Jews and their friends the world over are celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel (declaration of independence is May 14).
Few, however, know the true story behind the flag of that ancient Jewish Nation, now a modern State.
The story begins in a very small town called Svadish in Lithuania (then a part of Russia).
Morris (Maishel Arriz in Hebrew) was born there in 1874. Svadish was one block long with very small one-story houses, except for the Harris house which had two stories. The first floor of this house contained their blacksmith shop, ice house and saloon. The townsfolk gathered in the saloon on Saturday nights to drink and listen to the Harris family entertain, for they were also the village musicians.
Life was very hard for Russian Jews. They were not permitted to own or farm the land. When they were attacked during the horrific pogroms of the 1880’s, many Jews fled Russia. In 1891 Morris’ family, his father, mother, sister and brother joined the thousands immigrating to America – A Land of Freedom and Golden Opportunity!
Arriz had been Morris’ family name in the old country. It meant Cedar Tree in Hebrew. (Other relatives are called “Cedarbaum” (Yiddish-German). When the Ellis Island official asked their name – they answered “Arriz!” The official wrote down “Harris!” – and so it was from then on.
The Harris family settled in New York City with relatives who lived in Harlem.
To earn some money Morris and his father bought a pushcart. They sold soft drinks (a saloon on wheels). One day after a severe windstorm, a store owner asked Morris if he could repair a torn awning. Because his mother, Lena, was an expert seamstress, Morris took the awning to her. Thus began Morris Harris’ career in awning repair, upholstery, and flag decoration.
Eventually the family opened a shop called the “Harlem Upholsterer” on 116th street, between Lenox and 5th Avenue (see photo above). They specialized in canvas products, awnings, bags, and covers. They also created flags and banners for parades and special affairs.
Morris was designer and inventor.
When his father died before the end of the century, Morris became the head of the family. He welcomed into his home many relatives and friends newly arrived in America. They were known as “Lanzmen” (coming from the same town or same area.) They would be helped and housed temporarily until they found their own way to make a living. One of these houseguests was a young, beauty with curly red hair named Mary Kahn. Love bloomed. Soon Morris and Mary became man and wife.
The young couple became interested in a social group known as “Havevy Zion” (Lovers of Zion). This group had a goal of saving money to buy land in Palestine for a Jewish settlement. The money they saved was returned after a year because the Ottoman Empire discouraged Jewish group settlement in Palestine. But the dream did not die.
In 1897 the first international meeting of worldwide Jewry was held in Basil, Switzerland, to consider establishing a homeland for Jews in Palestine. It was to be a haven for oppressed Jews from all over the world. Representatives from Havevy Zion groups attended this meeting. The returning New York Havevy Zion representative was greeted with a reception in which various members contributed their talents in cooking, baking, etc.
Morris Harris used his talents to design a suitable banner and decorations for the reception. He created a flag of Zion. He made it the same size as the standard American flag – 6 x 10 feet. He chose the colors from the traditional Jewish prayer shawl the “Tallis.” It was sky blue and white, symbolic of heaven and earth. He designed two horizontal stripes with the biblical six-pointed Star of David between the stripes. His mother, Lena Harris, actually sewed the flag. They also made twelve smaller flags representing the 12 tribes of Jews.
Havevy Zion loved the flag. Soon other groups were requesting Zion flags for their organizations. It was accepted as the official Zionist flag at the second International Congress held in Switzerland in 1898. Morris Harris continued making flags of Zion for many years until he gave the design to the American Flag Company.
The Flag of Zion was used as the “Jewish Flag” everywhere in the world until 1948. Then, when the State of Israel was born, it too adopted Morris’ creation as the official flag.
Morris Harris lived to see this great honor. When his mother Lena died, to honor her part in it, he had inscribed “The first Zion flag was made by her” on her tombstone.
Although he never left his adopted country, America, Morris Harris was a dedicated Zionist who wanted all Jews to have the option of returning to the ancient homeland of their people. His dream lives on as the Flag of Israel flies high over the Jewish State.