Memoirs of Elihu King

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HABONIM and my adolescence

see also Habonim -- description of a movement

Habonim was - and still is, but in a different world entirely - the youth organization of the Labor Zionist movement. In the USA, the Labor Zionists ("Poale Zion") were a nearly but not quite Marxist Socialist movement with two factions: those who followed the ideas of Nahum Syrkin and "came to socialism through Zionism", and the followers of Ber Borochov who "came to Zionism through socialism". Syrkin and Borochov were "enlightened" secular Jews from Russia, supporters of the revolution there who at the same time were fervent believers that Jews had to return to Zion and become enlightened agricultural workers for the most part. The members of Poale Zion in the USA were deeply idealistic intellectuals, mostly workers and petty shopkeepers, tailors, dry cleaners, that sort of thing. They met together in the evenings and on weekends for informal and formal discussions, lectures and unending internal bickering and politics, smoking furiously, yelling, drinking lots of tea, singing and dancing folk dances of the Yishuv, the Jewish settlers in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s. Their children were in Habonim also called "Young Poale Zion", which when I joined in about 1941 had branches in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, someplace in New Jersey, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, and Los Angeles.

At that time I was living in Winnetka with Israel and Berenica. My cousins Dov and Nonnie were very active in Habonim in Chicago; their parents (Pinchas and Elsie Rappaport) owned a ladies lingerie and notions shop in Cicero, on the outskirts of Chicago. My cousins Bernie and Dannie were the children of Zyama and Ethel Rappaport who had a dry cleaning shop in Evanston, another suburb of Chicago, and they too were active in Habonim. My father was distant from such things. As a Supervisor in the Board of Jewish Education in Chicago and really a non-Zionist, and a bit aloof as well, he did not participate in that political life.

How, then, did I get involved?

When I lived with Israel and Berenica my behavior pattern was to do bad things, mainly stealing money from them or from the purses of their friends when they were in our hou se for a visit. Looking back from here and now that can be seen as an attempt to generate an emotional response from Israel, who was towards me as well as others (and this is a pattern I uncomfortably see in myself now) warm and friendly to a depth of 1/16" and glacially walled in below that. Trying to re-capture my feelings at that time, my feelings about stealing the money, it seems to me that other than a sly expectation that if I only took part of the money nobody would ever catch me........I did not experience, at conscious level, any feelings about what I was doing, any shame at doing wrong or hurting my parents or anything at all. I do not think I even in my childhood regarded my parents - or anybody else for that matter - as having feelings. I was so intensely bound up in my self that I didn't see others as beings like me at all, they were almost two dimensional abstractions!

When Israel caught me, as always happened after a while, he responded by "reasoning" with me. Never overtly punished me, nothing as straightforward as that. This process consisted of moral bullying until I agreed that I had done wrong and needed to do right. Once every so often this seemed not enough to him, and he would decide - and get me to request - that he and I should go off someplace for a while. I think that he felt he should spend more time with me but that the thought only came up after I had been caught doing bad things. The rest of the time I saw him very little, which was okay with me as it was with him.

Anyway, this was one of those times. I was very happy in Winnetka with my bicycle, and he was a mighty (weekend) athlete (in potential) and so he got me to propose that he and I would make a mighty bike ride someplace together. And, though I cannot recall how that came into it, it was to the Habonim summer camp near Michigan City, Indiana, about 160 miles from my home that we would ride and, and....though I cannot recall how that came into it, I would stay there for a two-week session. It seems to me that I knew nothing about Habonim, or about this camp, or that my cousins would be there (and indeed I don't have any memory that they were). Hell, I was 13 then, and still not being told diddly!

And so we set off, I on my big-wheeled heavy old bike and he on Berenica's 3 speed lightweight English bike. We pedalled through Chicago on south and got 100 miles before stopping off for the night in a roadside pre-motel. Sore and failing, we made the other 60 miles the next day, and then of course Israel went home and there I was. Well I was used to being left in strange places by then, so I made the best of it. In fact, I liked it a lot. Can't say I made friends but I did make comradeship with a few boys, and enjoyed the political discussions and Hebrew orientation (remembering bits of my life in Palestine, and my Hebrew pronunciation) almost as much as the singing and dancing. It was the singing and the dancing that got to me. Was it because it enabled me to be together with others without risking intimacy? Maybe. Anyway, at the end of the two weeks I was hooked, and wanted more.

