What it’s like when your saba is a national hero?

What it’s like when your saba is a national hero?

Alon Ben-Gurion talks about his famous grandfather for JNF

David Ben-Gurion holds his grandson, Alon, as his wife, Paula, and his son, Amos, beam. (Photos courtesy Alon Ben-Gurion)
David Ben-Gurion holds his grandson, Alon, as his wife, Paula, and his son, Amos, beam. (Photos courtesy Alon Ben-Gurion)

By necessity, we Americans have a very different idea of our Founding Fathers, the (mostly) men who formed our country, shaped by the ideals and misconceptions of their times,  than Israelis do.

There is good reason for that. The United States might be a fairly new country but it’s an old democracy. Although — fun but weird fact — Harrison Ruffin Tyler, the 94-year-old grandson of not-quite-founding-father President John Tyler, is still alive (his brother, Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr., died in 2020 at 95), it is safe to say that on the whole our founding generation is consigned, reverently but firmly, to history.

That’s not true in Israel, a country whose roots go back millennia but  now is celebrating just its 75th anniversary as a United Nations-recognized nation-state.

That means that Alon Ben-Gurion, at 71, knew his grandfather, the nearly mythic-to-us country-founder David Ben-Gurion, as a real person. He knew him, in fact, as his saba.

Mr. Ben-Gurion will talk about his grandfather for the Jewish National Fund at a breakfast on June 21. (See below.)

To get obvious first things out of the way, Mr. Ben-Gurion — who splits his time between Israel and Westchester County — does not want to talk about the situation in Israel today. It’s a logical question, because there is a logical connection between David Ben-Gurion’s arrangement with the charedim when the state was formed (he agreed that they should be free to learn rather than to fight, which made sense then but has led to complications now, as their numbers have grown), but it is outside his remit, he says.

“I speak about history,” Alon Ben-Gurion said. “I speak about the founder of Israel. We are celebrating 75 years of history. History was made then, in 1948. David Ben-Gurion passed on December 1, 1973, so who am I to say what he would say if he were alive today?

“When people ask me about it, my answer is, ‘Go ask him.’”

With that out of the way, Mr. Ben-Gurion talked about his grandfather.

Alon Ben-Gurion

“He was a giant,” he said; that was a metaphysical truth, not a physical one. (His grandfather was about five feet tall.)

For example, think about the way he read.

“I don’t know of anybody, including leaders like Winston Churchill, who read books in the quantity and quality of David Ben-Gurion,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone else who learned a language in order to read a book.

“My grandfather said that in order to understand a book, you have to  read it in the language it was written in. So when he wanted to read ‘Don Quixote,’ first he learned Spanish.

“Because his mission in life was to build a Jewish state, he wanted to learn about democracy. He wanted to read the Greek philosophers; in order to understand them, he studied ancient Greek. I don’t know many Greeks today who speak ancient Greek — it’s just the scholars — but he learned it, to read those books.

“He was in Israel — Palestine, whatever you want to call it then — during the Ottoman Empire, and he decided that he wanted to learn about it by getting into the Turkish parliament. During the Ottoman Empire, every occupied nation had two seats in parliament, and he decided that he wanted to represent Israel there.

“In order to do that, he went to Saloniki and studied Turkish.” Life — including Zionist politics and World War I — got in the way of that plan, but he was serious about it. During that time, Mr. Ben-Gurion also developed close ties to the Turkish Jewish community there.

“His house in Sde Boker has more than 30,000 books, and the other house has 15,000,” Alon Ben-Gurion continued. “And he read them all.” He also wrote between 20 and 30 of them himself, his grandson added.

Although he might have been brusque with his family — leisure time was not a luxury available to him very often — he took his responsibilities to children seriously. “Remember that there was no internet then” — or even word processors — “and he wrote everything by hand,” Mr. Ben-Gurion said. “I have hundreds of letters to him from kids all over the world. They would write him letters – and he would answer every one of them. He wrote every single one of them himself.

Alon Ben-Gurion holds his baby sister, Renana, as his grandfather works in his study, sometime in the late 1950s (Photos Courtesy Alon Ben-Gurion)

“He wrote to the parents, wives, children, of every soldier who died in defense of Israel during his tenure. There is a stack of books in his house in Tel Aviv — it’s a museum now — with all the letters that he received back, and he wanted them next to him always. He had time for all of that.

“I look at world leaders now, who don’t have time for such things, and I say wow.”

