Golda Mabovitch or Goldie, as friends and family would call her, was born on May 3, 1898 in the Jewish district of Kiev, in what today is Ukraine, the second child of Moshe and Blume. Moshe was a tall and handsome man, slender, with delicate features, innocent and optimistic, and one inclined to believing in people unless proven wrong. Blume was a copper-haired pretty woman, energetic, bright, and far more sophisticated and enterprising than Moshe, but like him, an optimist.
Her parents met in an unfashionable manner for their day. While tradition called for couples to come together through a matchmaker, Moshe and Blume met by chance. Moshe, who was born in Ukraine, was on military duty in Pinsk, where Blume lived. One day she saw him in the street. She found him attractive and as the romantic cliche goes, she fell in love. Which was enough for her to want to spend her life with him.
But when Moshe came to Blume’s father to ask for her hand in marriage, her father shook his head at the thought that his darling Blume was to marry a mere carpenter with little distinction to his family name. Blume’s grandmother, Bobbe Golde, who always had the final word, came to the rescue: “What matters most of all,” she said firmly, “is whether or not he is a mensch. If he is, then a carpenter too can become a merchant one day.” So Blume’s father gave his blessing.
After marrying, the couple settled in Pinsk. But unable to achieve financial stability there, Moshe moved the family to Kiev.
Life in Kiev was harsh. In the time of Golda’s upbringing, there was never enough of anything. Not food, not warm clothing, not heat at home. Making matters more difficult, Kiev was rampant with anti-semitism, as Jews became scapegoats for the revolutionary unrest taking place in Russia. The situation was made worse by pogroms, which were government sanctioned attacks against Jews. Mobs who would race “through town, brandishing knives and huge sticks, screaming ‘Christ killers’ as they looked for Jews,” to steal from, beat, and at times even kill.
For Golda, the pogroms would be her first memory in life. She wasn’t even four yet when she stood atop the stairs of her home and watched her father beat nails into boards of wood to barricade the front door. There was a rumor that a mob was coming. While that night no mob showed up, she never forgot her fear and being aware that this was all happening because her family was Jewish.
Despite everything, on Friday nights for Shabbat their home was bright and full of people. Cousins and second cousins, aunts and uncles, all around the kitchen table, drinking tea and singing for hours.
But by 1903, her father had had enough of Kiev. Ever the dreamer, he came up with a new dream. He would go to America, to the land of opportunity, and become wealthy there. That year he went by himself, while Blume and now three girls moved back to Pinsk to live with Blume’s family.
Golda’s time in Pinsk was a foundation of learning, with most of the lessons coming from her older sister, Sheyna. Nine years older than Golda, Sheyna was fourteen when their father left for the U.S. An intense, intelligent, relentless woman, she was committed to becoming educated so that she could better her life, but, even more, so that she could make the world a better place. In Pinsk, Sheyna became a revolutionary, a dedicated member of the Socialist-Zionist movement. Not only were she and her friends looking to overthrow the monarchy, but they were also working to bring into existence a Jewish socialist state in Palestine. It was not enough for Sheyna to want change, she had to fight for the change, regardless of the danger, including the risk of prison, torture, exile, or execution.
Golda learned from observing Sheyna that nothing in life just happens. It isn’t enough to believe in something, you have to have the stamina and drive to overcome obstacles. Around the time Golda was about six or seven, she began to understand Sheyna’s philosophy on life. Sheyna was a perfectionist who would dedicate herself fully to whatever cause she took on, no matter the consequences.
As time in Pinsk passed, the anxiety from Sheyna’s political activities became too much for Blume. In letters, she pressed Moshe to bring the family back together. Which eventually he did. In 1906, Blume and her daughters moved to the U.S., where they joined Moshe in Milwaukee.
For Golda, the move to Milwaukee was a welcome change. Her father picked up Blume and his daughters from the train station in an automobile, her first time in a car. While this luxury may have represented some change from life in Russia, Moshe was still financially unstable in the U.S. The family moved into a poor Jewish neighborhood of clapboard houses with pretty porches. Theirs was a small apartment with two rooms, a tiny kitchenette, and a long corridor. There was no electricity or a bathroom, but for Golda, it felt like the height of luxury.
She found Milwaukee to be wonderful, a place colorful and fresh, as though the city was brand new. Here she thrived. She excelled as a student, and for the first time found herself leading fundraisers and protests. In school one day “a Christian boy threw a penny at one of Goldie’s friends and ordered her to pick it up. When the girl complied, he mocked her, yelling, ‘A dirty Jew will pick up every penny.’ That night, Golda organized a few friends and held her first demonstration, against anti-Semitism in front of the boy’s house.”
While school was tuition free, students had to pay a nominal amount for books. Some could not afford the fee, so Golda, with the help of her friends, organized a fundraiser. She rented a hall and invited everyone from the district, dozens of whom showed up. At the event, Golda gave a speech on the importance for all children to have textbooks and as a result, “a considerable amount of money was raised.”
