A Heroine for All Seasons

unlikelyheroine

How one Jewish woman’s story reminded me why I opt to live in Israel during violent times.
by Naomi Ragen

Book selection: An Unlikely Heroine: Esther Calingold’s Fight for Jerusalem by Asher Calingold (Valentine Mitchell, 2000)

Great books are born in great times.  The same must be said of great reads.  A book that touches our lives at a particular moment when we are wounded or stranded or lost is a book we will never forget.

Such is Asher Calingold’s simple, heartfelt book: An Unlikely Heroine,  the true story of his sister Esther, an Orthodox feminist who left her birthplace in London to journey to the fledgling Jewish state in 1946 where she died defending the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem as a Haganah volunteer.  She was 22 years old.

I picked up the story of Esther Calingold by chance in the middle of the Intifada, not realizing that it would be a lifeline that would help me to climb out of a dark pit of despair and anger and frustration.  We were surrounded by random deaths, never knowing when a casual goodbye to a spouse or child would be a final parting. In horror, we became accustomed to living in fear, afraid to walk down a street or take a bus or eat a pizza.

Who was responsible for turning our lives into this living hell? I seethed, seeing villains all around me, beginning to hate the place I had always loved.

Like me, Esther was 21 years old the year that she applied for a job as an English teacher in the Evelina de Rothschild school in Jerusalem and made aliyah.  Shaped by the horrors of the Holocaust and anger at our birthplace for locking out European Jews, both of us dreamed the same dream: building a home for our people that when they had to go there, it would have to take them in.  Yet here I was, some 30 years later, questioning everything I’d always believed and wondering, for the first time, as I had not during any war, what I was doing in this dangerous place.

Esther Calingold reminded me.

In late December 1946, a month after her arrival, after her first trip to Tel Aviv, she wrote her friend Hannah: “I had really no idea what it means to live in one’s own land, among one’s own people, to be and to feel at home, without having to apologize to somebody every minute for being an outsider.”

Her words sent me back with strange wonder to my first days as a new immigrant: the excitement at seeing Hebrew on a manhole cover, the joy of being able to eat kosher food in almost every restaurant, the Chanukah lights in every window, the empty streets on Yom Kippur. The feeling of being a part of a whole.

“This is a brand new country, though so old,” Esther wrote confidently, “and if one only stops to think of and look at what has been made of it in a mere 50 to 70 years, it is so astounding that all criticism must die on the lips. Our wonderful Holy land is in its raw infancy as a modern state… the trials and dangers of babyhood have not yet, unfortunately, passed.  But, as you know, Jewish people only live for their children, because in them and with them lies the future, and this little Land is the only future we have…”

Esther Calingold died 17 months after arriving in Israel. Mortars falling all around, she wrote her last letter home: “I have tasted of Gehnem, but it has been worthwhile because I am convinced that the end will see a Jewish State and the realization of all our longings. God is with us I know, in his own Holy City, and I am proud and ready to pay the price it may cost to reprieve it.”

In her life and in her death Esther Calingold lived fully the life she had freely chosen, building, defending and cherishing all the things she loved. She was fearless.  Her book reminded me of what we are doing here in Israel and infused me with renewed courage.  It reminded me that, as George Eliot once said: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

About the Author

author_naoimiNaomi Ragen
Naomi Ragen is an author and playwright who has lived in Jerusalem since 1971. Her seventh novel, The Saturday Wife, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in spring 2007. Her website is http://naomiragen.com.

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