Homemade flag to honor independence

1200 Betsy Ross of Israel flag
Rebecca Affachiner, known as the "Betsy Ross of Israel," with the flag she created from a bed sheet to help celebrate the new state of Israel in May 1948.

By David Geffen

JERUSALEM - As Israel celebrates its 68th Independence Day on Thursday, a Philadelphia native is seeking a permanent home for one of the nation's earliest flags.

Ezra P. Gorodesky, 87, lives in a one-room apartment surrounded by stacks of books, photographs, magazines, and ephemera reaching almost to the ceiling. He never married and never had much money, but he did have an eye for objects of historical importance.

"Philadelphia gave me life," he said. "Jerusalem has nurtured my soul."

Gorodesky counts among his most significant possessions a flag bequeathed to him by its creator, Rebecca G. Affachiner, considered by some to be the "Betsy Ross of Israel," according to her online profile in the Jewish Women's Archive.

Before leaving for Israel in 1960, Gorodesky went to see Rabbi Max D. Klein, who was in his 50th year as spiritual leader of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park. Klein gave him Affachiner's name as a friend from their student days at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

"A few weeks after arriving, I went to see Rebecca," Gorodesky recalled. "We became close friends. Rabbi Klein came to Israel to visit and we went to see Rebecca. She opened the door and recognized him. 'Max, I told you no 50 years ago,' she said, and with a big smile added, 'Alas, it is still no.' "

Once he moved to Israel, Gorodesky would open old book bindings in search of Hebrew manuscripts from the 17th through 19th centuries. In the process, he has amassed an extensive collection of manuscript fragments, Jewish photos, and paper ephemera. He has donated more than 1,000 items to the National Library of Israel, which dubbed him "The Kitchen Archaeologist" in a 1989 exhibition of 250 fragments he found under bindings.

"Ezra P. Gorodesky is different from most collectors who donate their collections to libraries and museums," wrote the library's director, Malachi Beit-Arie. "He was never a wealthy man, but he possessed those special qualities that are essential to a collector of modest means: the right instinct, enthusiasm and a lot of patience. ...

"Moreover, he is one of those special collectors who enjoy sharing his treasures with scholars."

Born in Strawberry Mansion in 1928, Gorodesky developed a passion for collecting at an early age. Growing up in the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the United States, Congregation Mikveh Israel, then at Broad and York Streets, he studied the historical documents displayed there.

After Olney High School, he attended the University of Pennsylvania. He took a job at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, then worked 10 years at the old Daroff & Sons Botany 500 clothing factory at 23rd and Walnut Streets (now the Riverloft apartments).

All the while, he scoured the city for objects of interest in flea markets, at house sales, and via trades. By 1957, the Free Library of Philadelphia was exhibiting rare Hebrew books from Gorodesky's collection.

Affachiner, meanwhile, grew up in New York City, where in 1907 she was the first woman to graduate from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She became principal of a school for Jewish girls in New York, then a director of Jewish charities in Hartford, Conn., and Norfolk, Va. In 1934, she sailed for Palestine.

She was 64 years old in May 1948, when an American consular official urged her to leave Jerusalem immediately due to the expected outbreak of hostilities. Affachiner refused.

"I cannot abandon my sisters and brothers," she told the newspaper Ma'ariv. "I have waited my entire lifetime to see the rebirth of a Jewish state. I do not intend to miss it."

Affachiner cut up a bedsheet and sewed it into a flag with a six-pointed star and stripes. She colored it with a blue crayon.

Late on the afternoon of Friday, May 14, 1948, when the news came over the radio that David Ben Gurion had proclaimed the new state of Israel, Affachiner went out on her porch and raised her flag. She flew it each year thereafter on Israel Independence Day.

Gorodesky served as her caregiver for five years until she entered a nursing home. She died in 1966.

"Rebecca regaled me with stories of the flag," recalled Gorodesky. "I saw her fly it on two or three Israel Independence Days. She made me promise that I would take care of the flag because, she said, 'It was my personal way of welcoming Israel into existence.' "

He has kept that promise since and is now seeking a suitable home for the flag. On Thursday, the Kitchen Archaeologist will honor the Betsy Ross of Israel by flying her flag.

Rabbi David Geffen is a former spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington and Temple Israel in Scranton. geff706851@yahoo.com

His grandson Ori Burg, a Tel Aviv filmmaker, made a short video about Ezra Gorodesky that can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/62141618.