My grandmother, Malka Goodman of Saint Paul, turned 90 years old and she’s still a force to be reckoned with. Today, like always, she’s my strong Israeli grandmother with a wit as sharp as ever and a generous loving heart.
My grandmother (Babu) was born September 13th, 1929, in the Galil in what is now known as Israel, then under the British Mandate. She served in the budding Israeli Defense Forces (Haganah), and later attended medical school in Italy where she fell in love with Ernie (my Zayde) and went on to practice psychiatry in Minnesota for nearly 35 years. She currently volunteers weekly at the Sholom Home.
Her strength through adversity and her independence, humor and fierce honesty reminds me daily of the badass Israeli Sabra that my grandmother is and has always been. She’s an inspiration.
I wanted to interview her on her 90th, both to celebrate her journey but also so that she could tell her story and still critique whatever I ended up writing.
Aaron: Thank you for joining me Babu. Where should do we start?
Babu: Well, we should start the night when I was born…There was a pogrom in Hebron. Sixty-seven Jewish people were slaughtered — my mother couldn’t go to the hospital because it was too dangerous, because they were afraid of the Arab riots. That somehow has a deep meaning for me…a very important influence on the way I’ve approached things throughout my life.
Aaron: Alright we’re diving right in. Tell me about what it was like growing up in Israel during its infancy.
Babu: Well, one of the things that has stuck in my mind was that at age 10 or 11, I joined the Gadna. This was at the time of the British Mandate and I had the job of placing leaflets with messages that were in opposition to the British. We used to carry a pail of water and flour, which served as our glue, and we’d put up the leaflets on bulletin boards around the city. We did this in pairs and at night for our safety. I remember it vividly because it was my first assignment from the Haganah. [Note: Gadna was an Israeli military program that prepared young people for military service in the Israel Defense Forces. The Haganah created it in the early 1940s, before the establishment of the State of Israel]
Aaron: What’s your most vivid memory of the Israeli army?
Babu: Oh dear. My most vivid memory – when we were changing our orientation from the Gadna, which was the underground training, you know, to the Army, I wanted to be a paratrooper. Because all of the guys in my group joined the paratroopers. There were 18 guys and myself. They were allowed to do it; I was prohibited from doing it.
Aaron: Because you were a woman?
Babu: Of course. Females belonged to Hel Nashim, a women’s army. And – you asked about my vivid memory, my vivid memory is being pissed off. That was my vivid memory. I was really unhappy about that. And I was discriminated against. There was no question about it. I was raised with the idea that being a woman is not really much less — until this happened and I realized that being a woman limits me.
Aaron: Could you tell me about serving in the Haganah?
Babu: We used to meet every Saturday. We were taught a Japanese form of fighting with a stick. We used to call it KAPAP, an acronym that stands for “Krav Panim el Panim” or face-to-face combat. We were taught small arms like handguns and how to use knives. We would be taken out at night and perform field training exercises with obstacles and things like that. On those Saturdays, we would go on a Masa, a hike, and the hiking was very regimented. We’d walk for 50 minutes and then rest 10 minutes. 50 minutes walking, 10 minutes rest. Again and again. I’m talking about a time when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old. When I was 16, I went to a camp for 2 months in a Kibbutz, and I became a Mem-Kaf (כ”מ), Mefaked Kita, also known as a platoon leader. And that’s when I learned Judo and subsequently, my main job in the Haganah was to teach Judo. Much of my life revolved around activities pertaining to the Haganah and to the Gadna. [Note: The KAPAP system was developed in the late 1930s, within the Jewish Aliyah camps as part of preparatory training before their arrival in Palestine under the British Mandate. The short stick fighting method was designed to deal with the British policemen who were armed with clubs.]
Aaron: And what did you feel that you were fighting for?
Babu: For making a state. Creating a Jewish state.
Aaron: Did people understand the magnitude of that?
Babu: Of course! Of course. We knew that the Kibbutzim hid armaments. And let me remind you this was ’43, ’44, and we knew what was happening in Europe. The awful tragedy of the Holocaust. And we knew that we needed a place of our own. And that the only way to survive was to fight for it.
