Tag Archives: Israel Prize

Jew of the Week: Amos Oz

Israel’s Greatest Writer

Amos Oz (Credit: Michiel Hendryckx)

Amos Klausner (1939-2018) was born in Jerusalem, the only child of Lithuanian- and Polish-Jewish parents. Although his family was entirely secular, Amos was sent to a religious school because the only other option was a socialist school that his parents vehemently opposed. At 14, he decided to go off on his own, changed his last name to “Oz”, and joined a kibbutz. He wasn’t fit for kibbutz work, and was made fun of constantly. Oz found solace in writing, and was eventually given permission by the kibbutz to have one day off a week to do so. After three years of military service, the kibbutz sent him to study literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University. He graduated in 1963, returning to the kibbutz to work as a teacher, and continuing to write once a week. Two years later, he published his first book, a collection of short stories. It was his third publication, the novel My Michael, that became a bestseller and thrust him into fame. (Even after this, his kibbutz only allowed three days a week to write!) Oz would follow that up with 13 more popular novels, four more collections of prized short stories, and another twelve of essays on various topics, along with two children’s books. The most famous of these is his 2002 memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which was adapted into a film by Natalie Portman. All in all, he produced some 40 books and 450 essays, with his work translated into nearly 50 languages – more than any other Israeli writer. Oz served in both the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. In 1987, he came a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University, a post he held until 2014. While often seen as the face of the Israeli left, Oz defended Israel in its military campaigns, explaining their necessity and never failing to point out the evils of the terrorist enemy. He was one of the first to speak of a two-state solution (penning an essay immediately after the Six-Day War) and was opposed to Israeli settlements, but supported the West Bank barrier wall. He admitted that Israelis have always been willing to work for peace while Arabs not so much, and said that it takes “two hands to clap”. He remained a staunch Zionist his entire life and vocally opposed non-Zionists. In these ways, he mitigated the Israeli left, trying to keep them from falling into extremes, and from getting into the habit of blaming Israel for everything. Oz worked tirelessly for peace, and some of his actions in doing so were severely criticized (like the recent letter he sent to imprisoned Palestinian activist/terrorist Marwan Barghouti). Among his long list of awards is the Israel Prize, the French Legion of Honour, the Spanish Order of Civil Merit, and the South Korean Park Kyong-ni Prize for Literature. Sadly, Oz passed away last week. The man who has been called Israel’s greatest writer was laid to rest in the kibbutz that was his home for over three decades.

Words of the Week

The story of modern Israel, as many have noted, is a miracle unlike any… It is a robust and inclusive democracy, and is at the leading edge of science and technology… What hypocrites demand of Israelis and the scrutiny Israel is subjected to by them, they would not dare make of any other nation.
– Salim Mansur

Jews of the Week: Recha Freier & Ruchie Freier

Two Trailblazing Women

Ruchie Freier

Rachel “Ruchie” Freier (b. 1965) was born in Brooklyn to a Hasidic Jewish family. In high school, she took a course in stenography and went on to work as a legal secretary. She soon became a paralegal, and was her family’s breadwinner, supporting her husband’s full-time religious studies. At 30, she realized she was working under lawyers that were younger and less knowledgeable than she was, and made the decision to go to law school herself. Juggling school, work, and raising six kids, it took Freier ten years to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science and a law degree. She passed the bar in 2006, becoming America’s first Hasidic female lawyer. Meanwhile, Freier was heavily involved in community work, and spent time as an advocate for New York’s oft-misunderstood Hasidic Jews. In 2005, she set up a charity called Chasdei Devorah to support poor Jewish families, and in 2008 co-founded B’Derech to help troubled teens. In 2016, she was elected Civil Court Judge after a tough race. That made her the world’s first female Hasidic judge. Freier also serves on New York’s Criminal Court. Amazingly, she is a licensed paramedic, too, and works with Ezras Nashim, an all-female volunteer ambulance service (a branch of the more famous, all-male Hatzalah). The New York Times has appropriately called her a “Hasidic superwoman”. Freier has won multiple awards, and was recently ranked by the Jerusalem Post among the 50 Most Influential Jews in the World.

