Batsheva Pomerantz introduces us to Yakov Maimon. In addition to being Israel's first stenographer, he helped thousands of new immigrants to Israel integrate into Israeli society.
With his round spectacles and bald head peaking under a brimmed hat, Yakov Maimon would appear at the oleh's door together with a high school student. He would say in Hebrew: "Hello, I'm Maimon. And what's your name?"- a rudimentary starter that most olim can follow. After a brief introduction to the student, he would leave. He knew that the student would ease the hardships of the oleh, coping with challenges ranging from employment to culture shock.
Volunteer and motivator par excellence Yakov Maimon and his volunteers helped thousands of olim from all over the world between the 1950's-1970's. In addition to assisting olim integrate into Israeli society, he inspired them to become volunteers with even newer olim.
I speak from personal experience: I was both a beneficiary of his volunteers, and later on was recruited in his battalion of volunteers.
I had met Maimon in 1969. I came as a child with my parents and siblings from Long Island, NY. We lived in the absorption center in Jerusalem's Katamon Tet neighborhood. Our miniature apartment could fit into the playroom of our house in Long Island. The main room was a combination living room, dining room and bedroom. Maimon came to us late in the evening when we were quite exhausted. He came with a woman soldier.
I had thought before aliya that the Hebrew that I had learned at the Jewish day school would be sufficient in Israel. Yet, what worked for praying and studying Bible, didn't work for understanding news, shopping in stores and making friends. We had to attend Ulpan. With Maimon's volunteer I had a chance to practice talking without feeling self-conscious and to read Hebrew newspapers for purposes other than homework. She was interested in the ups and downs of our daily life.
In 1974, I was in ninth grade. We were asked to volunteer with olim in a new neighborhood in north Jerusalem - Neve Yakov. The request was made by none other than Yakov Maimon. I couldn't turn down his plea.
We would travel with Maimon in a small van cramped with volunteers. I was assigned to a family from Georgia. Not Georgia in southern USA, but Georgia the southern USSR, called "Gruzya" in Hebrew.
The first wave of Soviet immigration had arrived in the early 1970's, following the worldwide campaign pressuring the Soviet regime to allow Jews to leave. We had prayed at the Western Wall and written encouraging letters to Soviet Jews. I would finally meet a family whom I indirectly helped immigrate.
The surnames of most Georgian Jews had the suffix "-shvili". Everything was strange for these olim. Israel was more modern and Western than Georgia. I identified with their feelings of strangeness in a new country, although with me it was reverse. Israel in the early 1970's was then less modern than the United States.
The olim would offer me a hot cup of tea, and I conversed with them in easy Hebrew. I helped a young girl in Hebrew and math, and spoke with her about our daily lives.
I didn't know back then that Maimon was a walking encyclopedia of Zionist history. As the inventor of Hebrew stenography, he wrote and recorded speeches of the congresses, conferences and meetings in pre-State Israel since the mid-1920's. I learned this a couple of years ago from a biographical book in Hebrew called Mi Ha'Meshuga HaZeh? ("Who is This Crazy One?") by Ruth Yardeni-Katz, who was recruited as a volunteer in the late 1950's.
Maimon was born in Russia (later to become Latvia) in 1902. His parents were Bella and Eliyahu Wasserman. An avid reader, he took bookkeeping and German stenography courses during World War I. His stenography skill gained him popularity - since he could record accurately entire lessons and then decipher them.
After the Balfour Declaration in 1917, many Latvian Jews were inspired by the Zionist idea, including Maimon. He improved his Hebrew skills, and in 1921 he set out for pre-State Israel, encountering many bureaucratic and financial obstacles. Maimon was determined and finally entered the country. His characteristic tenacity helped him throughout life.
In preparation for aliyah, Maimon/Wasserman, Hebraicized his surname. Wasserman means "man of water". Initially, he chose "Ish Mayim" - the literal Hebrew translation of Wasserman. Informed of its awkwardness, he changed it to Maimon, sounding like mayim - "water".