His wasn’t a conventional grandfather, Mr. Ben-Gurion said. “He didn’t play with the children, with their toys on the carpet. He didn’t come to my kindergarten to pick me up when my parents were working. But he had his ways. He always knew what we were doing. And when he had a conversation with you, there always was a message behind it.”

Mr. Ben-Gurion illustrated that point with a story. (And, he said, he has so many stories that he will repeat none of the ones  he will tell at the breakfast.)

“When I was in the army, I was in the paratroopers,” he said. “In those days, we would get leave about every six to eight weeks. Usually, we’d go home on Friday and come back on Sunday.

“The first thing you’d want to do when you got home was take your uniform off, take a good shower, and then not  put on military clothes. You’d put on jeans, a  T-shirt, sneakers, and then you’d have Mommy’s good food.

“When I went to see saba v’safta” — his grandparents — “he said, ‘Why aren’t you in uniform now?’ I explained, ‘Saba, I was in the field for eight weeks. The conditions are not the best. We don’t have showers. So the first thing we all do when we get home is shower and change.’

“He didn’t like that answer. He says, ‘Alon, I need to explain to you — listen to me, young man. When I grew up, we didn’t have a Jewish army. We didn’t have a state. That was true for 2,000 years. So do you know how proud I am that we created the IDF, and that young Israelis wear uniforms, with insignia? And how important it is?’

“He went on and on and on. My God, you got a lecture when Ben-Gurion gave you a lecture. Everyone always was quiet. Everyone always was listening.

David Ben-Gurion holds his disgrunted grandson as his daughter-in-law looks on.

“I was young. I didn’t like to be criticized. I didn’t open my mouth, but I told my parents that I wouldn’t see him again as long as I was in the army.

“That was a big problem for my family.”

But a problem that was easy to solve, as it turned out. Young Alon would wear his army uniform, greet his grandparents, leave, and then change.

“There are hundreds of stories like this,” Mr. Ben-Gurion said. His grandfather was both a legend and a real person, and that combination comes with many plotlines.

But Israelis don’t have the same idea of special, better-than-everyone-else families that much of the rest of the world have, he said. “We were very simple people. We don’t have titles. Saba never cared about material things. He wore khakis. He ate simple food.”

As the grandson of probably the single most important person in the founding of the modern State of Israel, “I am not a celebrity,” Mr. Ben-Gurion said. “When I grew up, in my neighborhood, in school, among friends, it didn’t matter at all. If you were good a soccer player, you were accepted. If you weren’t, then you weren’t.

“The fact that your grandfather was the prime minster does not help you. It does not give you a seat at the table. Nobody cares.”

But his grandfather had real charisma, he said. “I gave a speech in Oklahoma City in 1986. My grandfather had been there in 1951, three years after the founding of the state.

“People came over to me — that was more than 30 years later – and talked about it.

In the Oval Office, David Ben-Gurion, center, and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Abba Eban, give President Harry S Truman a menorah in 1951. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

“One of them said, ‘Alon, there were 300 people there, and everyone was talking, and then David Ben-Gurion walked in, and there was total silence.

“It was like the messiah walked into the room.

“People just wanted to be in a room with him. But I never looked at him like that. He was my grandfather.”

Mr. Ben-Gurion remembers how his grandfather worked feverishly after he retired; he was writing a history of modern Israel. “He wrote 17 hours a day,” he said. “I asked him why. What’s the rush? And he said, ‘Alon, I don’t have time. I will die at the age of 87. That’s when my father died, and that’s when my grandfather died. I don’t have time. I have to write the history for the younger generations, so they know what happened.”

David Ben-Gurion was 87 when he died.

David and Paula Ben-Gurion had three children — two daughters, Geula Ben-Eliezer and Renana Leshem, and one son, Amos, Alon’s father — and seven grandchildren.

Alon and his sister had four grandparents, of course, not just two. And more Jews, more stories. Their mother, who was not born Jewish, came from the Isle of Man, a small, self-governing British Crown dependency, an island in the Irish Sea.

More stories!

Alon Ben-Gurion will tell many, from his seemingly inexhaustible store of them, on Wednesday morning.

Who: Alon Ben-Gurion

What: Will speak at the Jewish National Fund’s Breakfast for Israel

When: On Wednesday, June 21, at 8 a.m.

Where: At the Crystal Plaza in Livingston

To register: Go jnf.org/CNJBFI email campaign executive Beverly Gutterman at bgutterman@jnf.org or call (973) 593-0095, ext. 827.

And also: JNF’s Central New Jersey region, which is hosting the breakfast, includes all of MetroWest, as well as Hudson County in Northern New Jersey.

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