“One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.”
When I first discovered My Life, my excitement regarding this book was sky-high because I had this urgent need, seemingly out of nowhere, to find out everything about Golda Meir, known as the “strong-willed, straight-talking, gray-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people.”
This is Golda Meir’s long-awaited personal and moving story of her life. For the first time, we experience through her own words how it happened that this amazing woman, born in Russia and brought up in Milwaukee, became Prime Minister Israel and one of the political giants of our time, without ever losing the warmth and informality for which she is justly celebrated.
I nearly ran to the library in my excitement and frenzy to know all about this grand pioneering woman. And as I was about to start my reading, holding this whopper of a book in my hands, I had a passing thought that whispered: “this will be something special.”
Thankfully the book started off on a great note as it read like a memoir of her family life. From her radically opinionated sister, Sheyna, who “did what her principles dictated,” to snapshots of Golda Meir’s politically charged adolescence, featuring debates on Zionism, literature, women’s suffrage, and more. To put it mildly, “I hung on their words as though they would change the fate of mankind.”
But then the narrative started jumping around in time, which had me confused as ever trying to keep up, at which point I had to pull up Golda Meir’s Wikipedia page to get a coherent sense of the events being described. And adding the fact that the main focus of the book was being shifted to center less on her personal life and more heavily on the politics set in that period of time. All these combined elements made my initial excitement subside by a landslide, and I had to rearrange my expectations for the following two-thirds of the book.
The only saving grace by this point was when Golda Meir dared to talk about feminism and “the inner struggles and despairs of a mother who goes to work.”
“Naturally women should be treated as the equals of men in all respects. But, as is true also of the Jewish people, they shouldn’t have to be better than everyone else in order to live like human beings or feel that they must accomplish wonders all the time to be accepted at all. On the other hand, a story — which, as far as I know, is all it was— once went the rounds of Israel to the effect that Ben-Gurion described me as ‘the only man’ in his cabinet. What amused me about it was that obviously he (or whoever invented the story) thought that this was the greatest possible compliment that could be paid to a woman. I very much doubt that any man would have been flattered if I had said about him that he was the only woman in the government!”
Had the primary focus throughout the first half of the book been on chronicling Golda Meir’s life, without adding on her many accounts of traveling and talking overseas to crowds and diplomatical figures about X and Y, would’ve made My Life a real tour de force in my eyes.
Like, this paragraph below about her father’s father who died long before Golda Meir’s parents ever met:
“He had been one of the thousands of ‘kidnapped’ Jewish children of Russia, shanghaied into the czar’s army to serve for twenty-five years. Ill-clothed, ill-fed, terrified children, more often than not they were under constant pressure to convert to Christianity. My Mabovitch grandfather had been snatched by the army when he was all of thirteen, the son of a highly religious family, brought up to observe the finest points of orthodox Jewish tradition. He served in the Russian army for another thirteen, and never once, despite threats, derision and often punishment, did he touch treife (non-kosher) food. All these years he kept himself alive on uncooked vegetables and bread. Though pressed hard to change his religion and often made to pay for his refusal by being forced to kneel for hours on a stone floor, he never gave in. When he was released and came back home, he was nonetheless haunted by the fear that inadvertently he might somehow have broken the Law. So to atone for the sin he might have committed, he slept for years on a bench in an unheated synagogue with only a stone at his head for a pillow. Little wonder that he died young.”
It’s passages like these that stayed with me long after I closed the book.
By the time I rolled around to the end of chapter six (‘We Shall Fight Hitler’) and the following chapter (‘The Struggle Against the British’), the pacing had picked up a bit more and settled on issues that I understood and cared for profoundly. And then, of course, there was ‘We Have Our State’ a phenomenal chapter that lifted my spirits with the signing of the proclamation after all the emotional turmoil and unprecedented loss endured beforehand.
So even though it took me some time to get my bearings, to find my way around this heavy read, My Life by Golda Meir is certainly a book I’ll think about for a while to come, for better and for worse.
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