An American-Israeli love story, told in 258 letters – J.
In the summer of 1970, a 21-year-old American student, David Biale, volunteered at Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in northern Israel. There he met Rachel Korati, an Israeli nine days shy of her 18th birthday – and his future wife.
After David returned to the United States to study at UC Berkeley, he and Rachel began to send each other letters. Between 1970 and 1972, they exchanged 258 missives – sometimes written daily, though they took around 10 days to join – in which they shared their thoughts on Judaism, Israel, literature and counterculture movements of the time.
These letters are now the basis of a self-published book, “Aerograms Across the Ocean: A Love Story in Letters, 1970-1972”. (Aerograms were a very thin sheet of paper that folded back on itself, so no envelope was needed.)
The Biales will read and discuss the book at 7 p.m. on April 13 at a virtual Jewish Community Library event co-hosted by New Lehrhaus.
David Biale rediscovered the letters at his home in Berkeley in 2018, but during Covid he started putting them in order and proofreading them. Professor emeritus of history Emanuel Ringelblum at UC Davis, Biale, 72, asked fellow historian and close friend Fred Rosenbaum if the public would be interested. Rosenbaum’s answer was an emphatic yes.
“I have been deeply moved by the thoughts and feelings of two people so wise beyond their years,” Rosenbaum said in an email. “Their love for each other grew, slowly of course, from passionate exchanges about Jewish identity, California and kibbutz cultural norms, and the tumultuous political events of the early 1970s. We often think of the “youth culture” of those years as hedonistic; instead, we have the beginning of a thoughtful search for understanding and meaning that set the direction for the rest of their lives.
August 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of David and Rachel meeting, and as well as being locked down by the pandemic, David was diagnosed with cancer around this time – which gave him a sense of urgency to get started. in the draft letters.
Rachel Biale, 69, is also an author and has worked as a therapist, cultural programmer and community organizer. Looking back, she said she would be the first to admit that her upbringing and interests were completely atypical for a kibbutznik like her.
“Although there was confidence in the [Israel Defense Forces], the ’67 war had also produced this atmosphere of total panic in Israel, that it was going to be like the Warsaw ghetto, and the feeling that this is the Jewish story of destruction,” she said. “There was this little group of high school kids led by intellectuals from the kibbutz movement, who wondered what this legacy of Jewish history and destruction, Diaspora and Judaism is, and I was one of them.”
Young Rachel had spent a year in Massachusetts with her family, and during that time she had not only acquired a perfect command of English, but also learned about the wide cultural gap that separated Israelis from American Jews.
While those familiar with the academic work of David Biale – he is the author or editor of 11 books on Jewish history – might be interested in reading about his interests as a young man, the letters are much more than that.
“Looking back at the trajectory of our lives and what we’ve done professionally, you can see the baseline of what we cared about and what we were passionate about,” Rachel said.
These concerns? David was involved in the free speech and anti-Vietnam movements in Berkeley, and even had contact with the American Project in the later phase of the war. Rachel served her compulsory service in the IDF during the period when they exchanged letters.
Its political consciousness was formed around the time that Israel expanded with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. His involvement in the Radical Jewish Union, which staged a sit-in over the lack of emphasis on Jewish education at the time, was evident.
No, they weren’t your average young adults – and their letters reflected that. They were written by two people who, before they knew they loved each other, were in love with Jewish philosophy and thought.
In one sequence, they discussed their reactions to Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel “Catch-22.”
Rachel: “David, I finished Catch-22! That’s good. I finished at 1 a.m. and couldn’t fall asleep. It always happens to me — I feel really weird when I finish a good book – what are you doing now? I can’t go on with my business as if nothing had happened – like I did before I knew about this book. I used to have a kind of of solution when I was young; I cried, but… it’s harder to do it now.
David, responding with what he considers “mock horror”: “This book is the most subversive book ever written – if you really identify with it, you are destined to become as radical as we are on this side of the Atlantic. I dare say this book is close to the Bible of this generation in America.
Neither is religious, but both have a deep interest in Jewish texts and philosophy, such as the work of German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. And when they finally express their love for each other, they quote lines from the biblical poem “The Song of Songs.”
“When I discovered this 17-year-old kibbutznik who had similar interests, it sparked this very intense dialogue between us,” David recalled in an interview, “which we were really too naive and stupid to realize was the beginning of a romance.”
And how does it feel to open their love story to everyone?
Well, they gave their two adult children, Noam and Tali, veto power over anything they found too embarrassing. That being said, Tali told her mother at one point, “I wish I could go back 50 years and grab you two and say, ‘You’re idiots. Can’t you see you’re in love ?”