Pigtails and a Zionist Path Recalled, 40 Years Later

An immigrant whose life was cut short by a Syrian missile was embraced for her love of Israel and much, much more.

Tapping someone’s memory bank to detect the influences of an elementary school teacher 43 years ago is asking a lot. But for Tammy Weiss, who grew up in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, New York, the response comes effortlessly.

“I remember Mrs. Ben David; her face radiated and was full of life,” says Weiss, nee Verstandig, my classmate at Yeshiva Dov Revel, a modern Orthodox K-8 school. “She brought Israel close to us.”

So close, in fact, that in the mid-1980s Weiss and her husband Avi moved to Israel; they now live in Neriah, near Modi’in.

The Weisses followed the route blazed by Tammy’s teacher. Just over a year after the fourth-grade class picture above was snapped in the spring of 1971, Esther Ben David made aliyah, settling in Ramat Magshimim, a moshav on the Golan Heights. She lived there with her husband Benny and their three sons.

A year and a half later, on February 11, 1974 – exactly 40 years ago – Ben David was killed by shrapnel from a Syrian missile fired into the moshav. She was 25.

Only in 2005, while visiting the Weiss family for Shabbat, did I learn of Ben David’s death. Not having been in her fourth-grade class (there were three classes per grade) probably explains my ignorance.

Stunned but curious over this young life taken, and still able to conjure an accurate image of the teacher sporting the era’s pigtail hairstyle, I decided to drive north with my sons to visit the moshav’s synagogue. On a wall of that building, Ben David’s name appears on a metal marker.

There we also came upon a couple enjoying an after-dinner stroll. Expressing delight at the reason for our visit, the wife rushed home and returned with a gift: a booklet published in 1999 to mark a quarter century since her friend Ben David’s death.

Occasionally over the years I’ve read that booklet to learn about Ben David’s character and background, seeking insight into the mind and heart beyond the pigtails. Much of the booklet describes Ben David’s embrace of Israel, her commitment to living in the Jewish state and her taking the steps to do so.

More than Israeli folk dancing

But it was the way her love, thought and actions jelled. A person’s biography, after all, fascinates for the individual facts, likes and hobbies, the choices and inclinations. The devil is in the details, but so is the angel.

There was her immigrant father, a Hebrew teacher, dying when “Essie” was 7, and her passion for ballet and Israeli folk dancing. She also launched a Bronx youth chapter of the Zionist group Mizrachi, married at 19, and posed as a non-Jew to interview Arab diplomats to better understand the views of Israel’s neighbors for her Yeshiva University master’s thesis. And she named her youngest son Golan because that’s where this pioneering couple settled.

As I read on, Ben David stood out as a creative woman, someone who grabbed life and didn’t let go. She wrote songs and poems in both English and Hebrew. She played music.

At Y.U. High School she performed in “Peter Pan” and “Kiss Me Kate.” At Ramat Magshimim she organized cultural and educational events. Her handwritten schedule for the week she didn’t live to complete tells of folk dancing, a film and lectures on home decorating and first aid. Meanwhile, there was gymnastics, an English lesson, an oneg shabbat – every day something.

At Dov Revel she weaved art and learning, too. Few of my elementary school friends could recall specifics about Ben David – not even her demeanor, her voice. But one, Robert Bindiger, a technology specialist in Manhattan, said he appreciated Ben David’s class plays, including one for Purim (he played Mordechai).

These plays were performed on the school’s stage seen in this photograph. In another show held off site, the children tossed beach balls while singing the idyllic Israeli tune of that generation, “Bashana Haba’ah.”

“I think we were lucky to be in her class and do stuff the other classes wouldn’t do,” Bindiger said. “All the teachers – you’d just sit in your seat [and] look at the blackboard.”

The norm each year on or near the 19th of Shevat, the anniversary of Ben David’s death, is for her sons Ariel, Amir and Golan, their wives and 19 children to gather for a memorial study session and a visit to the Mount of Olives cemetery overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City. Also on hand are the seven sons and two daughters born to Benny and his second wife Ruti and their 15 children. At Ramat Magshimim there are lectures each year.

For this 40th yahrzeit, her sons commissioned a film that lovingly fleshes out Ben David’s story with interviews of relatives, friends from New York who also made aliyah, and moshav-era neighbors. There are scores of photographs and writings; even a whimsical dose of religious Zionism – “The wedding will be in united Jerusalem, but in case Mashiach hasn’t yet come the ceremony will instead take place at Burnside Manor, in the Bronx,” reads Benny and Esther’s invitation for the big day, January 21, 1968.

The 36-minute film brings the Esther Ben David circle, if not the woman herself, to life. The living is being done by the widower, children, grandchildren and friends who survive her. Three days after Ben David’s death, Rina Ben Yochanan delivered a boy and called him Menachem, “the one who comforts.” A daughter born later on was named Michal Esther.

Each of Ben David’s sons produced a daughter bearing her name, too. One steals the show while explaining her lineage.

Hadas Esther Ben David is this sweetheart’s name, and the missing front teeth mean she’s nearing fourth grade, precisely where many Yeshiva Dov Revel graduates, lo these many decades later, will forever place her grandma.

Courtesy Robert Bindiger