‘I am a Palestinian Jew’

‘I am a Palestinian Jew’

Margalit Lichtman Edelson recounts a life of historic proportions

At 93, Margalit Edelson of Caldwell has written her first book.

She’s a widow, mother, and grandmother; she’s a retired day-care center owner and teacher. Her book’s a memoir, so you’d expect tranquil reflections on a long life well-spent. You’d gird yourself for some life lessons.

You would be wrong.

“I Am A Palestinian Jew,” Ms. Edelson’s memoir, is in large part an action story, told entirely in the present tense, of a childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood spent in an explosive region, in a country just about to be born, a place of luminous hope propelled by unimaginable pain.

It’s also a very real place, Ms. Edelson’s Palestine; she looks back on an early life that was both idealistic and extraordinarily reality-based.

She begins in 1930, with her birth. Her mother, Dvora Cantor Lichtman, came from Pinsk, in what at times was Poland, and at other times Russia. “She didn’t really talk about her family, especially after the Holocaust,” Ms. Edelson said. “She belonged to a Zionist youth organization, and she went to Palestine with them. She was 14.

Toddler Margalit Lichtman stands between her parents.

“She told me that her sister, who probably was older, gave her a thin blanket, and said, ‘You’ll need it in Palestine.’ That’s how I realized that she came from a very poor family.

“That was the last time she ever saw them.”

Dvora was supposed to go to a kibbutz, but she wasn’t interested, so instead she found a job in Jerusalem.

Ms. Edelson doesn’t know when her mother was born. She’d never say. She knows just two things. She knows that her mother got to Palestine at 14 — but she doesn’t know when that was. And second, once, when her mother was lying in Hadassah Hospital, eyes shut, mouth shut, and Ms. Edelson’s sister answered the question about their mother’s age by saying 75, Ms. Lichtman suddenly woke up. No, she insisted, she was 65. So go know…

Her father, Shalom Lichtman, from Russia, “came from an eventually middle-class family; sometimes they were quite wealthy, but the Communists took care of that.” He was a printer; eventually his clients included the poet Chayim Nachman Bialik, who “became a friend of my father’s,” Ms. Edelson said.

With the straightforward realism that characterizes her book, Ms. Edelman writes about her mother’s labor. She talks about how the doctor and the nurse at her bedside — the only staff available — focused on her mother, both before and after her birth. “I don’t know who is tending to me while all this is going on,” she writes.

Well okay then!

As she is today, at home in Caldwell.

“I don’t know how my parents met,” she said. “There are no pictures of the wedding.” There was just one photograph of her parents; they’re on either side of her, when she was a toddler. That’s the way things were then, she said. There was no time for sentimentality, not just in her home, but in Mandatory Palestine.

Shalom Lichtman’s parents, Mordechai and Chava Lichtman, also got to Palestine, after their son but before the Holocaust. Mordechai, like his son, was a printer.

The family spoke Hebrew. “It was a requirement,” Ms. Edelson said. “My grandfather said to my father, ‘You are living in Palestine. The Holy Land. Yiddish is the language of the Diaspora.’

“Hebrew is my native language,” she continued. “I learned Yiddish, though, and I went to a school that was sponsored by a British Jewish organization.” That school — which still exists today — the Evalina de Rothschild School for Girls — was Orthodox, and the Lichtmans were not, although Mr. Lichtman’s parents were. But Ms. Edelson’s mother believed that her girls — she eventually had two daughters and a son— should be able to speak English. “She realized that it would help us as we grew older,” she said. “In order to go to that school, you had to go to another school first; you had to be able to read Hebrew and do basic math. That was for two years. If you were admitted — and it was not easy, being admitted — you went to a preparatory class for a year, where a little English was introduced. By the time you got to what we called the first class, it was all in English.”

She started in that first school when she was 5 years old; by the time she was 9, she was at the Rothschild school.

This is one of the rare photographs of baby Margalit Lichtman.

“The beginning was very hard,” she said. But by high school, a teacher she loved helped her appreciate reading in English. ‘It was wonderful. I owe it her that I love to read English books as much as I love to read Hebrew books.”

Her grandfather opened a printing plant, called Tfus Hatchiya. “It was quite big,” Ms. Edelson said, and her grandparents lived near it, in a valley that since has become upscale but wasn’t back then.

When she was born, “we lived on Abyssinian Street, which now is called Ethiopian Street,” she said. “It was a very old Arab house, and it was beautiful, but there was no bathroom and no kitchen. Just two big rooms, with very thick walls; it was cold in the winter but pretty good in the summer.” Other people lived in other rooms in the house; there were communal bathrooms, and water came from a well out back. This was not communal living on principle, though; it was what was available.

Her father eventually opened his own small printing shop in the center of Jerusalem, where he produced business cards, fliers, and other such ephemera; her mother was at home with the kids.

As her childhood and adolescence continued, life seemed on track. Nightmare history unfolded outside Palestine, but the Lichtman kids and their friends had relatively sheltered childhoods. But history has a way of intruding.