Recha Freier

Ruchie Freier is not to be confused with Recha Freier (1892-1984), also born to a devoutly Orthodox family, in Germany. Recha Freier experienced tremendous anti-Semitism in her youth, and this inspired her to become a Zionist. Her husband was a rabbi in Berlin, while she taught in a high school and spent the rest of her time writing. In 1932, Freier was asked to help five young men who could not get jobs because they were Jewish. Freier had the idea to send the boys to the Holy Land instead to learn farming. She raised the necessary funds and organized their voyage and settlement. Thus was born what would become the Youth Aliyah. The organization would go on to save 7000 young Jews from Nazi Germany and settle them in Israel. Freier coordinated with (former Jew of the WeekHenrietta Szold to make sure the teens were taken care of in their new home. Freier herself escaped Germany in 1940 by crossing the border to Yugoslavia. There, she saved 150 Jewish orphans. All made it safely to Israel in 1941. Two years later, Freier established the Agricultural Training Center to educate impoverished children. She was also an avid musician and pianist, and in 1958 founded the Israel Composer’s Fund. In addition to composing a number of original musical pieces, Freier wrote works of poetry and Jewish folklore. In 1981, she was awarded the Israel Prize for her contributions, the State’s highest honour.

Words of the Week

If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.
– Bruce Lee

Jew of the Week: Abba Kovner

“The Jewish Avenger”

Abel “Abba” Kovner (1918-1987) was born in what is today Belarus and grew up in Vilnius (then part of Poland). As a young man, he was a member of HaShomer HaTzair, the Zionist youth movement. When the Nazis invaded Vilnius in 1941, Kovner escaped to a convent, but soon returned to the Vilna Ghetto to organize a Jewish resistance. At the start of 1942, Kovner secretly published a manifesto inside the Ghetto to inspire the Jews to fight back, writing that it was better to die than “go like lambs to the slaughter”. Along with several other young men, Kovner formed the United Partisan Organization, possibly the first armed underground Jewish group in Nazi Europe. Before they could launch their first large-scale attack, the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated in 1943, forcing the group to flee to the surrounding forests. From there, they launched a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Nazis. The small group began calling themselves “the Avengers” (HaNokmim) and were successful enough to draw the attention of the Red Army. They would go on to coordinate with the Soviets to crush the Nazis in Eastern Europe. Once the fate of the Nazis was sealed towards the end of 1944, Kovner was among the founders of a new group, called Bricha (“Escape”), which worked to get Jewish refugees out of Europe and to the Holy Land. Over the next couple of years, they would successfully move 250,000 Holocaust survivors to Israel. Having seen first-hand the horrific devastation inflicted by the Nazis, Kovner yearned for revenge. He started yet another group, called Nakam (“Vengeance”), seeking to punish Germany for the Holocaust. “Plan B” was to poison the water supply in Allied prisoner-of-war camps where Nazi SS soldiers were kept. The far more controversial and shocking “Plan A” was to poison the water supplies of several major German cities in order to kill 6 million Germans, one for each Jew lost in the Holocaust. Thankfully, Plan A was soon abandoned, though Kovner was still arrested by the British and held in a Cairo prison for several months. He did aim to accomplish Plan B, and Nakam members infiltrated a POW camp bakery in April 1946, coating the loaves of bread with arsenic. Over two thousands German soldiers fell ill, though no deaths were reported. In December 1947, Kovner joined the Haganah and fought in Israel’s Independence War as a captain of the Givati Brigade. Following this, he lived out the remainder of his life in a kibbutz, working tirelessly to strengthen the nascent state. He also helped to design several Holocaust museums, and testified at the Eichmann trial. More famously, Kovner wrote a series of poetry books (in Hebrew and Yiddish) describing the struggles he faced during the Holocaust and in Israel’s early years. This made him one of the country’s most celebrated poets and writers. For this, he won the Israeli Prize for Literature in 1970. A heavy smoker, Kovner succumbed to tracheal cancer before his 70th birthday.

Words of the Week

It is perfectly clear that the Arab nations do not want to solve the Arab refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront against the United Nations, and as a weapon against Israel… Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.
— Sir Alexander Galloway, former head of UNRWA

Abba Kovner (Centre) and his Avengers.