Alon Ben-Gurion, the grandson of Israel’s primary founder and first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, engaged a packed house at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts at the Owings Mills JCC in a vigorous Q&A session after the screening of a documentary about his grandfather called “Ben-Gurion, Epilogue” on Tuesday.
The event marked Alon’s 79th viewing of the documentary.
“I watch it again and again and again. I thought that after the first couple of times I would get bored with it, but I don’t,” he said in an interview before the event. “Every time I see it, it’s very emotional for me. The family suddenly comes alive after 40 years.”
The documentary kicked off the JCC’s 30th annual William and Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival, which coincides with the 70th Anniversary of Israel’s Independence. Many of the films showcased at this year’s festival are Israeli.
“Ben-Gurion, Epilogue” was produced from six hours of footage from a 1968 interview with David Ben-Gurion that was recently discovered at the Spielberg Archives in Jerusalem. The film provides the audience, almost equally, with candid reflections on the then-current state of Israel — “If I had a choice between peace and all the territories we won last year [in the Six-Day War of 1967], I choose peace” — and amusing insights into his colorful personality — “I didn’t know the curse of the telephone. It interrupts me every time I’m reading a book.”
“I learned a lot about his selflessness,” said Owings Mills resident Cherie Stewart, adding that Ben-Gurion’s humor illustrated the strength in using levity to make it through trying times. Stewart’s husband Kerry, seconded the notion.
“When he needed to be a leader he really stepped up to the plate,” said Kerry. “But he was a relatively simple man that lived by what the Bible says without being a zealot about religion.”
Alon’s own personality is most certainly influenced by his grandfather, who he also described as simple, with no use for materialism. Like the prime minister’s distaste for telephones, Alon, who was born in Israel in 1951, had fond memories of living a life off-screen.
“I had a great childhood. First of all, we didn’t have televisions. We didn’t have telephones or Facebook. You actually had to talk to people,” he laughed, adding that his grandfather’s status in the brand new state of Israel had little impact on his own social status amongst peers. “Kids in the neighborhood cared more if knew how to play soccer than if my grandfather was the prime minister.”
While his peers might not have fully appreciated the brilliance of David Ben-Gurion, Alon certainly does, even if the admiration came later in life. The Prime Minister died in 1973, just over a month after the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War. Alon, who was only 22 and serving in the Israeli Defense Forces at the time, said once the war began, he never saw his grandfather again.
After the prime minister’s death, Alon continued to learn about his grandfather and gain an even deeper love and appreciation for him.
“As you grow up you start to realize the magnitude of the man,” he said. “We take our loved ones and friends and family for granted. Then one day they’re not there anymore, and then comes all the questions that you want to ask.”
When speaking about his grandfather, Alon chose not to speculate on how the prime minister might feel about the current state of Israel if he was alive today. The notion of “if,” he said, is meaningless. Instead he shared only what he knows to be true, including his pride in the Israel Defense Forces.
“For him, the idea of Israel Defense Forces was his baby,” he said. “For him, after 2000 years of Diaspora, to have a Jewish Army, which is one of the best in the world, it was unbelievable for him.”
The Q&A, like the film, had poignant moments balanced with humor and levity. Alon told the story of his often overlooked grandmother, Paula Ben-Gurion.
“She was a feisty one,” he told the audience, and proceeded to tell a story of Paula, a former nurse, addressing a crowd of student nurses in Jerusalem. Before introducing Paula, the hospital’s head nurse quipped, “If you listen to the doctors, you too might become the wife of a prime minister.”
“That’s all Paula had to hear,” said Alon. “She got up, came to the microphone and said, ‘I did not marry a prime minister. I made a prime minister.’”