Fifty years. All year long retrospectives and celebrations of big cultural events which took place in 1969 have been marked and reviewed. The moon landing, Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Manson family murders, the moratorium to end the war in Viet Nam March on Washington, Sen. Edward Kennedy’s mishap at Chappaquiddick, opening of Easy Rider, Golda Meir’s election to Prime Minister of Israel all mark 50th anniversaries this year.
1969 was also the year of my bar mitzvah. In Jewish tradition as a boy or girl turn 13 he/she is celebrated for the achievement of entering their teenage years with the ritual of being called to read aloud from the Torah, thus joining the community with the colloquialism, “today you are a man” or woman. Mazel Tov!
As a minor Jewish comedian once quipped in recognition of a well-known American middle-class bar mitzvah gift, “today you are a fountain pen!”
On the occasion of my 1969 bar mitzvah I asked for the privilege of addressing the congregation of my Denver synagogue and my rabbi agreed, with the caveat that he would review my speech first before granting final approval. Even though not quite 13, already big world events had caught my attention, everybody seemed consumed by change, controversy, rebellion, and war and I sensed my place in all of it.
That moment seemed like an excellent opportunity to make some pertinent observations from a synagogue podium. And you might say my engagement in political events went public.
I agonized for weeks over the content of my bar mitzvah speech and decided my consciousness of Israel, my connection as a Jew and in particular the contrast between a good war (Six Day War) and a bad war Viet Nam were going to be the subject.
Just two years before, a young and vulnerable Israel had outsmarted and out executed several neighboring Arab countries poised for a 3-front invasion. The legendary prowess and heroism of Israel’s undermanned, and underequipped defense forces was born, with famous pictures in illustration.
On the American home front however, 18 yr. old high school age boys were conscripted into the military, receiving just 6 weeks of training, then hundreds of thousands were shipped over 8,000 miles away to fight the communists in Viet Nam – on the basis of the domino theory. By 1969 there were over a half million U.S. soldiers stationed and fighting in Viet Nam. Over 58,000 would be killed, over 200,000 injured. Of course just 6 years later America abandoned Viet Nam.
Clearly War was Not the Answer that is unless you knew had to conduct it like Israel. Short and to the point. The bonus of capturing the old city of Jerusalem, while a moment of deep emotional satisfaction for Israelis and Jews worldwide, was noted by the Arab/Palestinian civilian population as a further extension of the catastrophe. Both versions are still with us today 50 years later.
It was possible, I suggested to be both anti-war and at the same time feel Jewish pride in a people re-emerging from the Shoah (Hebrew word for catastrophe)to defend themselves while finding a meaningful existence in a country dedicated to the protection of Jews. Although I didn’t receive even one fountain pen, the memory of that short speech 50 yeas ago is carried with me today, in my new home.