How these pen pals turned letter writing into a 70 year long friendship

Flanders, Hanna David,  Marcus and David’s daugher Orly David Peters.

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

It was 1956 in Rishon, Israel, and 8-year-old Hanna Lavzovski pressed flowers inside a book to dry and flatten them. Then she mailed the flowers to prospective Jewish pen pals in Belgium, Germany and the United States. Hanna got one reply weeks later, from Baltimore after 7-year-old Marsha Wall pulled Hanna’s name out of a fishbowl and sent her a letter.

Last week, 65 years later, Hanna (Lavzovski) David and Marsha (Wall) Marcus reconnected in St. Louis. Their friendship has survived and grown stronger over the decades despite war  (Hanna was a combat soldier in Israel), marriage and each raising a family.

The reunion was hosted by Hanna’s daughter Orly David Peters, who lives here and is a member of Congregation Bais Abraham. They were joined by Hillary Flanders, a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth and a longtime friend of Marcus. 

Flanders described the friendship triad.

“This is a story of a triangular connection of three families,” said Flanders, 72. “You can connect the dots from Israel to Baltimore to St. Louis and back. I feel honored to be part of this bond, and it has personally broadened my outlook. We’ve been together, we’ve shared experiences, joys and upsets. I always knew that Marsha and I had a lot of commonalities, but the thing that struck me was how amazing it was that a dear friend of my dear friend who lives across the world can be so similar to me in so many ways.”

Hanna and Marsha

“I was 8 years old and in Hebrew school, and I picked a pen pal from a fishbowl, and I pulled out Hanna’s name,” said Marsha Marcus, 72. “I started to write letters to her, and we would send things back and forth to each other. I would pack up a shoebox, and I would send things like makeup to her that they couldn’t get in Israel.”

The correspondence was complicated because they didn’t have a language in common. Hanna’s teacher helped.

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“First, I wrote in Hebrew and my teacher translated to English,” Hanna David said. “Marsha wrote back to me in English and my teacher translated it to Hebrew. When I started to study English, I wrote letters in English to her. We didn’t need to translate.

“We wrote each other things that even our parents didn’t know what we were talking about. And when Marsha got engaged to be married, I knew about it before her parents. We’ve had many, many stories over the years.”

One story involves Marcus’ grandfather, a legionnaire who went to Israel in 1967 to fight in the Six-Day War. 

“A lot of men from Baltimore went and signed up for the Israeli army,” Marcus said. “When he was getting ready to go, I said, ‘I want you to visit my pen pal,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’ll try, give me her name and phone number.’ So he got in touch with Hanna’s mother and father. They said, ‘You are staying with us, this is going to be your home base,’ and he stayed with them. Hanna was a soldier at the time. He brought back pictures of her, and I knew she was a real person.”

The two kept in touch, primarily by mail, until they finally met face-to-face in 1980, when the Davids traveled to the East Coast. On a recent call to Israel, when asked about their first live meeting, Hanna David couldn’t remember the actual date. She asked her husband, Doobie, how old she was when she met Marsha. The answer: 31.

That first meeting was emotional for the two pen pals. 

“We were so excited, you can’t imagine, from 6 years old to 31, it’s a lot of time,” David said. “First, we held each other and cried all the time. She took me by the hand, and we were hand-in-hand throughout our visit, which was a couple of hours. At the beginning, we were hugging each other, and we cried. Everyone took pictures of us like it was in the movies.”

Over time, the two friends visited again, in Israel and the United States. Their spouses became friends, too. Marcus’ husband, Doug, an engineer, built homes with Doobie David, an architect. Marcus traveled to Israel for the country’s 65th anniversary, and she got the VIP tour from the Davids.

“I stayed with them for two weeks, and they took me everywhere I wanted to go,” Marcus said. “It was the best time of my life, a dream come true and such a party. Everything was personalized because I lived a life of an Israeli.”

Marsha and Hillary

In 1964, Marsha and her family were vacationing in Miami Beach at the art deco Deauville Hotel. (It was the same year that the Beatles performed at the Deauville for their second “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance, on Feb. 16, a performance that drew 70 million TV viewers.) At the hotel pool, Marsha and her sister met another teenage girl named Hillary Fallick. That meeting began another six-decade friendship.

“Hillary is an only child, and so I guess we started talking at the pool,” Marsha Marcus said. “She lived in Queens in New York. So I kept in touch with her, and she kept in touch with me. I went up with a couple friends to Queens to her apartment and we stayed there.” 

The two friends stayed in contact and often visited each other until Flanders moved to St. Louis from New York.  Years passed, and they lost touch.

“As time progressed, we lost touch with each other,” Marcus said. “It was like she fell off the face of the Earth, and it was hard because we had lives of our own and our children were growing. Then Facebook came along. I found her in St. Louis.”

Then Marcus learned that Ruthie Levine, a childhood friend since birth, also was living in St. Louis. Levine was helping her son Scott prepare to study music at Washington University. (He went on to a career in opera.) 

“I got them in touch with each other,” Marcus said. “Hillary went with Ruthie and helped her shop for everything Scott needed for his college dorm. Hillary, mother that she is, found all the things Ruthie neededfor her son to go to college.”

Then Marcus made one more introduction for Flanders: to her former pen pal Hanna’s family.  

Hillary and Hanna and Orly

For years, Hillary Flanders never met Hanna David, but she felt like she knew her from stories told by her friend Marsha Marcus.

“I heard about Hanna through the years from Marsha, about her pen pal relationship that transformed into a long, deep and lasting friendship,” Flanders said. “She always spoke about Hanna, so when Hanna’s daughter Orly and her family moved to St. Louis, Marsha made the connection for us. We got together with Hanna’s daughter’s family.”

Flanders called her relationship with the Peters family “just a very sweet connection.”

“Marsha put us in contact with the Peters and they immediately felt like family,” Flanders said. “We supported each other. They were in a foreign land, and they adapted beautifully to their new environment, language and culture. They are a beautiful, charming family.”

When Flanders was searching for a comfortable pair of shoes, she learned of Naot, an Israeli company. 

“They are much more inexpensive in Israel, and they are very comfortable,” Flanders said. “Hanna offered to get some for me in my size. She actually traveled with these shoes from Israel to St. Louis.” 

Flanderssaid the friendship with Marcus — and Marcus’ friendship with David — have survived time, geography and the pandemic.

“As I get older, the world has become smaller and more meaningful,” Flanders said.

For Hanna David, her connection to Marsha Marcus is more than a friendship. It’s family.

“Marsha’s mother told me one time when I came to visit the U.S., she said, ‘Sit down, I would like to tell you something. Remember that I am your American mother,’ ” David said. “And when Marsha came to see me, my mother told me that she was Marsha’s Israeli mother.”

David’s daughter Orly feels similarly about Marcus.

“Marsha is like my second mom, my American mom,” Peters said.

Marcus said: “They’re my heart. When you have friendships that last a lifetime, they’re part of your body. They’re my heart.We’ll be friends forever.”