(New York Jewish Week) — Golda Meir may have been known as the Iron Lady for her steady leadership of Israel, but her lasting mark on New York City was made in bronze.
A bronze bust of Meir is located in a plaza between 39th and 40th streets on Broadway in Manhattan. Since 1979 it has been known as Golda Meir Memorial Square.
The bust had already been commissioned when the plaza was dedicated in honor of Meir, Israel’s fourth and so far only female prime minister who died in 1978. Malcolm Hoenlein, then executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, consulted with Clara Stein, Meir’s sister, before approaching the city with a proposal for the square.
“We felt that for it to really be representative and to have a personal significance, a sign was not enough,” Hoenlein told the New York Jewish Week.
Meir visited — and extolled — New York multiple times before and after becoming Israel’s prime minister in 1969. She served in the role until 1974, when she resigned following Israel’s flawed but ultimately successful performance in the Yom Kippur War.
The last years of her life are getting another look with the new biopic about Meir’s life, “Golda,” starring Helen Mirren, set to hit theaters Friday. The film, directed by Oscar-winning Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, takes place during the three-week period of the Yom Kippur War and focuses on Meir’s involvement in the war and her legacy.
It was just after Meir’s death that Hoenlein embarked on a plan to memorialize her. He approached Jack Weiler, an honorary chairman of JCRC who owned a building on 39th and Broadway, who offered the location for the plaza.
“He was very enthusiastic because he knew Golda well,” Hoenlein said of Weiler.
Meanwhile, sculpturist Beatrice Goldfine, who also knew Meir, volunteered to contribute the bust. Approximately 2 feet tall, it rested for decades atop a granite pedestal before being relocated more recently to a plinth surrounded by decorative foliage inside the plaza.
Hoenlein was drawn to the plaza because of its location in the heart of the Garment District — an area that was once dense with tens of thousands of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Another draw to the area was the Jewish garment worker sculpture just one avenue away.
When he chose the site, people warned Hoenlein that the Garment District’s demographics were changing, and the Jewish presence was starting to decline. “They were very concerned that [the bust] would be vandalized all the time,” he said. “The fact is it has never been vandalized. There was not one single anti-Israel or antisemitic attack on the location.”
The only damage to the bust has, he said, been the result of pigeons who he assumes “are not lined up with any particular ideology.”
The addition of the sculpture also aimed to make the plaza a gathering space. Hoenlein recalled using it as a space for various pro-Israel rallies over the years.
Meir frequently visited New York. She called it “a haven of refuge” for Jewish people from “the tears, fears, humiliation, degradation and death that was the share of Jews in Eastern Europe,” in a 1969 visit to New York covered by JTA.
During that three-day stay, Mayor John Lindsay presented Meir with the key to the city and the Gold Medal of the City, the highest award.
“Israel has conquered the desert and defeated it, but today, a single woman has conquered the heart of New York. New York is yours,” he told her.
“She visited New York on numerous occasions. She had close ties and many close friends, people that she knew well,” Hoenlein said.
In 1947, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion planned to go on a fundraising tour in the United States, but Meir insisted that she go instead.
“Two days later, with no more baggage than the thin spring dress she wore and the handbag she clutched in her hand, she arrived in New York on a bitter winter’s night, so precipitate had her departure been that she had not had the time to take the convoy up to Jerusalem to fetch a change of clothes,” according to the Yeshiva University Library’s blog. “The woman who had come to New York in search of millions of dollars had in her purse that evening exactly one ten-dollar bill. When a puzzled customs agent asked her how she intended to support herself in the United States, she replied simply, ‘I have family here.’”
Meir visited the Modern Orthodox flagship on two occasions: in 1963, addressing the alumni association as Israel’s Foreign Minister, and in 1973, as Israel’s prime minister, to receive an honorary degree.
Golda Meir was born in Kyiv in 1898, but moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her family in 1906. She lived in the Midwestern city until 1921, when she emigrated to Palestine with her husband.
The new biopic isn’t the first portrayal of Meir’s life. In New York, there was the 1977 Broadway production “Golda” by William Gibson that Meir attended at the Morosco Theater in New York and called “terrific!” Gibson revisited Meir with a 2003 one-woman Broadway show, “Golda’s Balcony,” starring Jewish actress Tova Feldshuh as Meir.
Meir had strong feelings about the city. Coming from a family of refugees with roots in Czarist Russia, “The first lesson of what democracy really means, I learned here,” Meir said during one of her New York visits.
There’s a plaque in Meir’s honor inside a Milwaukee library, and a school named for her there; her only known surviving residence in the United States, in Denver, has been turned into a small museum after narrowly escaping demolition in the 1980s. Meanwhile, a life-size statue of her sits on a park bench in Tel Aviv with one depicting David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and her legacy looms large in Ukraine, where leaders and soldiers alike say they take inspiration from Meir’s fierceness in fighting for her own country’s survival.
But Golda Meir Memorial Square is by the far the most-visited site dedicated to her — even if most of the people passing through don’t know the significance of the location.
“New York was the center of Jewish life, it still is, and is the appropriate place to have this kind of commemorative site,” Hoenlein said. “I don’t think that there’s another one like it in the United States that is a gathering point and perpetuating Meir’s memory for over 40 years.”