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Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010

Golda Meir’s Milwaukee Childhood

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A number of famous figures have called Milwaukee home, but none are more historically relevant than Golda Meir. Israel’s first female prime minister spent most of her formative years in our city.

According to her autobiography, My Life, Golda’s first eight years were not happy ones. Born Golda Mabowehz in 1898, she lived with her father, mother and two sisters in Kiev, Russia, in part of the Pale of Settlement, a ghetto-like area first established at the end of the 18th century to discourage Jews from mixing freely with Christians. Being a Jew in Russia meant always being on guard against pogroms. Supporting a family during that time and place became nearly impossible, so Golda’s father, like so many of his countrymen, journeyed to the United States to earn money. Three years later, in 1906, Golda and the rest of her family followed him to Milwaukee, where he had found work as a carpenter in the Milwaukee Road shops.

The Mabowehz family lived in an apartment on Walnut Street within a neighborhood dominated by Jewish immigrants. Golda’s mother augmented the family income by operating a dairy store, where Golda would man the counter when her mother went to the market. According to Golda Meir: Portrait of a Prime Minister by Eliyahu Agress, Golda managed to master the rudiments of the English language so that by the time she entered Fourth Street School (now Golda Meir School) in 1906, she could understand what was being spoken.

Golda’s interest in public service was evident even when she was a girl. In fourth grade, concerned that her classmates were too poor to buy schoolbooks, she organized the American Young Sisters Society to raise money to pay for them.

By 14, Golda was absolutely committed to her education. Her parents, on the other hand, wanted her to marry. She ran away to Denver to live with her older married sister, Sheyna Korngold. Sheyna and her husband regularly hosted freewheeling parlor discussions where Golda was exposed to debates on Socialism, Zionism, women’s suffrage and more. A year and a half later, her parents reconciled with their daughter’s fervent drive to keep studying, and she returned to Milwaukee to attend North Division High School.

In 1916, Golda attended the Milwaukee State Normal School for Teachers (one of the predecessors of UW-Milwaukee). Her first job was teaching in a Yiddish-speaking Folks Shule, which was steeped in labor Zionism. It was then that Golda joined the Poale Zion (Labor Zionist) Party.

According to Agress, Golda said, “When I joined it, there was no doubt about my aliyah (immigration) at the very first opportunity.” In 1917, Golda married Morris Meyerson, a Socialist she met at her sister’s home in Denver, with one condition: Their marriage would take place only if he agreed to go to Palestine and live in a kvutzah (an agricultural community). Golda gave up teaching and devoted herself to party activities until the young couple saved enough money to leave Milwaukee for the Promised Land in 1921.

 

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