March 6, 2023

The Golda Meir of Central NJ

Jill Hershorin Archivist and Curator, Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest NJ

Mathilda Brailove, an Elizabeth resident who passed away in 2000, spent her life dedicated to working for Jewish causes and served in the unique position as a link between differing communities. Once called “the Golda Meir of Central New Jersey,” today we honor Mathilda Brailove and the enduring spirit which is her legacy to launch our recognition of Women’s History Month.  

Ruth Horowitz, Mathilda’s granddaughter, wrote a beautiful article about her grandmother, detailing the profound impact she had on her community, the state of Israel, and all the women who were inspired by her to follow in her leadership footsteps. 

Here are excerpts from that article, “Grandmotherland: Tracing a heritage through the moves of a matriarch,” published in Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, on February 27, 2002. 

We called our mother’s mother Big Grandma to distinguish her from our father’s mother, who stood less than five feet tall. But even without Little Grandma standing at her shoulder, Big Grandma was a commanding presence, articulate and opinionated. She enjoyed Canadian Club and opera, played a cut-throat game of Scrabble, and made a mean mushroom-barley soup. Mathilda Brailove loomed largest, however, in the international arena of her public life — a life we kids only glimpsed when we glanced at the photographs of her sharing kisses and corsages with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Israeli Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, or when we listened to her stories about her tireless travels and speeches raising money for the United Jewish Appeal. 

I never saw Big Grandma give a speech, and I’ve never been to Israel. But as a child, my speechifying grandmother and the Jewish State were virtually synonymous in my mind: equally exemplary, indomitable, flawless — and distant. In time, as I began to question certain Israeli policies, and as my aging grandmother’s personal trials started to upstage her public accomplishments, these shining myths seemed to fade. 

But seeing past the mythology didn’t bring the situation in Israel, or my fervently Zionist grandmother, into much sharper focus. Since she died last year, three days short of 93, I’ve been reading through the words she left behind in travel diaries, speeches and newspaper articles. I’ve been trying to fill in the nuances of her story, to span the gulf between myself and the cause that consumed so much of her life. 

Big Grandma’s early life is a well-known family story. Born Mathilda Feder in Philadelphia in 1907, just a few years after my great-grandparents emigrated from Vitebsk, Russia, she was one of 12 children, and the only Feder daughter to attend college. After one semester, she married Alexander Brailove, a dapper dentist, irrepressible wit and ace tennis player. 

Al set up practice in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Mathilda gave birth to my mother and her two younger sisters. Through most of the 1930s, as other Americans struggled through hard times and Hitler rose to power overseas, the family lived comfortably swaddled with nursemaids, dancing lessons and fur coats. But the plot shifted in 1939, the year Hitler invaded Poland. My grandmother, who could have simply continued to enjoy her bridge parties and tennis, started devoting her time and dollars to local causes like the USO, the Urban League and Community Chest. 

What motivated her to become involved? At root, it was an act of self-defense. In a 1964 speech, she recounted her growing sense of unease in a world that seemed to have “neither room nor affection for the Jewish people.” At a time when most American Jews were still largely insulated from their non-Jewish neighbors, my thoroughly assimilated grandmother saw herself as a bridge to the broader community. “I was determined to persuade my Christian friends and neighbors that the Jewish people were a solid part of Elizabeth,” she explained, and not “pariahs, or part of an international conspiracy.” 

At the end of the war, when she learned what had happened to Europe’s Jews, she took her concerns to the board of the Council of Social Agencies, on which she was the only Jewish member. But her colleagues struck her as “un-touched, unmoved,” and my grandmother felt abandoned. Convinced that Jews could only depend on other Jews, she resigned from the board and started working exclusively for the United Jewish Appeal. 

My grandmother’s — and Israel’s — transforming experience came in early 1948, two and a half years after the war ended in Europe. The British had been ruling Palestine, under mandate from the League of Nations, since 1922. But the continuing struggles between Jews hoping to establish their own state and Arabs opposing their efforts had led to a United Nations blueprint partitioning the land into separate Arab and Jewish entities. 

The plan, which was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs, was scheduled to take effect in May. But it would never reach fruition. A coalition of Arab states would attack the Jews. The coming conflict would result in the formation of a State of Israel whose borders exceeded the United Nations agreement, with the remaining Arab lands annexed by Jordan and Egypt and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs left stranded in refugee camps. 

That February, 300,000 Jewish Displaced Persons were still waiting to immigrate to Palestine. My grandmother, who had been raising money to help smuggle Jews and military supplies into Palestine, joined a delegation sent to investigate conditions there, and among the refugees still in Europe.  

…It’s easy to understand the upsweep of hope she must have felt, traveling from Dachau — where the ashes of Jews were processed for fertilizer — to the freshly cultivated fields of the Sharon Valley and bustling Tel Aviv, where all the shop signs were in Hebrew. “We are absolutely unaware that we are so far from home,” my grandmother wrote. 

Reading her diaries in 2002, one cannot hear about a place like Jaffa — which in 1948 was a city of 130,000 Arabs and by 1950 had become home to just 6,000 Arabs among 70,000 Jews — without recognizing that one people’s miracle was another’s disaster. But 54 years ago, coming from the crematoria of Europe, with Jews’ own survival so terrifyingly at stake, my grandmother saw only the survivors’ desperate need for a safe home and the Zionists’ determination to provide one. 

On a more intimate level, she was also falling in love with the pioneers themselves, admiring their fearlessness, their “vitality and sparkle” — and their looks.  

…By the end of her stay, Mathilda’s devotion to and identification with Palestine’s Jews had clearly forged her sense of herself as a woman with a mission and the capacity to carry it out. “I have made many good, loyal friends and I am pleased,” she wrote her last night in Palestine. The Jewish settlers “are easy to love, their standards are high and there was every indication that I was accepted.” 

Back home, my grandmother took her passion on the road, barnstorming 53 cities in seven months, raising awareness and dollars. Over the next 50 years, she returned to Israel at least 60 times and frequently toured the United States. Just as she’d once seen herself as a Jewish representative to Christians, she now served as a conduit between Jews, linking refugees to non-refugees, Israelis to American Jews, and officials to would-be donors. 

…My grandmother’s job was to persuade other women to make donations in their own names in addition to whatever pledges their husbands made. She succeeded by evoking in her audiences the same sense of responsibility and self-respect she’d discovered in 1948. Giving is a sign of maturity, she maintained. Exercising one’s capacity to help others is part of becoming a fully developed human being. 

…Relatively few married women were wage-earners in those days, which meant the so-called “plus dollars” Mathilda raised often came from wives persuading husbands to free up extra cash, or stretching grocery allowances to set money aside for the cause. My grandmother wasn’t interested in changing the system, but in convincing women to exercise their power within it. 

…Big Grandma continued to speak in public through her seventies, and even into her eighties. In time, the women who came to hear her were more independent. But Mathilda never relinquished her own ladylike persona. For her particular audiences, this old-fashioned elegance probably just made her all the more appealing and persuasive. It was as if she were telling her female listeners, “We can walk onto the world stage and still expect men to hold the door for us.” 

…It’s not clear, however, that my grandmother expected, or even wanted, to be emulated. Above all, what she did want was to be respected, as a woman and as a Jew. And that is what she got. 

To read Ruth’s article in its entirety, click here. 

To read about Sara Blum, another Greater MetroWest pioneer, read my blog “Beyond the Bake Sale: Women’s Role in Federation.”  

Photos courtesy of the Brailove family