Israel @75: For Zmira Gold, Israel is a matter of heart, soul and sustenance

This is the first of an occasional series profiling Louisvillians with especially close ties to Israel 

By Andrew Adler
Community Editor

Zmira Gold relaxes in the living room of the Woodluck Avenue home she’s lived in for 56 years
(Photo by Andrew Adler)

Zmira Gold is a living embodiment of Israeli history. Born into the rough-and-tumble melting pot of 1930s Jerusalem, she endured the hardships imposed by the British overlords of Mandatory Palestine. On the day in 1948 the State of Israel came into being she danced in the city’s narrow streets, only to find her neighborhood under shellfire soon afterward when four Arab nations attacked the fledgling country. 

Today, 75 years and a lifetime later, those fearsome guns have long been silent. The cacophony of war has been replaced by the quietude of Louisville’s Woodluck Avenue, where Gold has occupied an unassuming 1950s-era home for more than half a century. A trim 88 years old, she moves more cautiously than when she and her still-new husband, dentist Gerard Gold, arrived in America in 1961. 

But though time may be testing her body, it has done nothing to diminish Zmira Gold’s memory. She is alone in that house now, Dr. Gold having died three years ago at the age of 95, after 60 years of marriage to the former Zmira Haramati. Her three older siblings have also passed away: relentless time’s inevitable thinning out. 

Evidence of two very full lives abounds. “This is not my house – this is my museum,” Gold told a recent visitor, gesturing toward walls covered with paintings, photos and keepsakes from Israel, glass cabinets bearing a vast collection of unopened liquor mini-bottles, and perhaps most distinctively, numerous mounted fish – testaments to her late husband’s abiding recreational passion. 

“This is a wonderful neighborhood,” she said. “The reason I moved here was because I wanted to be close to the (Jewish Community) Center. I had two kids, and they could bike over there. I’ve used the Center the whole time I’ve been in the United States.” Today she can often be found taking an exercise class or relaxing at the Trager Family JCC. 

The Golds’ decision to leave Israel in 1961 was as much professional as it was personal. Gerard Gold, a Brooklyn native whose family moved to Louisville when he was 3, had graduated from the University of Louisville Dental School. He was itching to establish a practice, a difficult task in Israel for a foreign-trained dentist. Since Gerald Gold had deep roots in Louisville, it was an all but inevitable destination. 

Initially the young couple lived in a section of the dental office. “It took six years before we could put down a down payment (on a home),” Zmira Gold recalled. “We had to buy equipment, build up the practice, and pay back my in-laws,” who’d loaned them funds so they could get started.” 

The house had previously been owned by a couple who’d survived the Holocaust. Like many who settled in the neighborhood, the Golds wanted to be able to walk to shul on Shabbat, and having been raised Orthodox in Israel, nearby Anshei Sfard was a natural spiritual fit. 

Louisville could hardly have been more different than the Jerusalem of Zmira Haramati’s childhood. Born in 1935, “I grew up in a very bad time,” she said, “a very bad time.” 

Her father had emigrated from Poland in the 1920s, eager enough to be a Zionist “pioneer” that he gave up a life of wealthy privilege for an existence that, at best, was uncertain. Britain had administered the region since 1920, when the League of Nations drew up a framework for what would be designated Mandatory Palestine. 

An accomplished amateur musician in Poland, her father cobbled together a living in which he was a military policeman during the day, and a roving instrumentalist in the evenings. 

Her Latvian-born mother – daughter of a celebrated sofer (scribe) who wrote 60 Torahs during his lifetime and who’d come to Palestine two years earlier – eventually met and married her father. Four children followed: two boys and two girls, the youngest of whom was Zmira. 

      Home was a cramped Jerusalem apartment. Food was scarce; fresh food scarcer still. Gold recalled how her mother would peel a rotten apple and swirl the peel in a pot of cooked zucchini, producing a kind of apple-flavored lemonade. Children under five got one egg per week – that lone egg, mixed with available ingredients, became egg salad for six. Yom Kippur brought the year’s only chicken: first for soup; then, what remained was dutifully roasted. Nothing was wasted, Gold said. “She cooked it death.” 

      Typically, “you had to stand in line for everything,” she recalled “We ate beans and lentils – that was our main source of protein. 

     Most of the immediate neighbors were fellow Orthodox Jews, but the wider neighborhood included Christians and Arabs, a melding of ethnicities, faiths and customs – all in uneasy coexistence with the British soldiers who patrolled the maze of narrow, ancient streets. 

       Conditions worsened as resistance to British rule intensified. “There was a constant curfew,” Gold said. “I remember that when I was two years old, the first word I learned was ‘inside!’” 

