Avraham Avi-hai reflects on his exceptional career in public service

Publication Date30 Dec 2020
Optimism certainly characterizes Toronto-born Jerusalemite Syd Applebaum, better known to readers of The Jerusalem Report and the world at large as Avraham Avi-hai.

We interviewed Avi-hai, who turns 90 on January 23, at his home in Jerusalem's Yemin Moshe neighborhood, where he lives with his wife, Henrietta. He was quick to tell us that he entered Yemin Moshe "before the millionaires discovered it." Several times in the course of our interview drilling by workmen drowned out the conversation, sometimes causing Avi-hai to stop mid-sentence. After the noise died down, he unfailingly returned to where he had left off.

"I am aware that my knees are 90, but the rest of me is young," he said, laughing. We needed no proof that his brain was in good working order.

He was highly alert, with an unhesitant flow of sharp responses to our questions, except for when the drilling made conversation impossible.

Three weeks after our interview, Avi-hai celebrated the 68th anniversary of his arrival in Israel on December 28.

He said he came from a Zionist family of "very Jewish, Yiddish-speaking" Polish immigrants. His father arrived in Canada in 1925, and his mother and two sisters followed two years later.

His grandparents lived with them. Although the family was not entirely Orthodox, they were close to Shabbat observers. In fact, looking back, Avi-hai could not remember anyone in the Toronto "ghetto" who did not keep kosher.

From Canada to Canaan

While there are several Jewish day schools in Toronto today, they did not exist when Avi-hai was a boy, so after regular school he went to an afternoon Talmud Torah. All the teachers were Mizrachi or Hapoel Hamizrachi and imbued their students with a deep sense of Zionism, in addition to whatever they received at home.

Active membership in a pro-kibbutz, religious-Zionist youth movement, a sense of the revival of Hebrew through Israeli songs and his Jewish pride further fired by stories of the exploits of the Jewish pioneers in the Holy Land all had a deep influence on him. The Holocaust was felt deeply and personally in his home.

He still has memories of his mother sitting with the family photo album and saying, "This is uncle so-and-so and cousin so-and-so – all gone." He later learned that his maternal grandmother was shot on the forced march to Treblinka because she was old and could not keep up. Also, the fact that the Jews in the pre-Israel Yishuv were fighting the British to bring survivors to Mandatory Palestine added to the impetus for a young man from Canada to follow the biblical injunction to leave his father's house and land of birth to head for the biblical Canaan.

Avi-hai has a visceral hatred for the Poles as they were then, and his perception of the Polish government today is that it is "unrepentant." The Poles, he said, have neither sufficiently admitted involvement in murdering Jews nor have they adequately restored Jewish property – both private and community – something that rankles with Avi-hai.

"At least the Germans tried to do something," he said. "Germany has admitted guilt, educated about the Shoah and paid out tens of millions of dollars in pensions to Holocaust survivors and billions to Israel."

While Avi-hai was still in the youth movement in Canada, a fellow member – a pretty young girl by the name of Hannah Adinah (Anne) Spiegel – caught his eye. She was no less passionate about Zionism and joining in the building of the nascent Jewish state than he was. Coincidentally, they were born on the same date, only a few hours apart, and were barely 19 when they married.

Two years later, after a volunteer stint with his youth movement in Los Angeles, they moved to Israel. The Avi-hais (or the Applebaums as they were then) headed for Kibbutz Kfar Darom (now B'nei Darom) in the south of the country. He worked mainly as a construction laborer, and Hannah – being the female newcomer – was put on kitchen duty for the first three months.

One Thursday night, Avi-hai was making his rounds on guard duty while Hannah was all alone in the kitchen preparing for the Shabbat meals. She opened the refrigerator and removed the chickens, which had been slaughtered by the kibbutz shohet (ritual slaughterer) that afternoon. The modern, labor-saving devices that are intrinsic to both industrial and private kitchens today did not exist in Israel in the early 1950s. Plucking chickens' feathers was done by hand.

Upon reaching the warm room temperature, the chicken she was about to pluck expelled air from its lungs. The sound was like a squawk. When Avi-hai returned from guard duty, his distraught new immigrant wife was spooked: "The chicken squawked. It's still alive!"

Many people around the world who found jobs in the 1950s stayed in those positions for the whole of their working lives. Not so Avi-hai, who not only changed employers, but also changed employment. If anyone can say, "Been there, done that," he can.

He did not stay on the kibbutz long ("Too bucolic for my temperament!") before transferring to Jerusalem, where he has lived for 67 years.

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