But when I got back to Winnetka, all I did was go to school for that year at Skokie Junior High School. Did some more bad things, got caught, got punished by the school and taken by Israel off on a father and son time to Devil's Lake, Wisconsin, where I had a terrifying and dangerous climb with him - but that's another story. The I got sent to Pleasant Hill Academy and that kept me well away from Habonim for a school year.

When I got back we had moved to Chicago, 59th and Blackstone which was then a very nice neighborhood near the University of Chicago campus. Habonim was way out on the West Side; I had to go down to the Loop by Illinois Central (IC), and then take a Roosevelt Road streetcar out to Kedzie Avenue to the Jewish Peoples' Institute (JPI) where meetings were held. It was a long, cold ride, but worth it. After the meeting ended, about 10 at night, we'd all go over to Sam's delicatessen for mountainous corned beef on rye sandwiches with chocolate phosphate to drink, an awful and dearly beloved combination. On Saturday night we'd then go back to the JPI and dance and sing until morning. It was wonderful, I was happy, I was a person in my own right for the first time, and began to make real friends.

Habonim was mainly adolescents, the age spread was 10 to 30 though at 21 one was expected to leave it for the adult Poale Zion but many just stayed on There was a lot of sexual tension. I was and stayed a virgin, and didn't neck or fool around at all. I wanted to, I had started masturbating and got a hard on every few minutes when I was girls, and there sure were a lot of pretty girls in Habonim and some of them made overtures to me but I made myself oblivious. I knew what a piece of shit I was, and was desperately afraid that I would be discovered and rejected. So at one level I had a big feeling of being Outsider. It was the warmth of the meetings, the passionate discussions, the joy of the singing and the physical release of the dancing that made Habonim so valuable to me. And the fact that I was a real family member, that people cared about me and showed me (and even though I denied it, I did feel some of their warmth seeping past my defences). Habonim became my life. I left school in my second year of High School, left Hyde Park High school and got a job - a succession of jobs, in fact - and kept my evenings and weekends for Habonim.

Berenica joined the Womens Army Corps (WAC) and was posted to a camp in New Jersey, and Israel got a job in New York and moved there to be near her. I stayed in Chicago, got a room at the YMCA on 56th St and just kept on truckin'.

Then Habonim decided to open an Institute for the training of its leaders as organizers of youth. I was accepted as a student, despite my being only 16, but I was regarded as an "emancipated minor" which was true enough. With a Chicago contingent I went to Manhattan for the 6 week course, the first that had been set up.

HABONIM : a description of the movement

The youth movement of Poale Zion (the Zionist-Socialist movement that was MAPAI in Palestine, led by David BenGurion), Habonim was a functionally autonomous youth movement in the USA. Secular, humanist, with one stream following Ber Borochov's position of Zionism because of Socialism and the other Nahum Syrkin's view of Socialism deriving from Zionism. What Borochov said (as I understand it) was that the necessary socialist ideology could best be expressed by Jews in their own socialist homeland, compared to Syrkin's formulation that Jews in their homeland should and would create their society according to socialist ideals. A small distinction, but it occupied us in much discussion.

"Socialist", in this context, means: non-exploitation of labor expressed by worker ownership of the means of production, social justice expressed in equality before the law and respect for the rights of minorities, and economic democracy demonstrated by a very small income range between richest and poorest.

The leaders of the movement were self-selected, mostly from a core of activists who had come up through the movement itself. Some of these "young adults" (aged 18 to 40) were members of the "parent" movement Poale Zion, while others identified themselves only as members of Habonim itself. There was a sort of a bridge group called Young Poalei Zion, but that name was sometimes applied to Habonim itself and there may not have been any separate entity; I'm not sure.

