|Despite her lifelong Zionism, Jean Weiss’s first trip to Israel was in 2007. Here, she stands at the Kotel; in the plaza, her son, Jeff, stands behind her.|
Jean Weiss of River Edge doesn’t know exactly when she became a Zionist.
The most likely answer, she thinks, is that she was born that way.
Weiss, 88, put that lifelong passion to good effect in 1948, when, as Abba Eban’s secretary, she typed out his speeches and press releases, and pulled David Ben Gurion’s declaration of statehood off the tickertape machine, to resend it to the world.
Weiss, then Jean Reich, was born in Brooklyn in 1926; her father had deserted his small family, and she and her sister grew up without much money. “My mother used to light candles on Friday night, and she belonged to Hadassah, but we did not belong to a shul,” she said. “We used to go to a shul on Eastern Parkway – I’m not sure why but it was called Murphy’s Shul.” (It also was known as Chovevei Torah, and the building itself, it turns out, was owned by a Mr. Murphy). “We used to go for the holidays, but we couldn’t pay dues, so we would go and sit outside in front of the shul. A lot of people did that then.”
When she was about 12, Weiss said, she had her first taste of organized Zionism. “A friend took me to a meeting of a ‘Zionist’ organization,” she said. “I didn’t know what that was, but I went, and I liked it.
“I think it was part of my neshama,” she added; she thinks that Zionism was deeply embedded in her soul.
When she was about 14, in about 1940, the group gave her a pushke and asked her to collect money for the Jewish homeland. Using her own initiative – “no one ever told me to do this, but I knew that I couldn’t go door to door in my own neighborhood” – she decided to go underground. “I used to make a little speech in the subway, asking people to please help establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine,” she said. “I went from car to car, collecting. I would go to the garment district at about 4:30, when the workers got out from work.
“I used to get a nickel, a dime, a quarter, and I would bring it back.
“I never did know if my mother knew what I was doing.”
When she was 16, Weiss graduated from Girls Commercial High School in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, with a degree in costume design. She did well; she got a job at Peck and Peck, an elegant women’s wear company, and then for a bridal shop, where she would design and set up bridal parties. These jobs all were in Manhattan, and she still lived at home in Brooklyn. “My mother was not happy that I was working until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, and coming home alone on the subway,” Weiss said. “So I looked for another job. I was crossing 14th Street when I was sideswiped by a car.”
She did not seem to be injured, but the next day she couldn’t walk. “The doctor said it was shock. I spent the next three months at home, teaching myself to walk again.
“That gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with my life. I was about 20 years old, and I decided that there was something more important in the world than costume design.
“I decided that when I could go back to work, I would find a job with a Jewish organization.”
That job was at the American Jewish Conference, the umbrella group to which most American Zionist organizations belonged back then. (“B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress – there were a million of them,” Weiss recalled.) From there, she moved over to one of its constituent groups, the Jewish Agency for Palestine. The staff was mainly young people, idealists; “We hardly ever got paid, and we worked all kinds of hours, but we all were dedicated to the idea of a Jewish state.”
Weiss was working at the Jewish Agency’s office at 1 East 66th St. in Manhattan when a South African arrived to plead the case for a Jewish homeland before the United Nations.
His name was Aubrey Solomon Eban.
She became his secretary. “I’m not sure why I got that job,” Weiss said, laughing at the memory. “I think it might have been because I was the only one who knew stenography.”
Not-yet Abba Eban (he assumed that Hebraicized first name later) “was perfect for the job,” Weiss said. “I never knew who chose him, but whoever it was, was a genius.”
(Eban was a liaison officer to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, and played a major role in winning the committee’s approval for Resolution 181, which the General Assembly narrowly passed on November 29, 1947.)
“He was articulate, and he carried himself with a demeanor that commanded respect, even though at the time the Arabs didn’t respect us at all. He was unflappable.
“He had a British accent, and when he spoke you’d think pearls were coming out of his mouth.
“He wasn’t a handsome man,” she said, but that was entirely irrelevant. He had charisma. “If it wasn’t for his speeches, I don’t know if we would have had a state. He was just brilliant.”
The Jewish Agency staff had to be ready whenever the U.N. needed them. “The U.N. would call us on, say, 5 o’clock on a Monday, to be ready at 9 the next morning to present our case.
“If you have an office staff that leaves at 5, there is no way that you can be ready at 9 the next morning, so we used to stay all night. The office was in a brownstone, and we adapted it.
“There was one room that I can see in my mind’s eye. That’s where we worked; it was away from everyone else, and he could dictate.
“There was no computer – it was way before computers – and no copy machine, just a purple ditto machine. We would work all night, and then we’d finish around 4 in the morning, and stay in a small hotel for around four hours and be back at 9.”
She worked on press releases. Eban would dictate them, and “I’d type them for immediate release. Then we would go out to the U.N.” – which then met in Lake Success, just over the Queens border in Long Island’s Nassau County – “and distribute them to journalists.”
Weiss chucked. “I would give the same press release to all the reporters – the Daily News and the Post and the Times and the Journal American and the Herald Tribute – and they’d all report it differently.
“The Herald Tribune gave us the best coverage. The Times was not pro-Israel.”
And then, in May 1948, the telegraph that came off the machine said that David Ben-Gurion had declared Israel to be a state. “I took it off the tickertape and brought it out to be announced to the world.
“I sent it out as a press release.
“It felt like the fulfillment of a dream,” she said. “I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. I thought that we were just a bunch of crazy kids. ‘You think you’re going to have a Jewish state? What are you, out of your mind?’ But we didn’t care. We just kept going.”
Eventually, long after the state was declared, Weiss left the Jewish Agency to get married, and moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for a short time. In 1952 the Weisses moved to Maywood, and the next year, with two children, to River Edge. Weiss has lived in the same house since 1953, and is a member of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus / Congregation Beth Tikvah.
In 2007, Jean Weiss and her son, Jeff Weiss, joined a Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey trip to Israel. It was her first trip there. “I was in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv,” Jean Weiss said. “It was from Independence Hall that Ben Gurion sent the declaration.
“I cried the whole time, and I told people that whatever you hear about Israel, whatever ideas you have about it from reading books – throw them away.
“There is no way to describe it. This is a special place.”