During Maimon's job search, a clerk suggested that he develop Hebrew stenography. A theoretical method existed, but it was not practical. He tried applying the German method to Hebrew, but the languages differ greatly. After some temporary jobs, he found a permanent job in the Jewish National Fund (KKL) and then in Keren Hayesod.
Maimon developed a practical method for Hebrew stenography. A good stenographer needs many hours of practice. He needs to be educated to make sense of the content and nuances of the speaker. As the only stenographer in the country, he sometimes worked 12 hours straight. For every hour of writing, three hours of deciphering are needed. Maimon taught his method to students, and until his death in 1977 he created new abbreviations.
In pre-State days, David Ben Gurion had heard about Maimon's skills and used him to record his speeches. Labor Party leader Berl Katzelneson, who spoke at a speed of 140 words per minute, was a challenge. Yet Maimon accurately recorded his speeches.
Maimon reflected about his work: "More than once, you are privileged to great experiences. To record an inspiring speech of a leader, or to record a historical event, and then you feel part of the creation of the state." On the flip side, he also wrote down many trivial moments.
Menachem Ussishkin, KKL president praised his work: "Your invention of Hebrew stenography has special importance for us in the revival of the language, since it provides the complete capability to use the Hebrew language at all the congresses and public conventions without worrying about the loss of most of the content. This is what had happened before your invention."
Maimon's career included recording speeches of the Word Zionist Congresses and the government meetings.
But Maimon's legacy is due only in part to the recording of the speeches of the founders of the State of Israel. It is due mainly to his influence on thousands of olim and hundreds of volunteers.
Maimon's work with olim began in the early 1950's when waves of olim came from North Africa. His wife Esther was active with an organization "Imahot Ovdot" (Working Mothers) that would visit the ma'abarot - the transit camps were thousands of olim were housed in makeshift huts. The women would assist in running a household and caring for the children. Maimon would sometimes accompany his wife.
Maimon realized that for a successful klita (absorption), olim needed direct help in Hebrew. Education was the key to a successful absorption, and proficiency in the country's language is essential for education. His philosophy was that individuals can help, not only institutions. One must go to the olim's homes - a fact which the authorities didn't understand.
The ma'abara of Luzim was the first venue of many in the Jerusalem region. He recruited 8 volunteers from the Seligsberg High School, then located in central Jerusalem. He offered Hebrew lessons in a large tent. At first the olim were reluctant to come, but they soon enough developed a rapport with him. Maimon encouraged the confused olim. At times, his volunteers were also bewildered and wondered what was expected of them. But they watched Maimon and learned his down-to-earth method.
Although most olim had a strong desire to learn, women had to be convinced to study. The volunteers opened up a window to the world of education for these women.
In addition to teaching Hebrew, Maimon and his volunteers would discuss with the olim their daily lives, their small and large hardships, and their feelings.
While still holding down his regular jobs, he relentlessly went to the authorities, fought bureaucracy, and eventually got his way. His enthusiasm rubbed off. He inspired many others, demanded that they volunteer and raised funds.
Volunteers were recruited from youth movements, high schools, army bases, universities and kibbutzim. At times, he was accompanied on his recruitment missions by the likes of Ben Gurion, President Yitzchak Ben Zvi, ministers and Knesset members.
Maimon worked tirelessly, receiving great satisfaction by seeing his olim become productive Israeli citizens. Never expecting awards of honor, he received the Distinguished Citizen of Jerusalem award from Mayor Teddy Kollek in 1967. In 1976, he received an honorary degree from the Hebrew University and the prestigious Israel Prize.
Maimon inspired young volunteers to become active with klitat aliyah. Other volunteers, followed his model of recruiting students and soldiers.
Waves of immigrants are comprised of individuals contending with the challenges of a new country. It is up to other individuals to assist with these challenges, finding the time and patience to understand their needs. It's the personal attention that makes the difference in a successful klita. This is Yakov Maimon's legacy.