The basic unit was the "K'vutzah", and K'vutzot were in one of the two age groups: Solelim were under 14, and the rest over 14. Some members were in a Garin (in addition to or sometimes instead of a K'vutzah) which was a group preparing itself for aliyah - for going up to Palestine to settle on the land together.


Habonim = the builders Poale Zion = workers of Zion
K'vutzah = group Solelim = road builders; foundation workers
Gar'in = seed Aliyah = ascent (to Zion)
MAPAI (Mifleget Poalei Ertez Yisrael) = Workers' Party of Israel

Every K'vutzah had its Madrich (guide), an older person though often still a teenager who mobilized the group, recruited new members, saw to it that meetings were called and took place and led the intragroup cultural and educational programs and with the group participated in city-wide activities of and around Habonim. Meetings were typically once a week.

Every city had a center, usually in a Jewish Community Center or the like. City committee (Vaad) meetings were held there, and Onegei Shabbat (celebration of the Sabbath, a non-religious (for Habonim) Jewish cultural program of readings, dance, plays, secular service and songs on Friday night) and other cultural and artistic events. There were lots of such events, utilizing the talents of the membership in prose and poetry composition, dramatic reading, instrumental and vocal composition and performance, costuming and theatrical set design and production and so on.

In addition to the year-round weekly meetings, summer camp was a very important part of the movement. There, for four two-week sessions, communal life was experienced in a kibbutz-like setting. Far from the city and living in huts or tents, the urban young Jews got a taste of nature and a taste of outdoor physical work. Work was assigned daily, as on a real kibbutz, and boys and girls got pretty equal treatment when it came to kitchen and janitorial tasks.

Older people gave seminars on the relevant subjects: socialism, history of Zionism, the ideal of physical labor (a philosophy expressed by A.D. Gordon, among others, aimed at de-urbanizing Jews as a means of bringing them back to a more healthy and well balanced society), group dynamics (to help us understand our own youth movement and also show us how to deal with competing movements), Bible in secular terms, history of Palestine, analysis of the labor movement in Palestine, analysis of the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Palestine (socialist fraternalism was the aim; but we were not binationalists as was Hashomer Hatzair), American politics, civil rights in America, the American labor movement, etc.

The summer camps were usually highly charged experiences for us adolescents. There was a great deal of autonomy and self government, and outstanding opportunities for leadership and self expression in social ways as well as intellectual and artistic ways.

Every year or so there was a national meeting, a Kinuss, at which the movement gathered itself together and refreshed its enthusiasm and leadership.

Habonim was strong in Manhattan (where the National Office was located), Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles. My guess is that membership in my day (1944-48) was about 2,000 nationally.

The leaders got their power organically, by their contributions of time and energy and their force of character. They were, for the most part, splendid role models for the rest of us: hard working, devoted, intellectual and idealistic. Their failings were almost unnoticed. Our peers were, for the most part, true comrades. Those we led, those younger than we were, gave us admiration and the gratification of seeing them flourish in return for our caring and responsible leadership. Oh, there were plenty of ego trips and power plays and politics - but I'm not aware of any harming. Looking back at it (perhaps in the rosy glow of time) it seems to me that it was a healthy and nourishing movement.

Blue shirt, white cord

Once upon a time..... when the world was young and so was I (it was the 1940s, and I was in my teens) I was a member of Habonim - Labor Zionist Youth. It was a youth movement in which my cousins Dov, Bernie and Nonnie, were active. I started by going to their summer camp at Michigan City, Indiana, when Harry Sosewitz was Rosh Kvutza and Bernie Adelman and I got caught going into town for some Chicken in the Rough and got expelled. But I stayed in the movement and went to meetings on weekends at the Jewish Peoples' Institute in Chicago (not knowing that my father had got his start there as a Hebrew teacher, and was its Director before going on the the Board of Jewish Education as Supervisor).

Habonim became my real family. We wore blue shirts, of a special blue that I think is called Royal Blue in the world. These shirts had a V neck opening in front, with holes to lace a cord through. Hashomer Hatzair, pure Marxists and to the Left of Habonim, had pre-empted red as the color of their cords (they wore the same shirts) and so to our irritation we had to use white cords. Oh, well.

