For a 16-year-old American immigrant, the siren interrupting Yom Kippur prayers was very unexpected. The war took the entire country by surprise.
The siren blared suddenly, unexpectedly, just after 2pm. Like many other observant Jews in Jerusalem at that moment, I was in synagogue, anxiously waiting for the Yom Kippur Musaf service to end so that I could take a break from the never-ending prayers. I was sixteen years old, totally unprepared for a siren on the holiest day of the year. The other congregants were unprepared as well.
I had made Aliyah the previous year from Sioux City, Iowa, where nothing ever happened. In my first months of living in a new country I was initiated as an Israeli. There was a horrific terrorist attack at Lod Airport, and a few months later, Palestinian terrorists killed our athletes, including a classmate’s father, in Munich. I grew up quickly.
Still, the feeling in Israeli was mostly euphoric, with an invincibility that had persisted since the country’s miraculous victory in the Six Day War. The Labor Party continued to monopolize the government and at the helm was Golda Meir, who spoke a heavily accented Hebrew that American immigrants could easily understand.
On Independence Day in May 1973, marking the country’s 25th year, a military parade was staged in the capital. Like many of my countrymen, I stood spellbound at the sight of marching troops, armored vehicles and tanks in the streets of Jerusalem, making their way past the Old City walls.
With all this military might on display, there was no way that Egypt, Syria, and Jordan would ever attack Israel. The Bar Lev line was impregnable. The Arabs didn’t know how to fight.
Where is the bomb shelter?
I was woken on Yom Kippur morning by the sound of a jet airplane, but maybe I was imagining it. I walked with my father and sister through the deserted Jerusalem streets to shul. It was a surreal feeling only disturbed by a speeding army jeep that raced into the Katamon neighborhood. That was a bit rude on the holiest day of the year, I thought.
Hours later, the reason why that jeep was disturbing the peace became quite clear. When the siren went off, the synagogue hall quickly emptied into the adjoining courtyard. Where was the bomb shelter? Did someone have a key to the bomb shelter? The siren stopped. We returned to the hall for a continuation of prayers. And then, the siren went off again.
My family hurried to a friend’s house where we were to take our afternoon break. The Voice of Peace was broadcasting; its peaceful selection of songs was interrupted with an unusual announcement – the armies of Egypt and Syria had invaded Israel. Other Israeli radio stations began broadcasting the news as well, along with call-up notices for reservists.
That evening, Golda Meir came on television to report in a black-and-white address how difficult the situation was. Nobody really knew what was going on, or how long the war would last. Surely the miracles of 1967 would be repeated and Israel would fight off the Arabs within days?
There were shouts from outside. Someone was walking through the neighborhood calling on residents to “Close the shutters.” A total blackout had been imposed on Israeli cities. The only problem was that no one had turned off the streetlights.
Living in a war zone
My apartment building’s bomb shelter was cleaned and each family was assigned a corner or a section of wall. People brought down mattresses, stools, first aid kits. The shelter remained open but everyone slept in their homes. There would be one further siren the following Shabbat. That sent families into the shelter and my building’s American-born teenagers remained there, even after the all clear signal, to play Risk, a game of global conquest. Thinking back, that was probably insensitive at an hour when Israeli and Egyptian tanks were entangled in bloody combat in the Sinai desert.
Car headlights were painted over, allowing only a slim light to emerge onto the darkened streets. Due to the oil embargo, Israeli drivers were forced to choose one day of the week when they wouldn’t drive their cars. This gave an advantage to religious Jews, who happily attached a shin sticker to their windshield, signifying that they wouldn’t drive on Shabbat.
The war lasted nearly three weeks. Not yet of army age, I didn’t know anyone who was involved in the fighting. I only noted the absence of some teachers from school.
More than 2,500 Israeli soldiers were killed, nearly 9,000 were wounded, and 293 were captured. 400 tanks were destroyed, 100 aircraft were shot down. A statistic not listed is how many Israelis were wounded emotionally and still suffer the war’s long-lasting effects today.
For a 16-year-old American immigrant, the Yom Kippur War was an awakening. My country’s leaders made mistakes, the country was very vulnerable, and much of the world was against us. As a country, we had a lot of atoning to do. Forty years later, those traumatic days still remain entrenched in my mind.