Finding Mussar in a History Lesson
Touring the Golda Meir House in Denver last weekend after just reading a biography about her,* exposed me to a woman who not only was a historical giant but also personified so many Mussar traits, including courage, curiosity, strength, determination, humility and honor.
Meir, who was not highly educated nor a very good writer, rose to become the first (and only) woman prime minister of Israel after playing a major role in founding the Jewish state. I am ashamed to admit I didn’t know much about her, and combining a history lesson with my penchant for Mussar made for a powerful experience.
Meir exhibited courage at the young age of 14. Her parents refused to let her attend high school in her hometown of Milwaukee, so she ran away to Denver, where she could live with her sister Shayna and continue her education. Not only did she attend North High School, but she had a youthful curiosity that led her to eavesdrop on the kitchen-table conversations of her sister’s much older friends. Family stories report that she washed dishes or ironed clothes so she could listen in. There she was first exposed to politics. In her 1975 autobiography, Meir wrote, "It was in Denver that my real education began..." Shayna’s home is the one now serving as a museum on the Auraria campus.
Meir’s strength came into play time and time again when, as the “only woman in the room,” she fought to have her voice heard at Cabinet meetings. And the story goes that she stood up to the formidable David Ben Gurion, telling him she was the one who should go to the United States in 1948 to raise money instead of him because her English was better. She was tasked with raising $25 million to equip the Jewish armed forces. Meir arrived in Chicago at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, and though she wasn’t a scheduled speaker, through determination, she convinced the conference director to let her address the assembly. He suggested a short, non-emotional talk. Instead, Meir spoke passionately for over an hour, and raised $50 million at that one event.
Although she was one of the most powerful women in the world, Meir exhibited humility in her leadership, calling herself the “zafta” (grandmother) of Israel and inviting high-ranking officials to discussions around home-cooked meals in her kitchen. It was a poetic reprise of good times in Shayna’s Denver kitchen where she was first exposed to politics.
Though she didn’t complete the work on a peace treaty with Egypt, President Anwar Sadat repeatedly gave her credit for initiating it. When Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel in 1977, he requested that Meir be in attendance at the Knesset meeting although she was no longer in power. She hastily flew back from the United States and gave an extemporaneous speech, ending with, "And, Mr. President, as a grandmother to a grandfather, may I give you a little present for your granddaughter and thank you for the present you have given me." Sadat had become a grandfather only the day before.
The Golda Meir house and its preservation was truly a lesson in the middah of honor as several non-Jews took a leading role in saving it from destruction. In 1981, a community member, Jean May, learned that the house at 1606-08 Julian Street, rumored to be an early home of Meir, was about to be destroyed to build a parking lot.
She contacted State Sen. Dennis Gallagher and Bill Sagstetter, a Denver Post photographer. The two men, both Catholics, crawled under the foundation of the duplex to see if they could find anything that would uncover its history. They discovered artifacts, including a baby shoe from Meir’s niece, mezuzot, (containers holding parchment with religious texts usually hung on the doorpost), and a pushke (a small metal box for coins to donate to charity), proving that Meir had indeed lived there. May, Gallagher and Sagstetter reached out to Rep. Pat Schroeder, who asked her staff members to prevent the destruction of the home by all means possible.
After a story appeared in The Denver Post, the community became galvanized to save the house from demolition. The home was moved twice before it was brought to the Auraria campus in September 1988. It’s a wonderful example of allies honoring the heritage of others by helping preserve an important piece of Denver’s Jewish history.
The middot of courage, curiosity, strength, determination, humility and honor – all wrapped up in my afternoon with Golda Meir.
*Lena Fishman, executive director of the Golda Meir House, led the inspiring tour for Congregation Beth Evergreen’s book club members, who had just read “The Only Woman In the Room,” a biography of Meir written by Pnina Lahav. To learn more about the Golda Meir house, click here.