Fannie Chanin is 31 years old. She is bent and wrinkled and speaks with an Eastern European accent. Around her shoulders drapes a crocheted shawl. The shawl is held in place with a tiny white fist.
Chanin, along with a friend from Chicago, is standing at the fringe of a crowd in the Ambassador Room of the Shoreham-Americana Hotel. It is Sunday, opening night of a national convention of Jewish women, and the place is fairly afloat with grandmothers, nearly all keeping time to a blaring Hebrew folk song called "Hineh Ma Tov." Some are dancing in giant circles in the middle of the room.
Chanin is not the easiest person to engage in conversation -- until you hit on the right topic. Like Zionism. Then she will tell you how she has spent nearly all her life trying to advance that cause - whether it was raising money with clothing drives and bake sales, or addressing community clubs. She knew Golda Meir back in the 30s, she says, when both were young mothers and secretaries of a national women's labor council.
She also will say, with the rim of a smile gathering on her old lips, that she has been to Israel five times to work and visit, and that she hopes to make it back once more, maybe to plant a tree in a loved one's memory, maybe just to sit by the shore of Galilee and daydream.
"Then I'm ready to go to Paradise," she says.
They call themselves Pioneer Women. Like those other pioneers who rolled across Kansas by ox wagon a century ago, there is something about their lives that moves. In Hebrew the word for pioneers is chalatzim . It properly refers to those refugees from Russia and Poland who went to Palestine in the early years of this century to drain swamps, drill wells, raise crops, and otherwise turn a brown and parched place into a land flowing with milk and honey.
David Ben Guriou was an early chalatz. So were Yitzhak Ben Zvi, second president of Israel, Levi Eshkol, prime minister during The Six Day War in 1967, and, of course, Golda Meir.
But in a larger sense, any Jewish patriot, at home or abroad, young or old, who works for the establishment and preservation of a homeland for the Jews can be considered a chalutz.
And it was in that spirit that the U.S. branch of Pioneer Women, one of the world's largest Zionist labor organizations (750,000 members in 12 countries), came together in convention this week at the Shoreham.
Not every one of the 1,000 delegates attending the 25th biennial meeting of U.S. Pioneer Women - which ended yesterday - had been to Israel - though most had. Enough also had emigrated from places like Poland and Lithuania.
Gertrude Greenberg, 73, is one of those. She came to America when Harding was President, getting married two years later to a man she barely knew. ("He was a good-looking young American boy. I was a naive European girl.") The marriage eventually turned sour, but Greenberg stayed on, slowly involving herself in Zionist cause. She lives in Miami now, and says she has a few thousand to live on, some of which she's happy to donate for the establishment of schools and youth programs in Israel.
"You see," she says, pulling at the jacket of her double-knit pantsuit, "with the survival of our youth in Israel, we are nothing."
There was an instant, at least, when this week's conference looked like almost any national convention of middle-aged ladies, such were the universals. But once you got by the polyester and plastic nametags and the endless clucking in the lobby, you knew you couldn't have dropped in on a meeting of the National Sugar Beet Growers. There were too many reminders of a dark past.
Such as in the first moments of the opening session when the lights dimmed, the blue and white flag with the Star of David was marched in (alongside an American flag), and a voice quietly said over a loudspeaker: "Israel, your sons and daughters shall not be lost again."
Or five minutes later, when national chairwoman Gloria Elbling of Pittsburgh looked out over the convention 1,000 delegates and said: "We have had to make changes, concessions, accommodations . . . Over the years, many have tried to extinguish us. But we and the holy city of Jerusalem have survived. We refused . . . and still refuse to die."
Abba Egan was one of the convention's featured speakers. The former Israeli foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations showed up in a three-piece banker's pinstripe suit and a proper British accent (he was born in South Africa, educated in England) to tell the conventioneers: "There has not, there will never be, a Middle East without an Israel. We don't have to apologize for our meager few miles. They are the least gift history owes us."
The conference wasn't just rhetoric and old memories. In fact, there seemed throughout a confluence of the tragic and the hilarious, the unlikely and the expected, the curious and the merely mundane - something that might appear incongruous until one remembers the incongruity of Israel herself, a state not 30 years old whose beginnings are narrated in the Bible.
One could feel, as he moved about the convention, a cacophony of conflicting emotions. There was an area, for instance, in which merchants ahd set up tables to sell key chains imprinted with the Israeli national anthem ($1), boxed replicas of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and cheap plastic signs bearing messages like chai (long life) mazel (good luck) and shalom (peace).
Yet a few feet away a door led to a photographic exhibit in which the horrors of Nazi extermination and of the concentration camps were on view. The exhibit was titled "From Holocaust to Redemption" and was manned by a little lady in black Dr. Scholl's pedicure pumps. Nearby, a portable record player scratched out sacred music.
There were other incongruities. Monday morning's agenda featured a fashion show coordinated by Garfinckel's fashion department. As leggy models named Carolyn and Adair and Gerry (or maybe it was Jerry) strolled down runways in chic peasant garb, color slides of lurid bazaars and desolate seashores flashed on a giant screen, while someone's groomed, sonorous voice announced that "Here, ladies, wandering Bedouins and 3,000 years of Israeli history come together to create Harriet's up-to-the-moment ethnic look."
Somehow, it all seemed slightly absurd.
But the conferees weren't absurd, they were stirring. Some, like Fannie Channin, have hardly missed a convention in the organization's 52-uear history. Others, like Fannie Schock of suburban Maryland, attend when they can, usually when the meeting is in their area. (Last time around the convention was in Miami.)
This latter Fannie, clad in a crisp quilted sports coat and wearing a tag that said "Ask Me," could be found Monday in the Shoreham's lobby, selling luncheon tickets. She said she had come on Saturday, a day before the convention opened, to make sandwiches. She stayed on to do anything she could.
"I emigrated from Russia in '21, you know," she said. "I've had a good life here. I've got two married daughters, and a married granddaughter. But I never forgot what I came from. That's why I belong to Pioneer Women. Its helps me remember the Jews are a wandering people and we have nobody but overselves."