Pearl of Gold, Force of Nature
By Karin Gold
This past winter break, six days after my birthday, my grandmother passed away. It was December 18th. I got the call around eight in the morning and cried for a good two hours while my dad rushed to buy plane tickets to Israel so we could go to the funeral and say goodbye. We stayed in Israel for two weeks for the funeral and the shiva, the seven-day period of mourning, and flew back to the US by New Year’s Eve. During my short time in Israel, I shuffled through all her old pictures and journals and was reminded of her life, a story I have heard many times. Only now do I realize how much inspiration can be drawn from her journey and her strength.
My grandmother, Pnina Kelem Gold Noiman, was born on November 29th, 1929 in a small town in British-controlled Palestine (later to be known as Tel-Aviv, Israel). Growing up, she was always surrounded by family. Either alongside her twin brother, Shmulik, or her younger brother Yechezkel (Ezekiel), she was never alone, and she liked it that way. Sadly, at the age of twelve, Pnina suffered her first loss. Her mother passed away and she was left as the only woman in a house filled with three men. Due to the tragic reality of her mother’s death, she had to become the mother figure for both of her brothers and quickly assumed the role of housewife.
At the age of fifteen, Pnina made a decision for her family and the Jewish community. She ran away from home and joined what was called the Haganah (Protection). The Haganah was a group of Jewish teenagers and adults who wanted to be part of an army to protect their land from invasion before an organized Zionist military even existed. While she was part of this impromptu organization, her job was to deliver hand grenades and explosives to other units, a job punishable by death by the British forces. After serving for two years in the Haganah, she joined the Palmach, the underground army of the Yishuv (Jewish community), prior to the formation of the state of Israel. Coincidentally, the United Nations voted in favor of the notion to partition the British mandate of Palestine in order to make room to create an Independent Jewish State of Israel on her sixteenth birthday. However, just because the UN voted it into existence, did not mean that the notion was recognized right away. There were still battles to be fought and the very idea of a country to protect.
During her service in the Palmach, Pnina went to Jerusalem in the Orthodox Battalion in 1948. In Jerusalem, specifically in the village of Mekor Chaim, she was part of the protection agency and went undercover for six months. During these six months, no one heard from her or knew her whereabouts. In Jerusalem, one of her jobs was picking up the dead bodies on the street and organizing them for a proper burial. While serving, Pnina was one of the only three girls in the entire Palmach that participated in combat during the war in 1948 and even found herself in face-to-face combat against Sudanese soldiers.
Finally, at the end of the war, she came back to Tel-Aviv and was reunited with her family. In that same year, the first-ever Israeli newspaper came out and Pnina Kelem was on the cover. An extensive article was written about her explaining how she risked her life in order to help create the State of Israel and protect the newly formed country. After the war in 1948, Pnina went to work in the legal department of the IDF and met a man named Benjamin Gold. Now Benjamin, or Benny, as he liked being called, was seeing a lovely girl at the time and was unfortunately quite happy in that relationship. Pnina, as was characteristic of her, managed to worm her way into his life and became his confidant. She listened to all his newly relevant relationship problems with his girlfriend, and comforted him when he was upset. He inevitably fell in love with Pnina and, after breaking it off with his old girlfriend, they were married just two years later. In 1951 they had a son and by 1961 they had a total of three children: Yoram, the oldest, Orna, the middle child and only girl, and Ehud (Udy) the youngest. Benny was a construction worker and an architect and because of his job, the entire family (with exception to Yoram) relocated to the small country of Sierra Leone in Africa and lived there for a year while Benny finished building a water tower in the city of Freetown.
In 1967 they returned to Tel-Aviv to continue their lives in Israel. In 1968, when little Udy was only seven years old, Pnina faced another tragedy when Benny passed away in his sleep from a heart attack at the age of forty-two. This devastating and completely unforeseen event shifted the family dynamic in a very familiar way. Orna, like her mother before her, was forced to assume the role of housewife and disciplinarian while Pnina worked two jobs in order to provide for her family. Finally, after being alone for ten years, Pnina found Moishe Noiman, also a widower and one of the only men who could handle a woman with a fire like hers. He moved in with her after the youngest child was out of the house and they started their 32-year long relationship together. In those thirty-two years she continued to work and in that time became the grandmother of six. Each one of her children had two of their own and, continuing the trend of her family, the children’s genders alternated according to their birth order: boy, girl, boy, girl, etc.
In 2009, Pnina riskily had open-heart surgery at the age of eighty. Luckily she recovered, but because of the surgery, her memory was never the same. Doctors say that after enduring this type of physical trauma, it is possible to develop Alzheimer’s, a condition in which one loses their short-term memory abilities. Because of this degenerative disease, about a year later she barely remembered her own grandchildren and confused her children with one another. In the summer of 2010, right before my eldest cousin’s wedding, our family put her into a home that had an on-call staff to make sure she remembered to eat and continued to function normally. Although she was not happy to go to the home, after a while she did not remember when she had gotten there and simply adapted. Even at eighty-one years old, Pnina Gold was not an easy patient to have. When someone bothered her, she would deliver the following warning‚“If you don’t shut up in the next five minutes, I’m going to go over there and smack you myself!” Unbeknownst to the other loud patients and the staff, she was completely serious. She walked right over to whoever was making the ruckus and smacked them, either with her cane or with her bare hand, just so that they would be quiet. Luckily she was living in Israel, and the hospital staff was not only used to this type of behavior but also unmoved by her threats and her occasional misbehaving. Sometimes they would even send her into other patients’ rooms to keep them in check! It would be safe to say that even with her crazy antics, she displayed her chutzpah everywhere she went. Pnina was definitely what one might call “a woman with balls.”
Once in a while, Pnina had to receive blood transfusions because of her heart condition.
On December 18th, 2011, she went in to the hospital for a routine transfusion. Things went wrong, as things often do. Her heart was very weak, and she was old. She passed away at the age of eighty-two, leaving behind Moishe, her three children, six grandchildren, and infinite friends. Her funeral was very beautiful. Many came, including the six grandchildren, four of whom lived outside of Israel. Family and friends laid her to rest in a respected cemetery in Israel with a beautiful tombstone picked out by her children.
This woman was my grandmother.
A woman of valor, integrity, kindness, and tremendous chutzpah. I grew up with her playing Rummikub, listening to her stories, and raiding the candy cupboard made only for the grandkids. I grew up getting knitted sweaters every year, the best food anyone could taste, and kisses that pierced my face with her sharp nose and sharp chin at the same time. I will miss her more than words can describe and so will everyone who knew her. She was my grandmother, my friend, and my hero. Her name, Pnina, literally translates to Pearl. Pearl Gold. And that’s what she was, a pearl of gold. Rare, beautiful, and although malleable, also strong. So here’s to you Savta Pnina, Savta Pina, Savta Ptitim. You were the most interesting, inspiring, and heroic person I have ever met. Much love from the world below, I know you’ll give them hell up there.
Published on page 12 of the Winter 2012 issue of Leviathan.