We came to socialism on two paths, there were two factions within Habonim. The Left wing came via the writings of Ber Borochov, who held that socialism implied, required and contained zionism. Fine. The Right wing which I supported followed Nahum Syrkin instead, who wrote that zionism implied, required and contained socialism. That seemed to me a more humanist approach, and that was important to me. The discussions were unending.


I think it was the summer of 1945 - yes, of course, we celebrated VJ Day at the Habonim camp near Saugus, California - and I was turning 17 when I came to Los Angeles from New York after the end of the Habonim Institute.

Why did I go there? Well as was the case so often, I was at a loose end. And my cousin Dov was going to be the camp director, the Rosh Mahhaneh, that year, so I went to be a counselor, a madrihh.

My Aunt Lela and Uncle Jack had their home in North Hollywood, my mother was living with them with my two brothers, and that's where I stayed when I wasn't at camp.

Camp was the Habonim camp near Saugus; Green Valley was the proper locating term. A work crew went up before the camp season to prepare the place and I was on it. The plant consisted of a large dining hall with kitchen attached and a few meeting rooms and work rooms hooked onto it, a sort of garage - that we used as arts & crafts room - nearby, a small house for the nurse and infirmary. In front of the dining hall was a tree shaded courtyard with benches around it. Off a little way was a scruffy swimming tank. And across a meadow were the tent platforms on which we put up the army surplus tents, the kind that had side flaps that could be rolled and strapped up to catch a breeze or let down when it rained. In each tent were about 9 kids each with a metal framed bed, and a counselor. In front of the tents was a level field for morning exercise and athletics. We had to clear the rattlesnakes off the field every few weeks, going across it in line and killing them with long handled hoes, Across from the field was the road, and across the road a sharp hill of about 800 feet, covered in secondary growth. There were big trees here and there in the campground proper, and we had maybe 40 acres.

During the two week preparation period the work crew lived without tents, or beds, in sleeping bags on one of the tent platforms. We did our own cooking. The work consisted of weeding the paths and discussion areas around the big trees, washing down and straightening up the kitchen and dining hall and work rooms, painting signs, and cleaning the weeds out of the swimming tank. There were about 8 of us, and we enjoyed the work and each others' company. Once in a while Dov would drive us into town for a restaurant meal and a movie but most evenings we just sat around for a few hours after dinner, and smoked and talked. Then we sang the lovely songs of the Yishuv, and danced the hora and the tcherkessiyah and the debkah. At night, lying there out in the open, the stars seemed very close in the painfully clear sky. It was chilly and bracing at night.

Then the campers came. I was given a tent full of 12 year olds, and it was allright. I certainly didn't provide them with anything like leadership or guidance, but of course they didn't want any so that was okay. I did distinguish myself by vomiting copiously all over the floor the night we celebrated VJ Day, the real end of the War, and had too much beer on top of too much wine. I tried to stop myself but it all came rushing out. My kids cleaned it up and greeted me with some added respect the next morning as I groaned my way out of bed.

A camp song described the start of the day (to the tune of "Mi zeh mistovevv sham ba hhatzot ha gorenn"); hitamloot is group exercise:

We go to hitamloot so early in the morning
"Ten minutes to hitamloot" is all we get for warning.
Grab your coats and sweaters
Hitamloot is better
Than to get those extra winks of sleep!

Then came breakfast, and then a work detail. All campers worked, it was part of the Habonim ideology that said that physical labor is a vital part of our existence. In reaction to the Jewish urban past and the need to develop an agricultural entity in the Yishuv in Palestine, there was perhaps an overemphasis on work, a stress on its importance. But set against the intellectual ferment and esthetic emphasis that flourished without any special ideological push, perhaps it was good that we did that. Besides all that - work at maintaining the place needed to be done, and the fees were low and we employed, I think, only two people (the cook and the nurse) and so it was needed. Also it was satisfying. The place was our place, and working in it bonded us to it as well as to each other. Good workers received social strokes, as on the kibbutz, and when I had put in a good few hours I felt an honestly earned satisfaction that was rare for a bourgeois kid.