        A violent tipping point erupted on July 26, 1946, when members of the underground militant Irgun – headed by future prime minister Menachem Begin — bombed Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, headquarters of the British mandate administration. The bombing killed 91 and was condemned in many quarters (including the United States) as an act of terrorism. 

      Gold’s father had been scheduled to play at the King David that Friday night – by pure chance a substitute went in his place. Her sister was supposed to be married the following Tuesday (traditionally considered an auspicious wedding day, because on the third day of Creation, “God saw that it was good”), but in the bombing’s aftermath, the British military erected barbed wire barriers that blocked access to the family’s neighborhood. The wedding had to be postponed for two days, and it was only after heroic efforts by their father that the ceremony could proceed. 

    Alas, Gold’s father died the next year, not living long enough to witness the birth of Israel on May 14, 1948. He was spared the anxiety of his two sons going into battle, and the anguish when one of them was wounded so severely that he spent the next 18 months in Hadassah Hospital. Indeed, his wounds were so grievous that on arrival he was thought to be dead, and so was placed in a holding space alongside the bodies of other fallen soldiers. He lay there for three days, saved only when a passing nurse happened to glimpse him moving. 

    Gold, her sister, and her mother were spending hour after hour in a Jerusalem bomb shelter, taking refuge from barrages of Arab artillery. When at last they learned that her brother was alive, maternal instinct took hold. 

     “She said, ‘I’m going to find him,’ “Gold said, “so she walked to the hospital. There was a room full of soldiers, she went from bed to bed, and – because his eyes were covered by bandages – “recognized him by his teeth.” Returning home, her mother said simply: “I found him.” 

     As fighting raged, “Jerusalem was surrounded,” Gold said. “No food could come in, nothing. We had to stand in line for water – you got a bucket and a half per person, which you had to use drinking, washing, cleaning – everything.” Bread, too, was strictly rationed: half a loaf per person per week, obtained between spasms of periodic shelling. 

     Gold became the family’s principal bread-fetcher “because I could run faster than my mother. They’d be shelling, with bombs falling, so I’d go into the stairway of an apartment building, wait a few minutes, and then start running again. It was bad times.” 

       It wasn’t until “at least 1949 or 1950” that life in Jerusalem could claim some sense of normalcy. By then Gold’s father, weakened by several heart attacks, had passed away. But happier times were to come, when the nurse treating her wounded brother introduced her to a recently arrived young man named Gerard Gold. On March 21, 1961, they married — Zmira Haramati becoming Zmira Gold. 

      Less than three months later, the couple departed Israel to forge a new pathway in Louisville. While Dr. Gold attended to his dental practice and fished ceaselessly (“I knew the river before I knew the streets of Louisville,” she quipped), Zmira was plunging into the Jewish life of her neighborhood and city. 

     The Golds joined Keneseth Israel, where she taught Sunday school, and spent 20 years at the now-closed Louisville Jewish Day School. For more than a quarter-century she taught twice weekly at the Hebrew school situated on the third floor of the old Jewish Community Center (where one of her students was Sara Klein Wagner, who’d grow up to be the current president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Louisville and the Trager Family JCC). Her son and daughter (David and Rena) often swam at the JCC pool – the boy becoming a junior lifeguard at age 12. 

       Today, her husband of more than six decades gone, their children grown and living their own lives, Gold remains rooted in home and homeland. She traveled to Israel often, most recently this past March after a gap of 13 years. 

        “Oh my gosh, the change was unbelievable, just unbelievable,” she said of Tel Aviv and its high-rise skyline. “My niece has an apartment on the 18th floor in one of those buildings, and from there you can see the Mediterranean, and all those high-rises. It’s like New York.” 

        “I always miss being there,” Gold says of her native Israel, adding that “at the top of my list” on her March trip was visiting the cemetery where members of her family are buried. No matter where she found herself, though, the land and its people resonated in her deepest self. “It was so important for me to feel it,” she said. “I just can’t explain it.” 

      Gold acknowledges the Israel’s fraught politics, inevitable in a parliamentary system comprising so many disparate parties (“you have two Jews and five opinions”), which she keeps up with via an Israeli TV channel. She looks forward to a time when Israel’s politicians realize the perils of adopting policies that divide the country. “I’m hopeful that sooner or later somebody will wake up in the morning and say, ‘We cannot afford to do that.’” 

       Regardless, Eretz Israel – the Land of Israel – remains Zmira Haramati Gold’s defining identity, even after 60-plus years in America. 

      “I’ve been here,” she says, “but my heart is always there.”

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