Tag Archives: Israel

Jew of the Week: Eddie Jacobson

The Man Who Made Israel Possible

Eddie Jacobson with Harry Truman

Edward Jacobson (1891-1955) was born in New York City to Jewish-Lithuanian immigrants. The family was extremely poor, and soon set out for new opportunities in the Midwest. As a teenager, Jacobson worked in a Kansas City factory and became good friends with one Harry Truman. The two eventually parted ways, with Truman enlisting in the National Guard and Jacobson working as a salesman. Years later, at the outbreak of World War I, Jacobson enlisted in the army and happened to be placed in the 129th Field Artillery – where Truman was first lieutenant. Over the course of the war, Truman and Jacobson ran a unit canteen (where soldiers can buy goods), starting it off by collecting $2 from their fellow soldiers to get their initial stock. While most canteens inevitably lose money, Truman’s and Jacobson’s canteen actually turned a huge profit. They were able to return the $2 to all the soldiers, and eventually raised $10,000 in profits. After the war, they used some of this money to try their hand at a number of business (including the Truman & Jacobson Haberdashery), all of which ultimately failed. Truman would go into politics, while Jacobson remained a travelling salesman. Whenever he happened to be in Washington, Jacobson would make sure to visit his old friend. In 1945, Jacobson founded Westport Menswear in Kansas City and finally found success in business. Meanwhile, in 1944, President Roosevelt was running to be re-elected for an unprecedented fourth term. He realized that to win he would have to replace his increasingly unpopular vice president, and the party eventually settled on the likeable and devout Truman. The duo won the election, and were sworn in on January 20, 1945. However, Roosevelt was in failing health, and would often get severe headaches or suddenly fall unconscious. Just 82 days later, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving Truman with the presidency. Throughout this time, Jacobson and Truman retained their strong friendship, and some report that Jacobson had open access to the Oval Office. In early 1948, the Zionists were campaigning for support of their hopeful state. While Truman sympathized with the Jews, the US State Department was vehemently opposed to the creation of a Jewish state. So many Jews were petitioning Truman that he refused to hear any more of it. When Chaim Weizmann made a last-ditch effort trip to the US, Truman wouldn’t meet him. It was then that Jacobson, though reluctant and afraid to damage his lifelong friendship with Truman, approached him and said: “Your hero is Andrew Jackson. I have a hero too. He’s the greatest Jew alive. I’m talking about Chaim Weizmann. He’s an old man and very sick, and he has traveled thousands of miles to see you.” Truman relented, and Weizmann managed to convince him to support a Jewish state. While the State Department warned Truman that he would risk losing the support of Arabs, and more importantly, their oil supply, Truman replied that he would decide “on the basis of justice, not oil.” Less than two months later, Ben-Gurion declared independence, and Truman was the first to recognize the State of Israel just 11 minutes later. When Truman left the presidency, he intended to take a trip to the Holy Land, and Jacobson was planning to be his guide. Unfortunately, Jacobson died of a sudden heart attack before it could happen. The Truman Library maintains a huge collection of documents and correspondence between Jacobson and Truman (available here), and there is now a play, called ‘Eddie’, based on their warm relationship.

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Words of the Week

Hitler had been murdering Jews right and left. I saw it, and I dream about it even to this day. The Jews needed some place where they could go. It is my attitude that the American government couldn’t stand idly by while the victims of Hitler’s madness are not allowed to build new lives.
– President Harry S. Truman

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Akiva

The Greatest Rabbi of All Time?

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva in the 16th century Mantua Haggadah

Akiva ben Yosef (d. 135 CE) was born in Israel to a poor family in the last years of the Second Temple, possibly the grandson of converts to Judaism. Despite being unlearned and impoverished, he fell in love with Rachel, the daughter of one of Jerusalem’s wealthiest men (and his employer). Rachel agreed to marry Akiva on the condition that he would eventually go to study. Her father rejected her choice, and the couple lived in extreme poverty. Finally, aged 40, Akiva enrolled at the yeshiva of Lod, without even knowing the Hebrew alphabet. He returned home only twelve years later, but upon nearing the door of his home, overheard his wife say to a neighbour that if it were up to her, her husband would study for another twelve years. Akiva thus went back to Lod for another dozen years, by the end of which he had become a renowned rabbi with some 24,000 students. This time, he returned home to a huge procession and an adoring crowd. His wife tried to get through and was blocked by his students. Rabbi Akiva famously told them: “Leave her alone, for what is mine and yours, is hers.” His father-in-law recognized the huge mistake he had made, and ended up leaving his fortune to the sage. Rabbi Akiva is credited with setting the foundations of Judaism as we know it. He completed the codification of the Tanakh, and commissioned Aquila of Sinope to produce a new accurate translation of the Torah into Greek – an indispensable tool for the Jewish majority at the time. He helped to quell a number of heretical movements, and ensured the survival of traditional Judaism in the face of the new Christian sect. Some even see him as one of the earliest feminists: it was Rabbi Akiva that banned the practice of separating women from society during their days of menstruation. He also spearheaded the abolition of both slavery and capital punishment in Israel. Rabbi Akiva taught that the most important Torah principle was loving your fellow, and unraveled new techniques in Torah interpretation. (One legend has it that God showed Moses a vision of Rabbi Akiva’s future classroom, and it was so deep that Moses did not understand any of it and began to cry!) Rabbi Akiva also participated in the Bar Kochva Revolt in an attempt to re-establish an independent Jewish kingdom and rebuild the Holy Temple. Unfortunately, the revolt failed with catastrophic results. All of Rabbi Akiva’s students perished. The rabbi was able to find five new students and transmit the Torah to them before his own cruel death at the hands of the Romans. This act is sometimes credited with saving Judaism from extinction. One of those five students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the traditional author of the Zohar, and the first to publicly reveal the vast mystical dimensions of Judaism. (These teachings he learned from Rabbi Akiva, who was such a great mystic himself that the Talmud states he was the only sage to ascend to the Heavens and return to Earth unscathed.) Rabbi Akiva set the stage for the compilation of the Mishnah, and its eventual evolution into the Talmud. His kindness was legendary, as was his love for Israel – both the nation and the land. He died defending both, being flayed with iron combs by the Romans. He prayed until his last breath, which stunned both his executioner and his students, who asked how he was able to praise God at such a moment. His reply: “All my life I was worried about the verse, ‘[to love Him] with all your soul’ …And I said to myself, when will I ever be able to fulfill this command? And now that I am finally able to fulfill it, I should not?” He then recited the Shema, and just as the last word “echad” left his lips, his soul departed his body. Some scholars title him “the father of Rabbinic Judaism”.

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Words of the Week

One of the gifts of Jewish culture to Christianity is that it has taught Christians to think like Jews… Any modern man who has not learned to think as though he were a Jew can hardly be said to have learned to think at all.
– Lord William Rees-Mogg

Rabbi Akiva’s Tomb in Tiberias, Israel