After work, at about 11 in the morning, there were study groups, hhugim. About ten or twelve kids, of like age, would get together under a tree or in some other comfortable spot and, led by one of the madrihhim, discuss some aspect of Zionist or Socialist thought: the class struggle, nationalism versus internationalism, Marx's theory of surplus value or the dialectic process, the economy of the Yishuv, relationships with Arab farmers and workers...........

Then at noon we'd eat lunch, and follow that with about two hours of personal time, rest, writing, drawing etc.

At about 2:30 would be arts and crafts, athletics, choir, dancing workshops and that sort of thing, until about 4:30 when we'd do personal chores and get the dining room ready for dinner. Kitchen crews were assigned on a rotating basis, like all the big jobs. We'd have a sort of community meeting at the tables before dinner: announcements, introduction of visitors, warnings about the snakes, discussion of complaints about food or anything else, plans for any special events in the near future. Then dinner.

After dinner people who had formed affinity groups, especially reading groups in Jewish literature, would meet. And there would be singing and dancing, and bed at 9 for the younger campers, at 10 for the older ones - and whenever, for the counselors. At that time I was still a virgin, so I stayed only to talk.

My dearest friend was Kieve. One night for entertainment he and I painted ourselves with luminous paint (probably carcinogenic, but what did we know then) and danced to some light classic after turning the lights off in the dining hall. Probably some sort of talent night. We were well received - quite good, we were, actually, but completely upstaged by Dov and Eva who dressed up danced a terrifically sexy Argentinian tango.

I must have met Chana about this time but hell she was so young.

An older woman (maybe 20!) made a play for me when we were staying at her house after camp broke up, tried to get into my sleeping bag but I drowsily - and fearfully - pushed her away.

My feelings about this summer camp, and the people I was with there, were colored by my perception of myself as "outsider". Although in fact I was deeply involved with the people and the activities and was seen by others as not only belonging but a central figure......inside I saw myself as alone, untouched by and untouching of others, and essentially no good. Still I was working too hard to be depressed very much.

I think that after camp was over I went back to New York, and stayed with Dov and Eva in their apartment on Madison Avenue (they were doing a business venture, framing paintings professionally, I believe). I don't know how I got money, maybe Israel was supporting me.

Clear in my vocation - to be a kibbutznik in Palestine - I went for training in agriculture to the Hhava, the farm, in Cream Ridge, New Jersey. It was a working farm with about 15 Habonim members, like me getting their training for work on a kibbutz. I do not remember anybody who was teaching. And as for friends, I think that Chav and Chai from Chicago were there. And of course D'vora was there, and we had a friendship with a little flavor of unspoken and undisplayed physical attraction. I had already met Chana in Los Angeles and was dreaming around about her, but she was only 15....... The HHava was nebulous to me. I didn't like the work, I didn't find a place for myself in the structure. There was a cow that foundered, bloated, on the front lawn, and it seems to me that I was the only one who knew what to do - but maybe that is made-up memory and I don't trust it. After about six weeks or two months, I wanted out. But I wanted to leave without paying the price of saying that I wanted to leave. I went into town, and came back with a story that I had a heart condition and could not work and therefor had to leave........ Probably nobody believed me. D'vora sat with me in my room and talked about limited work, she talked about how it was allright not to want to stay......but as was my pattern and maybe still is, having said it no matter how unbelievable or unwise it was to stick with it I stuck with it. It was as if my showing that I am changeable was beyond anything that I could accept.

Anyway, so I went back to Manhattan and stayed with Dov and Eva some more, and then somehow I went to Los Angeles. How did I travel? Why did I go there? I don't know. Wait.....some of it is coming back. Was that when I was a passenger on a city bus being ferried from Detroit to Los Angeles? Or was that later? Or earlier? My God, it is all so confused. Let's say it was that time, and I'll tell the story here and if it turns out it was at a different time I'll move it to another time.