Golda became valedictorian of her class and was preparing to enter high school. Her parents however didn’t see the value of more schooling. In Blume’s eyes, school was an unwarranted luxury, undesirable even. Marriage was the more appropriate path. Moshe would tell Golda, “It doesn’t pay to be too clever. Men don’t like smart girls.”
Blume found Golda a suitor, a stable man who in his early 30’s was twice Golda’s age, but who could care for her. Golda objected. She was adamant about not wanting to marry. She wanted to pursue an education so that she could become a teacher. Sheyna who was living with her husband in Denver stepped in. Her husband wrote Golda, “No, you shouldn’t stop school. You are too young to work; you have good chances to become something. My advice is that you should get ready and come to us. We are not rich either, but you will have good chances here to study, and we will do all we can for you.”
Unable to convince her parents to let her continue with school, Golda decided to move. Before Golda left for Denver, Sheyna wrote her, “The main thing is never to be excited. Always be calm and act cooly. This way of action will always bring you good results.” For Golda, this became lifelong advice.
She didn’t tell her parents she was going. She just left them a note, “I am going to live with Sheyna, so that I can study.” Golda was fifteen years old.
In Denver, Golda settled into the small home, an apartment in a red brick duplex with thin, stately white columns at the front. She began school, but much of her education took place in the home, which was “a kind of center in Denver for the Jewish immigrants from Russia who were out west for treatment at Denver’s famous Jewish hospital for Consumptives” (consumptives is known today as tuberculosis, and it’s what brought Sheyna to Denver). The guests were often anarchists, socialists, Socialist Zionists, and all were passionate about the political and social issues of the day.
Gathering in the living room of the little apartment, they spent hours debating and discussing matters. These discussions went late into the night, as the guests drank cup after cup of tea with lemon. The guests’ penchant for tea gave Golda the perfect excuse to stay up late and listen — she volunteered to disinfect the cups at the end of the night, a request which was rarely refused.
Golda was always the youngest in the room. She would sit and listen, all the while learning the patience required of a thoughtful debate. Of all the views she heard discussed, she found herself gravitating towards those of the Socialist Zionists. Later she would say, “I understood and responded full to the idea of a national home for the Jews — one place on the face of the earth where Jews could be free and independent…I was absolutely fascinated and found myself dreaming about joining the pioneers in Palestine.”
It was also here in Denver that Golda met a gentle, soft-spoken man by the name of Morris Meyerson. Morris was self-educated, and a lover of poetry, art, and music. Calm in demeanor, he never raised his voice no matter the discussion or argument. While most men avoided asking Golda out, so to not find themselves in the path of Sheyna’s wrath, Morris invited her to a free concert in the park.
After the first concert, Morris asked her to another concert. Soon the two were regularly going to free concerts as well as lectures on literature, history and philosophy, his joys that she began to learn more about. And every Sunday they would take a walk in the parks of Denver.
Morris was about five years older than Golda and ready for marriage. Having found himself falling in love with Golda, he proposed. Being only sixteen, she felt she was too young to marry. Meanwhile, she was in the middle of planning a move back to Milwaukee, having been convinced by her father to return. But she also loved Morris and wanted to keep their relationship going. So while she deferred his proposal, the two continued seeing each other.
Golda’s second move to Milwaukee was much different from the first. Her parents were more settled now, their finances stable, and living in a new, much nicer apartment. They eased their demands of Golda, giving her the space to pursue her interests.
Her parents were also now more involved in the Jewish life of Milwaukee. During WWI, they opened their home to volunteers of the Jewish Legion, who were going to fight under the structure of the British Army to liberate Palestine from the Turks. Blume, with an open heart, ran an open house. She would make sure each boy left with a bag in which to keep his prayer shawl, and larger bag with cookies, still fresh from the oven. The family home, particularly what was becoming their famous couch, was further open to others in the Jewish community. Guests from all over the world, including Jews from Palestine on recruiting missions, would come to stay. These men would live and dine with the family and tell stories of life in Palestine.
Zionism blossomed as a life goal for Golda in Milwaukee. She became more active in the movement organizing her first protest, a march down one of Milwaukee’s main streets to bring awareness about new pogroms which had broken out in Ukraine and Poland after WWI.
Not all were in favor of such a protest however. A Jewish owner of a big department store said to her, “I understand that you intend to lead a demonstration down Washington Avenue. If you do so, I want you to know that I shall leave town.” She responded with no objection to his leaving town and that she was going through with the march. “There was nothing for Jews to be ashamed of; on the contrary…showing how we felt about the murder and maiming of Jews overseas, we would earn the respect and sympathy of the rest of the city.” Hundreds of people would attend the march, including many non-Jews.
It was during this march that Golda realized that she needed to make a decision about her commitment to Zionism. In her words, “Palestine, I felt, not parades in Milwaukee, was the only real, meaningful answer…the Jews must have a land of their own again and I must help build it, not by making speeches or raising funds, but by living and working there.”
She had made up her mind. Palestine was to be her home.
Sources: “My Life” by Golda Meir, “Golda” by Elinor Burkett