January 16, 2019

RIP, Uncle Shmuel

Shmuel Rosner died last Friday night. He was almost a hundred years old.

My phone buzzed with the news on Saturday night, when I was in New York en route to Washington, and my instinctive reaction was: So now there are just two of us left.

I was growing up as the third Shmuel Rosner, the most junior, in my extended family. There is me, born in 1968; there is my uncle, my father’s brother, born in 1940; and then there’s “Uncle Shmuel,” my great uncle, my father’s uncle, born in 1918. Most of his family, whom he left behind in Poland, perished in the Holocaust. But Uncle Shmuel had an older sister, my grandmother, who immigrated to Palestine in 1933 and then convinced her parents to let Shmuel join her a year later. He was 16 years old.

Whenever I saw him in recent years — which wasn’t much — he tended, as is the habit of old people, to repeat a story I’d heard many times before. You should know, he’d tell me, that only thanks to your grandfather I am still alive. The young Shmuel was an idealistic communist, and when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, he became restless and decided to board a ship and join the anti-fascist forces. My grandfather spent a whole night of convincing to stop him from doing this. His trump card was an emotional plea: I promised your parents to keep you safe — and that’s why they let you come here. If you want to go to Spain, he said, you must go back to Poland first and release me from the commitment I’ve made.

We were three Shmuels. One of the pre-state generation, one growing up with the state, one born when the state was an established reality.

Instead of going to Spain, Shmuel joined a young group that established a kibbutz in northern Israel. The patron of this group was a legendary figure, Alexander Zeid, a founder of the first defense organizations of the growing Jewish Yishuv. Zeid was ambushed and killed by a Bedouin in 1938, on his way to meet with members of the kibbutz. When Uncle Shmuel celebrated his 80th birthday, almost 20 years ago, the family boarded a bus and visited the famous statute of Zeid on his horse, not far from where he was murdered.

On kibbutz Alonim, Shmuel met his future wife, they had three children, then moved around until they landed in the city of Ra’anana. His sister, my grandmother, died 45 years ago, but he kept going. Fifteen years ago or so, I remember bumping into him at a wedding. His hand was in a cast, broken. What happened, I asked him. Oh, he said, I climbed up a tree and fell. Maybe, I suggested, at 85 it is time to quit climbing trees. He waved me off impatiently. Yes, that’s what everyone says.

We were three Shmuels. One of the pre-state generation, one growing up with the state, one born when the state was already an established reality. I am not sure it is fair to expect more Shmuels in the next generation. The name Shmuel is hardly fashionable, and thus the children and grandchildren would be understandably reluctant to use it for their own children.

Uncle Shmuel had three children, 11 grandchildren. If I am not mistaken, the number of great-grandchildren is about the same, but keeping track becomes more difficult with every new generation. There are artists in his extended family, and business people, and accountants, and high-tech entrepreneurs and a former air force pilot. Most of his family lives in Israel, but some left and live in other countries. A hundred years is a long time. And the last hundred years were especially long for Jews.

I was thinking about Uncle Shmuel as I was making my way to Washington, to attend the annual AIPAC policy conference. As he was laid to rest, I was surrounded by people wearing suits, speaking English, discussing politics, getting ready to lobby the world’s most powerful parliament on behalf of the Jewish state. It was disorienting but also strangely comforting.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.