Transistor radios were the iPods of the Sixties. You could stuff one in your pocket and still ride your bike.
During my teens pocket radios were constant companions. They lay on the beach with me in summer and curled up with me under the covers on winter nights. Between Top 40 tunes from the Beetles, the Monkeys, and the Rolling Stones, they brought exhilarating news of space flights, terrifying tales from Vietnam, and wrenching reports of race riots.
It all felt routine until May 1967, when my little radio confirmed the fretful talk of the adults in my life: Israel was being bullied into a fight for its life. Once again the future of the Jewish people was on the line.
A few of my friends had older brothers in Vietnam, which was scary, especially when anxious parents were driven to drink. This Israel situation felt different. Now here was a genuine fear that my Israeli cousins, along with a big part of the Jewish people, might be driven into the sea.
Israel wasn’t some abstract idea; my family had skin in the game. Relatives had made aliya in the 1920s; my great-grandparents were buried on the Mount of Olives.
Among my parents’ closest friends were Sonya and Misha. Like an aunt and uncle, they were part of every Seder, every Chanukah party, every family outing. Sonya tutored me in Hebrew, prepped me for my Bar Mitzvah, and drove me to my first Habonim youth group event.
Sonya and Misha were “alumni” of Bergen Belsen and of Auschwitz, of British Displaced Persons camps, and of the Haganah (the nascent Israel Defense Forces). They had come to Chicago to build new lives far away from crematoria and combat zones—realities that were seared on their souls and never could be left behind, especially in the spring and early summer of 1967.
In the days prior to June 5 my mother and Sonya would huddle in the kitchen, their faces grave, their voices muted. “Never Again” was no slogan, it signaled a raw and visceral fear in the pit of the stomach; a lump in the throat that could neither be soothed nor swallowed; an impending test of will, of strength, of faith, and of fate.
On June 4 my mother and I left Chicago by train to visit my grandmother in Florida. We awoke in our sleeper compartment on the City of Miami the next morning, switched on my transistor radio, and heard the news we dreaded: Israel was at war. My mother burst into tears. I thought of Misha and Sonya and of my Israeli cousins, and knew in my gut that another Holocaust was one potential outcome.
Throughout the day, to the relentless clack of wheels on tracks, we sat glued to that radio listening to war reports.
The rails of time do not veer from their course but lead inexorably where they will, to a siding at Auschwitz, to the alleys of El Arish, to an unknowable future haunted by fading memories.
Etched in my memory is a boy not quite 14 feeling the palpable anxiety of his parents, of Misha and Sonya, and of all the adults in his world. It is the memory of a fear, from the depth of which within the course of days exploded exaltation, as the magnitude of Israel’s redemption became clear.
History has its revisionists, but emotional memory is hard wired. My transistor radio is long gone, but never will I forget its blow by blow tale of Israel’s survival.