(Photo: Yeshiva University)
A Bullet Factory in the Catskills
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm zt”l Reflects on the War of Independence
A leading light of American Orthodoxy, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, zt”l was one of the great leaders and thinkers of our time. Elected president of Yeshiva University in 1976, he brought the institution to new heights. As a pulpit rabbi at the Jewish Center in Manhattan, Rabbi Lamm was famous for his powerful sermons, still studied by rabbinical students to this day. A scholar of Jewish philosophy and law, he authored over 15 books on Judaism’s relationship to science, law, technology and philosophy.
In 2008, Eric Halivni (Weisberg), founder and Executive Director of Toldot Yisrael, interviewed Rabbi Lamm about his experiences during Israel’s War of Independence and his lifelong relationship with the Land of Israel. The following is an abridged transcript of their conversation, edited for clarity.
Tell us a little bit about your family, and your connection to Israel as a child.
I was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Today it’s a very strictly Chassidic community, but then it was a Modern Orthodox community without much extremism, and generally a good neighborhood to grow up in, if you couldn’t afford to go to a better place. I went to school at a yeshivah, Mesivta Torah Voda’ath, which today is regarded as a right-wing yeshivah, but in those days we didn’t have right or left; it was one of the only ones. It was a happier time.
As a student in yeshivah, of course I had a relationship with Eretz Yisrael. I remember I was probably in the fifth or sixth grade and they showed us a movie. In the movie you find Yossele Rosenblatt, the famous chazzan, singing a moving song about Jerusalem while standing in a rowboat on the Kinneret. I was completely taken by it. It was the first exposure I had to modern Israel, and it was overwhelming. I remember it to this day, and that’s quite a long time ago. But it was something that attracted me. Those were my first feelings for modern Israel.
In my younger years I was a member of Pirchei Agudath Israel, the children’s Agudath Israel, but I also went to HaShomer HaDati, which was a Religious Zionist youth organization that later became absorbed into HaPoel HaMizrachi. In yeshivah, some of the groups were more Zionist, some less, but everyone was attached to Medinat Yisrael.
I was here in Yeshiva University as a college student from 1945 through 1949, at the time of the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. We were very concerned because we knew the Haganah was vastly outnumbered, and we felt we had to do something.
I went with many of my classmates at Yeshiva to a place in the West Village where they were sending blankets to Israel, and in between every blanket there was a rifle to be smuggled in. The kids were very empowered and excited to do it.
Meanwhile, I thought – just packing things, anyone can do that. Maybe I could do something special. I was a chemistry major; I did four years of chemistry in Yeshiva and one year of post-graduate work at Brooklyn Polytech. I thought that maybe science students could do something more to help. So I got hold of a few of my friends; my chavruta Shmuel Sprecher who got his Ph.D in chemistry from Columbia and went on to become the Rector in Bar-Ilan, William Frank, who became a brilliant physicist and mathematician, and Matty (Matthew) Katz, of blessed memory, my roommate, who was very good in technology, and I gave them my idea.
I picked up the phone and I called up the Jewish Agency and they connected me to a man called Professor Pekeris. [Ed. Note: Chaim Leib Pekeris became a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science and created the Weizmann Automatic Computer, WEIZAC, the first computer in Israel.] I told him what I had in mind, but as I’m speaking, he stops me. He says, “Shut up and come over here immediately!” I’m not accustomed to that kind of talk and I was taken aback, but I just did that. I shut up and I went down to see him. When we met, he apologized. He said: “The reason I was so abrupt is because our wires are tapped, and what we’re doing is none of the FBI’s business.” I began to understand the nature of the project.
Well, Katz and Frank were assigned to do some work at a storefront in the West Village, and Sprecher and I were sent up to East Fishkill, New York, a small town in the Catskills, but not in the Jewish part of the Catskills, to a home owned by a Zionist sympathizer. I walk into this place and I see a little man lying on his back underneath a frame of a bed and he’s painting. He said, “Hello, zis is okay, no?” I said, “No, it’s not okay.” He was very upset, though I was just being funny. Turns out that this man was Professor Ernst David Bergmann, who would later become the head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.
What struck me immediately was that my Zionism was a Hava Nagila, singing and dancing Zionism – which is important, but not very serious. But here I found people who never talked about Zionism or patriotism; they just did very good work.
Israel had some guns, and they had the Davidka. But they needed to manufacture bullets. They didn’t have enough natural resources then, so our mission was to develop a bullet that could be produced from the material available to the Jews in Israel. Each of us had our jobs, and we did them well.
