Henrietta Szold: A Hero’s Life – Book Review

World War II was raging in Europe and the Red Army was advancing on Berlin, but the front page headlines in all the Hebrew newspapers in pre-state Israel on February 14, 1945, and for several days after, were about the demise. by Henrietta Szold.

Carrying his coffin to the burial were Chaim Weizmann, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and Judah Magnes. In attendance were David Ben-Gurion, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Uziel, representatives of the British High Commission, Christian and Muslim officials, diplomats and thousands of people from all walks of the Yishuv, from university professors to kibbutz members, teachers and nurses, and hundreds of children of the Aliya of Youth. It was the largest funeral ever seen in Jerusalem at that time.

Szold lived a heroic life. Born in Baltimore in 1860 to Hungarian Orthodox Jewish immigrants, many of her contemporaries dismissed her as an over-educated and highly accomplished Jewish American woman, and she was certainly underrated. Despite this, she boldly founded Hadassah in 1912, the largest Zionist women’s organization.

In 1920, at the age of 60, when most people were about to retire, he left for Palestine and vigorously assumed the health and education portfolios of the Jewish National Council of the Yishuv. In 1933 he founded Youth Aliyah, the agency for the rescue and resettlement of Jewish children from the war years.

This scholarly and fascinating biography of Szold ingeniously crafted by Professor Dvora Hacohen of the Department of Modern Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University is a window into Szold’s somewhat tormented soul; in his many unrecognized accomplishments during his years in the United States; and in the celebrity status he earned in Israel. (Did you know that Mother’s Day in Israel is celebrated on her birthday?)

Hacohen’s biography of Szold is at the same time a window into the early precarious years of the Jewish community in pre-Israel Palestine, including its abject poverty, the many Arab riots it suffered, its internal disputes, its punishing suffering under the British. and more. (Living in Israel today, it’s hard to believe how backward and private the Yishuv was only 100 years ago. The book is worth reading just for this vivid description of the Yishuv’s tribulations!)

Hacohen draws on Szold’s voluminous personal diaries and extensive global correspondence (she is the first scholar to have investigated them) to reveal the pains, anxieties and many hard-fought career victories of the pioneering leader, as well as her depressing personal world. He never married, which was a source of frustration throughout his life. In fact, Hacohen suggests that a crushing romantic rejection in 1909 was the catalyst that, after a significant period of depression, led Szold to “open a new chapter in his life,” founding Hadassah a few years later and beginning 30 years of constant travel. to and from the United States and Palestine.

Szold’s accomplishments in America are even more impressive, as in those years the role of women in public life, including Jewish community life, was relegated to “the back of the bus.” It played a central role in the development of the Jewish Publishing Society of America around the turn of the century and was part of the orbit of scholars at the Jewish Theological Seminary. But in both places, he was paid only a pittance, and his name was omitted from many articles he wrote, edited, and translated (aside from an occasional “HS” in the endnotes).

It was only in the pre-state Yishuv in Palestine that his indomitable drive for humanitarian and welfare work was finally recognized.

Hacohen’s book tells the stressful story of the first nurses and doctors Hadassah sent to Jerusalem; the child welfare clinics that Szold pioneered (“Tipat Chalav,” who dominates child care in Israel); from the network of educational, agricultural and health institutions that it raised funds and built for during the decades leading up to 1948; and the way Szold handled intractable problems between religious and secular Jews and between Jews and Arabs.

He insisted on equal access for all, a principle that underlies the work of Hadassah medical centers in Israel ever since.

In his later years, despite health problems and chronic financial concerns, Szold devoted himself to helping desperate German Jewish parents who wanted to send their children out of Germany after Hitler’s rise. He toured the country to convince kibbutz leaders to house these children and help them adjust, while persuading reluctant British diplomats to allow 30,000 unaccompanied children rescued from the clutches of the Nazis and the Nazis into Palestine. horrors of the Holocaust. And he raised the funds for this, including transportation costs, thus founding the Youth Aliyah network.

It was during her research for a previous award-winning book on the Aliya of Youth that Professor Hacohen was drawn to the story of Szold’s epic but harrowing life. “What I discovered,” writes Hacohen, “was the figure of Henrietta Szold in all its richness and depth, as well as the winding path she followed to the top of 21st century Jewish leadership.”

And yet, on his deathbed, Szold had a bitter vision of his own leadership accomplishments. She told her close friend Judah Magnes that “I lived a rich life, but not a happy life.”

David M. Weinberg’s column on diplomatic, political and Jewish affairs has appeared weekly in The Jerusalem Post for 25 years.


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