Right. A relative on the Rappaport side had a deal to ferry a bunch of urban buses from Detroit, where they were made, to Los Angeles. I was allowed to ride in one, to keep the driver company. The driver was a big, nice fellow and we got along allright. The idea was to drive straight through. When he got sleepy, I would sing to him, all the folk songs I knew which was a lot. I passed him bottles of milk which were his sustenance. Going along the mountain roads near Albuquerque at night, in the snow with the wind howling and Bill (?) drifting off to sleep and swerving all over the place I was terrified. The next night we were still driving, and got to Indio, maybe 80 miles short of Los Angeles. I quit the convoy and got a motel room for the night. Next morning, much refreshed, I had a shave by a barber (so it couldn't have been earlier in time, this must have been it) which was the best sort of luxury with the hot towels and all, and a huge breakfast and caught a train to Los Angeles.

From the train station I went to the Fairfax district where my aunt Yonah Shamir had an apartment. She was Israel's sister. I was to stay with her. The next morning she drove me to Los Angeles County General Hospital: in her managing way, she'd got me a job there as an orderly. There she left me. I was assigned a room, and my room-mate showed me around and told me what I was to do. He got me a white uniform and left me in the room to put it on and join him. I left the uniform in the room, walked out of the place, and got a Red Car out to my Aunt Lela in North Hollywood. Quick decision, that the Hospital was not for me, and I think a good one.

Right, so there I was living in North Hollywood. Got a job in a kennel, lasted one day. Knocking around, loose. Don't remember how I lived what I did who I was any friends.

Came summer and I went to camp again. That's when Chana and I started heavy courting and foolin around. I carefully read the textbooks, asked advice of my cousin David the doctor and he recommended Shieks and K-Y Jelly which I duly bought......and so in the bushes, broken from time to time by calls for "Lee-e-e-" and "Cha-a-a-na" by our friends looking for us because we were late to an Oneg Shabbat, I lost my virginity and (I think this is so) Chana hers. It was allright but by no means deliriously wonderful. We got much better later on. But there we were, a veritable couple, and all was well........when a bombshell came! Lil, the Rosh Kvutzah, kicked me out because of my heart condition, the old lie I had told at the Hhava. She didn't want to take responsibility, under the circumstances. No appeal. So off I slunk to North Hollywood. Came up to camp on weekends, very hard, usually had to walk the 6 or 8 miles in from Saugus.....but it was so romantic. From North Hollywood I wrote 20-page letters to Chana, damn near every day.

Summer finally ended. Chana came home to City Terrace - a long way from North Hollywood. Miriam and the boys had gone back to Malaya. I moved into a rented room in City Terrace, to be near Chana. Israel agreed to fund me at $100 a month (plenty) and I agreed to go to a technical school and learn to be a radio repairman so I could make a living.


I lived in a room in City Terrace. The house was inhabited by the owners, an older couple who were sort of like all my aunts and uncles, and their son and daughter in law. We all shared the one bathroom. I hated it. I put a hook-and-eye on my bedroom door so I could be sure nobody came in on me. The intimacy of using a bathroom with others was painful to me. They were loud and loutish (I was an elegant, disdainful aristocrat even then).

I got up in the morning and walked a few blocks to meet Bunny, my Habonim comrade who drove downtown to work and was my transport. Once downtown I took a streetcar to the school and had a doughnut and coffee for breakfast at a greasy spoon there before going in. The school was very unpleasant for me. For one thing, the course in radio repair was mostly about how to cheat customers. Secondly, I was intellectually unattached to the science and technology involved. My idealistic notion - that this was a practical and helpful vocation, as compared to academia or the professions - was not enough to make me pay much attention; I was not a good student. And finally, the other students were mostly veterans who were using their benefits to take the course, and they had a common body of experience and a language and culture that excluded me. Though I made no effort to be included.

In the afternoon I came back to Boyle Heights and spent the evenings with Chana; I guess she must have been in high school then.

After a few months of that, my cousin Nonnie got a flat on Irolo Street while attending UCLA (he ended up with a Master of Hospital Administration degree) and I moved in with him. This was good. We got along well together. He was amiable and easy going. We tossed for who got which bed, and he got the couch and I got the Murphy bed that folded up into a wall closet.

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