One day there was an alarm and we all scrambled – we had to quickly put away all of our papers and chemicals and take out some books and papers relating to fertilizer. It turns out the FBI was coming and our cover story was that we were doing research on fertilizers. They came and left and, of course, they winked. They knew what it was all about, and we knew what it was all about. As soon as they left, everything went in reverse. All the stuff about fertilizer went into the drawers, and the materials we were working on came out.
I was appointed to be in charge of burning the garbage. I was a young man with a bit of an ego and so I thought to myself, “this is why I studied chemistry for four years, to burn the garbage?” I reluctantly threw the garbage outside and threw a match into the garbage bag. The engineers start to scream, “run, run!” So I ran. A few moments later the garbage blew up; it was all combustible materials that we were using to develop the bullets! I barely saved my life because I listened to them and ran.
Everyone in Yeshiva was involved in some way with the war effort. It was a great opportunity to express our ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel) and Zionism in a very practical way. Again, no hora. No, heveinu shalom aleichem, rather real serious stuff. Did we succeed? I think we did in the end. We got the formula and the Israelis were able to manufacture the bullets, which is something which made us very happy and pleased.
How long were you there for?
Several weeks. In order to do it, we had to prevail upon the dean of the college to let us go and not take finals, but to still give us a passing grade for our courses. I was worried because the dean, Dr. Moses Isaacs, was an Agudah-nik (a member of Agudath Israel). But when we told him the story he gave us permission to go. Surprisingly, he was the first Republican I ever met; I couldn’t imagine how a Jew could be anything but a Democrat!
Do you remember where you were on November 29th, 1947, for the UN vote?
I was sitting in my grandparents’ home, in front of a big radio; in those days, before transistors, a radio was a piece of furniture. We sat there listening to the UN General Assembly vote. When Guatemala voted in favor, we knew we were going to win. It was a very exciting time.
Looking back now, 60 years later, do you have any regrets?
Regrets? No, nothing at all. I regard it as one of the highlights of my life. I met people whom I really respected and realized that everything else was secondary to the important work that was being done. I’m grateful for it. It taught me that sometimes you have to do things quietly, even if it’s against the law, because there is a higher law we have to obey. And it worked out, thank G-d.
I always dreamt of Aliyah. When I graduated from college, I was offered a four-year scholarship to Hadassah medical school, but I wasn’t interested in medicine. In those days, I was interested in something that challenges the brain, and that was research; for me, medicine was more or less my menu for dinner. And of course I was mistaken, because it later turned out that medicine was very much on the front line of scientific research. Anyway, I didn’t want to become a doctor, so I turned down the offer.
But then they offered me a scholarship to study for a Ph.D in chemistry at Hebrew University.
And now I was faced with a dilemma. Half of me yearned to learn and teach Talmud, but the other half of my life was oriented towards Israel. I didn’t know what to do; I remember writing out the reasons for going to Israel and for staying in America on a pad, side by side. It came out even! I decided to ask my parents. My father said, “Go to Israel. We have enough rabbis here. Go to Israel. Become a Torah scholar on your own, but go to Israel.” My mother said, “No, don’t. Stay here.” They couldn’t help me, because they were one against one.
So I went to a man who then was my rebbe, Dr. Samuel Belkin, the President of Yeshiva; years later I would become his successor. I told him, “Rebbe, I want you to tell me what to do. But don’t give me any reasons, because if you give me reasons, I’ll find other reasons to go against it. Just tell me what shall I do!” He said, “stay here,” so I stayed in New York for most of my career. Many years later, I was asked to take over the presidency of Bar-Ilan and we considered it very seriously. In fact, my wife and I were already looking for a house in one of the towns next to Bar-Ilan. But as luck would have it, we couldn’t get along on certain details and it didn’t work out. But I was almost there.
We were never politically involved in this kind of Zionism or that kind of Zionism; the politics didn’t matter to us much. We just loved Israel – we were tzionim! My family has followed this path. Though my children don’t live there, I have grandchildren who do [Ed. note: Two of Rabbi Lamm’s granddaughters, Peninah and Bracha, founded Here Next Year, an organization dedicated to helping young religious Jews make Aliyah]. I am blessed to have a family that feels very strongly about Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael.
Toldot Yisrael is a Jerusalem-based nonprofit dedicated to recording and sharing the firsthand testimonies of the men and women who helped found the State of Israel. 1,300 video interviews (more than 4,000 hours of footage) have been conducted to date and are housed in The National Library of Israel, the official library of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. The interviews and several acclaimed film series are shown in schools across the Diaspora, sent by Israel’s Ministry of Education to every history teacher in Israel, and can be viewed at www.youtube.com/toldotyisrael. More information about Toldot Yisrael is available at www.toldotyisrael.org