“My school did now allow its students to join any youth organizations,” Ms. Edelson said. “Some of my friends did join them anyway. It’s what you did on Shabbat. They would have afternoon meetings and dances. But the only thing that the school allowed was the Girl Guides” — remember that this might have been an Orthodox school in Jerusalem’s Old City, but on the other hand it also was English — “and that didn’t appeal to me or most of my friends.

“And then I was recruited to join the Etzel. The Irgun. The Underground.” This was in 1942 or ’43, she said; she was either 12 or 13.

Jews rushed for cover as British military police officers quelled a riot in Jerusalem in 1939.

“In order to be recruited, you had to be referred by a member. My best friend already was a member. I didn’t know that at the time. But she recommended me, and as things went along I realized that. Her parents were very connected to the Irgun. Their home was open to Irgun members.

“We were constantly warned that we had to keep it secret, that you can’t disclose it to anyone, so at first I didn’t tell my parents. When I went to a meeting, I said I was going to study with a friend. But eventually I did tell them, and they supported me.

“My father was very much in favor of what the Irgun was doing.”

They’d meet, and most of the time they’d talk. But then “we had an assignment. It was to put Irgun fliers on billboards.

“Our leader told us that there were some unmarked police cars with license plate numbers that she knew, and she said to look out for them. If they” — the police, who were British — “saw any glue on a billboard, they’d know what we’re doing, and try to catch us.

“At one point, she said she saw a car with one of the license plates. She said that she would take the glue and the posters and hide them in the park.

In 1948, citizens of the new state of Israel watched the Altalena burn.

“She said she’d meet us in an hour.”

She never came back.

“She was raped by three men,” Ms. Edelson said. They were British military police officers. The young woman survived the attack, at least physically, but it ruined her life. It took Ms. Edelson and the other girls in her group years to learn what had happened; it shook them, terrified them, and enraged them.

Ms. Edelson’s work with the Irgun culminated in the Altalena affair. That was the tragic fight between the Irgun and the IDF — between Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion — that ended with 19 deaths, the boat’s exploding and sinking, and then a cessation of hostility, if not of ill will, between the two groups.

She prefers not to tell the story in detail here — it’s in her book, she says — but it’s dramatic.

“I Am A Palestinian Jew” ends with the story of the Atalena, but hers was just starting. She went to law school at the Hebrew University — it was an undergraduate degree back then — but after her third year, friends convinced her to spend the summer in the United States.

Troops search a ship carrying Jewish immigrants in Haifa in 1948.

They were Baptist missionaries; they talked her into visiting one of the families in North Carolina, and then Kentucky. That’s when the missionizing started — but it didn’t take. One of them “put me in a room, and said just relax, and see how you can connect with Jesus. I couldn’t connect with Jesus. I didn’t feel threatened — but I didn’t connect.”

From there — and still Jewish — Ms. Edelman went to Chicago, and then to New York. She decided to stay for the summer, and then for a year, and then she’d go back and finish law school, she told herself. She went to work first for the Jewish Education Association. “At my interview, I was asked ‘Can you do shorthand?’ And I said, ‘No, but I can write really fast.’

“So he dictated something really fast, and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and I felt like my hand was falling off, but then he took it and he looked at me, and he said, ‘No one has ever said that to me before.’

“Therefore, you are hired.”

After a few months, she heard about a job at Camp Ramah in the Poconos; when she asked  the man at the JEA who hired her for a temporary leave to go to camp, he said: ‘Margalit, I am looking at you like you were my own daughter. I’d say yes to her, so I’m saying yes to you.’

“It was wonderful,” she said. She became Ramah’s dance instructor.

After camp was over, she stayed to staff a meeting for adults. The music teacher introduced her to a “guy who wants to meet the dance instructor from last year.” Instead, he met Margalit.

A view of old houses in Jerusalem in the 1940s.

Later that night, they took a boat out on the lake. “It was a beautiful experience,” she said. “There were other people out in other boats. It was calm; the sky was clear, the stars were bright. We were singing Israeli songs.”

Soon, that young man, Ken Edelson, “became my husband,” she said. They got married at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, where Margalit still belongs today.

Ken’s parents, Leon and Esther Edelson, lived in West Caldwell, where they were very active in the Jewish community.

Margalit and Ken Edelson had two children and five grandchildren; three live in Arizona, but two of them are close by, in Woodcliff Lake.

Ken Edelson died in 2007.

Margalit Edelson looks back at her long life, which she began as a Palestinian and for many decades she has lived as an American. But, she says at the end of her book, “I am a Palestinian Jew because I was born in Palestine. But more importantly, I am now an Israeli Jew.”

And then, at the very end, after looking back at much conflict, she looks forward, even now, with hope.

“Peace with the Palestinian Arabs…is still elusive,” she concludes. “The greeting, ‘hi,’ ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye’ is ‘Salam’ in Arabic, ‘Shalom’ in Hebrew — peace. Hopefully, some day in the future, Salam and Shalom will shake hands, hold hands together, bringing real peace to the area.”

We can’t overlook the value of hope born from long experience.

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