared prominently in The Milwaukee Journal. It carried the headline “Children Help Poor in School” and the subhead “Little Sisters’ Society Is Well Organized.” The project “was organized Dec. 5, 1908, at 623 Walnut St.,” the paper said, giving Golda’s address. “The children are not of rich parentage... To every child, perhaps, the 3 cents a week that constitutes the dues, means some little childish wish unfulfilled.” With the money collected, the children had bought fifteen books and, after taking applications from parents, distributed them to the neediest. Coincidentally, advertisements surrounding the article offered children’s socks on sale for “7 cents” and shoes for “95 cents,” reinforcing the value of the children’s three-cent-a-week contributions. At the end, the column listed the members and officers of the club, with “Goldie Mabowetz, president,” and Clara Mabowetz a member. An accompanying photograph showed thirteen serious-looking young girls and the notation that “President Goldie Mabowetz is in top row, fourth from right.”
Here, at age eleven, was the earliest glimmer of Golda Meir’s formidable lifelong skills at organizing and fund-raising — and attracting public notice.
Meanwhile, Golda continued her studies at the Fourth Street School and in 1912 graduated valedictorian of her class. At the ceremony, she noticed her father’s “moist” eyes as he looked at his middle daughter in her white graduation dress. Her grandfather had barely been literate, and here she was, the first member of their family to graduate from school. But the tender moment passed quickly. She had expected to go on to high school, then study to become a schoolteacher. Bluma had other expectations. Golda could go to a secretarial school, as her friend Regina was planning to do, and learn to type so that she could find an office job. Moreover, Milwaukee did not permit schoolteachers to be married. Did that mean, Bluma harangued her, that Golda wanted to be an old maid? In later years, Golda would speak warmly of her mother and quote her frequently as a wellspring of maternal wisdom. Colleagues rolled their eyes when they related anecdotes that she told and retold about the older woman. When she was a young girl and the family very poor, one story went, she would refuse to wash the dishes for fear something would break. But once, when her mother was ill, Golda had to do the dishes. “Goldele,” her mother said after that, “now you really should be beaten, because if you didn’t know how to do it and you didn’t, that’s one thing; but you did know and you didn’t do it. For that, you ought to be hit.” The adult Golda admired the lesson behind the story and found it worth repeating often, especially to her staff.
The teenage Golda considered her mother’s lessons a burden and the rejection of her school plans intolerable. For her, the prospect of office work was “worse than death.” To make matters worse, her father backed her mother, preaching his own lesson in practicality: It doesn’t pay to be too clever.
Men didn’t like smart girls.
Golda persevered, no less driven than her mother or sister to get her own way. Defying her parents, she enrolled in North Division High School on September 3, 1912. ■
Francine Klagsbrun, a columnist for the Jewish Week, has written more than a dozen books, including Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She also edited the best-selling Free To Be You and Me. Her latest book is Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel (Schocken, 2017).
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY JSONLINE
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