David Biale and Rachel Biale in April 1972
David Biale and Rachel Biale in April 1972

‘Aerograms’: An American-Israeli love story, told in 258 letters

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In the summer of 1970, 21-year-old American college student David Biale volunteered on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in northern Israel. There he met Rachel Korati, an Israeli nine days shy of her 18th birthday — and his future wife.

After David’s return to the U.S. to study at UC Berkeley, he and Rachel began sending each other letters. Between 1970 and 1972, they exchanged 258 missives — sometimes written daily, though they took about 10 days to reach one another — in which they shared their thoughts about Judaism, Israel, literature and the counterculture movements of the day.

Cover of “Aerograms Across the Ocean: A Love Story in Letters, 1970-1972”Those letters are now the basis of a self-published book, “Aerograms Across the Ocean: A Love Story in Letters, 1970-1972.” (Aerograms were one sheet of very thin paper that folded in on itself so no envelope was needed.)

The Biales will be reading from and discussing the book at 7 p.m. April 13 in a Jewish Community Library virtual event co-presented by New Lehrhaus.

David Biale re-discovered the letters at home in Berkeley in 2018, but during Covid he began to put them in order and reread them. The Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of History at UC Davis, Biale, 72, queried fellow historian and close friend Fred Rosenbaum about whether the public would be interested. Rosenbaum’s answer was an emphatic yes.

“I was deeply moved by the thoughts and feelings of two people so wise beyond their years,” Rosenbaum said in an email. “Their love for one another grew, slowly to be sure, out of passionate interchanges about Jewish identity, cultural norms of California and the kibbutz, and the tumultuous political events of the early 1970s. We often think of the ‘youth culture’ of those years as hedonistic; here we have rather the beginnings of a thoughtful search for understanding and meaning that set the direction for the rest of their lives.”

August 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of David and Rachel’s meeting, and on top of being shut in by the pandemic, David received a cancer diagnosis around that time — which provided him with a sense of urgency to embark on the letters project.

Rachel Biale, 69, is also an author, and has worked as a therapist, cultural programmer and community organizer. Looking back, she said she’d be the first to admit that her education and interests were completely atypical for a kibbutznik like her.

“Although there was trust in the [Israel Defense Forces], the ‘67 war had also produced this atmosphere in Israel of complete panic, that it was going to be like the Warsaw Ghetto, and the sense that this is the Jewish story of destruction,” she said. “There was this small group of high school students led by kibbutz movement intellectuals, questioning what is this legacy of Jewish history and destruction and diaspora and Judaism, and I was part of that.”

Young Rachel had spent a year in Massachusetts with her family, and in that time had not only gained complete fluency in English but had learned about the wide cultural gap that separated Israelis and American Jews.

While those familiar with David Biale’s academic work — he is the author or editor of 11 books on Jewish history — might be interested to read about his interests as a young man, the letters are much more than that.

“Looking back at the trajectory of our lives and what we’ve done professionally, you can see the baseline in them of what preoccupied us and what we were passionate about,” Rachel said.

Those preoccupations? David was involved in the free speech and anti-Vietnam movements in Berkeley, and even had a brush with the U.S. draft in the later phase of war. Rachel served her mandatory IDF service during the time they were trading letters.

Her political consciousness was being formed right around the time Israel had grown in size with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. His was evident in his involvement with the Radical Jewish Union, which staged a sit-in over a lack of emphasis on Jewish education at the time.

No, these were not your average young adults — and their letters reflected it. They were written by two people who, before they knew they were in love with each other, were in love with Jewish philosophy and thought.

In one sequence, they discussed their reactions to Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel “Catch-22.”

Rachel: “David, I finished Catch-22! It’s great. I finished at 1:00 AM at night and could not go to sleep. This always happens to me — I feel very strange when I finish a good book — what do you do now? I can’t just go on to my business as if nothing happened —  as I did before I knew this book. I used to have sort of a solution when I was young; I cried, but … it’s harder to do it now.”

David, responding with what he deems “mock horror”: “That book is the most subversive book ever written — if you really identify with it, you are destined to become as radical as we are on this side of the Atlantic. I dare say that that book is near-unto the Bible of this generation in America.”

Neither are religiously observant, but both have a deep interest in Jewish texts and philosophy, such as the work of German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. And when they finally do express their love for each other, they quote lines from the Biblical poem “The Song of Songs.”

“When I discovered this 17-year-old kibbutznik who had similar interests, it sparked this very intense dialogue between us,” David recalled in an interview, “which we were really too naive and stupid to realize was the beginning of a romance.”

And how did it feel  to open up their love story to everyone?

Well, they did give their two adult children, Noam and Tali, veto power over anything they found too embarrassing. That being said, Tali told her mom at one point, “I wished I could reach back 50 years and grab you two and say, ‘You idiots. Don’t you see you’re in love?’”

“Aerograms Across the Ocean: A Love Story in Letters, 1970-1972” by David and Rachel Biale (Wildcat Press, 254 pages). Available from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and online. Book talk at 7 p.m. April 13 on Zoom. Free, registration required.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."