Aaron: Let’s talk about being Jewish. Has your relationship with Judaism changed throughout your life?
Babu: Of course! You see in Israel, being Jewish…it’s sufficient to just be in Israel. We called it Eretz Yisrael, you know? We didn’t call it Palestine, my birth certificate says Palestine, but we called it Eretz Yisrael. And just being there, because we’re secular, was sufficient. Besides, I studied the Bible over and over again, from the first grade to the 12th grade. So Judaism wasn’t separate from who I was, but rather the core of my identity. And simply living in Israel was enough express the essence of my Judaism.
Aaron: I love that. Given it’s not your belief in God, what drives you to live a moral Jewish life?
Babu: Well I think I’ve told you many many times. Everybody has heard it. “Al sh’loshah d’varim ha’olam omed”, the world stands on three things: “Al HaTorah, al avodah, v’al gmilut hasadim”, on learning, work and the doing of good deeds. That’s my credo. And that’s what makes it important to live an ethical life. This is the essence of Judaism. [Note: The three “Pillars of Life” are from Shimon HaTzadik and in Pirkei Avot 1:2]
Aaron: So were those Jewish values infused into you by your parents?
Babu: For sure. My parents, you have to remember, came to Israel without a penny. My father worked 20 hours a day. Every day. It was a matter of survival. Life in Israel during that time was very difficult. There was not only the World War but also the riots of ’36 and ’39. Everyone was poor, so we never felt lesser. However, I do remember that my father couldn’t pay the mortgage on our house. They were going to come and foreclose on our house and take our belongings. I specifically remember the bureaucrats, who came and looked at our furniture and (laughs) even the sewing machine. Mind you I was 4 or 5 years old at this time, but these things have really stuck in mind. All the niceties of today and we live such a privileged life. It’s so removed from what I experienced. Do you understand that dear?
Aaron: Yes, for sure.
Babu: We ate oranges and bread in the winter and tomatoes and bread in the summer. Sometimes there was not much beyond that. Not because we suffered from poverty, but because the circumstances in Israel were so supremely difficult. I remember the day my father came home from work very early because an Arab neighbor had warned him that they’d be shooting at his place of business. So he had to remove himself for his safety. That was the atmosphere that we lived with. There was simply no security. Our rulers were the British and they didn’t particularly like us. Our neighbors were the Arabs and they didn’t particularly like us. Our people were being massacred in Europe – there was no security.
Aaron: Wow, this is all pretty new to me. Let’s talk about your personal life. Could you tell me about your first date with Zayde (my grandfather, Dr. Ernest Goodman)?
Babu: We walked through the streets of Bologna till 2:00 a.m. talking, and I remember it was raining or drizzling because the stones, the stone-paved roads were shiny. And he asked a very interesting question, the very first date. He asked – if I were to choose a man for a husband, what would he be like? A very forward question for 1950. And I said to him, “somebody I’ll become a better person with”.
Aaron: That’s beautiful. What did you find most fulfilling about being a mother?
Babu: There are no words to express that. Perpetuity, continuation, immortality, all of the above and the warm little hands.
Aaron: You’re also a grandmother and great-grandmother. How does that feel?
Babu: (Laughter) Delightful. Marvelous. Adorable. I love them, I love them all. They’re my life. They’re my life. They are.
Aaron: Let’s move on to the last question about the Jewish community in Minnesota. What surprised you about the Jewish community here?
Babu: Well let me tell you something that I was very impressed by, specifically the Jewish community here…generosity. People are extremely generous; they give so much of themselves to others. Little things, it happens ten times a day.
Aaron: Could you give me an example that you’ve seen in the Twin Cities Jewish community?
Babu: It happens all the time. I’ll give you an example. I volunteer at Shalom Home about once a week and I see people volunteering to help. To cook knishes. To play bridge with the residents. This is very special. True generosity.
Aaron: Thank you so much for your time Babu. You’ve said everything I wanted to hear and more. Your stories are amazing.
Babu: (chuckles) I can talk for the next 10 hours. Let’s do that sometime in the future.
Aaron: I believe it and I’d love that.