We arrived in Jerusalem in the fall of 1966 for a year’s sabbatical. My brothers attended the high-school- next-to-the university (yes, that was the official name). I was in 5th grade in the Ma’aleh elementary school. My sister attended the gan next door. We lived in Nayot, lovely garden apartments across from Derech Azza.
We all enjoyed the 19th celebration of Israel’s independence. Soldiers camped in the Valley of the Cross right near our house. We attended the official ceremony held at the amphitheater on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University.
And then a few weeks later we were preparing for war.
We had to clear out and set up our shelter, located right under our apartment. At school we had drills, and everybody had to bring a sandbag. The school’s shelter couldn’t accommodate all of us, so only the little kids went there. The rest of us had to sit quietly along the walls of the ground floor hallway.
Mom tore strips of cloth and, using a flour and water mixture, we glued them criss-cross on the windows facing the valley. Mom explained that this way, should the windows shatter, we wouldn’t be sprayed with lots of broken glass. The windows on the other side of the apartment faced the hillside, so they were already well protected. When I went to my art class at the Israel Museum we spent the afternoon painting the windows with dark paint so they’d be ready for the black-out. The headlights of our car were painted blue.
It was terribly exciting and frightening. One evening our upstairs neighbor, who understood Arabic, came down to tell Mom and Dad what she had heard from the Egyptian broadcasts, about what they were going to do with us once we were defeated. I had rarely seen anyone as ashen as she was that evening while she was talking. We had friends on sabbatical that year in Copenhagen. They offered to take all of us, or at least me and my sister, for safe keeping until things sorted themselves out. I will forever be grateful for Mom and Dad’s decision that no matter what happened we would not be separated.
The Valley of the Cross was filled again with soldier’s tents and artillery. The valley below us was filled with buses that had been pulled out of service because their drivers had been called up to the reserves.
And then nothing happened.
Mom and Dad had been planning a trip to Tel Aviv and decided that they may as well give it a go that Sunday. I was not pleased about that decision. A few months earlier we had given a cranky, worried aunt a ride to Tel Aviv, which was punctuated by her fingers frequently jabbing the air in virtually every direction, accompanied by: “Do you see that hill top? That’s Jordan. That village? That’s Jordan. That pile of stones? That’s the border with Jordan.” I had a mental image of the Jordanian army just waiting for our green Peugeot station wagon to appear.
I went to school as usual that Sunday morning, but it quickly became clear that something was going on. Parents kept arriving to take their kids home; War had broken out with Egypt. Ma’aleh school was a very easy walk to the border, less than a mile away. It was not where you’d want your kid to be if a war began and if Jordan decided to join in.
I called home and, to my relief, learned that Mom and Dad had decided to postpone their trip. Everyone was uncertain about what to do, what would happen, Dad said that he would try to come and get me.
It was a jumpy kind of morning. In the middle of a lesson nobody was paying attention to we heard a sound that you never heard in Jerusalem in those days: an airplane. Jerusalem lay at the tip of an Israeli peninsula that jutted into Jordanian territory. The borders were so close together that no one on either side dared fly in the area – it would have been impossible to avoid the other’s air space. We heard the airplane, then we heard shots, then we heard the air raid sirens.
After daily drills we were pretty well prepared, scared as we were. We turned to our teacher, only to see her collapsed crying, in a heap, huddled next to the desk. This did not inspire confidence. Since then I’ve wondered where she was during World War II, what experiences she had undergone that had reduced her to a puddle in front of a classroom full of kids. Another teacher stuck his head into the classroom, quickly assessed the situation and barked at us to get in line and go downstairs. Now! We were out of there and left him to take care of our panic-stricken teacher.
We took our places, backs against the wall in the hallway, under the sandbagged windows. Even in my frightened state I couldn’t help but be amused at the jockeying among the grown ups. The vice principal urged us all to sing to keep up our spirits. A semi-hysterical math teacher started yelling at us to be quiet, because the Arabs would hear us and start targeting Ma’aleh school. This latter argument was, of course, completely absurd. There was a lot of noise from the shooting and artillery; no Arab soldiers were homing in on our raggedy voices.
Parents continued to arrive, although less frequently. Someone came in with a special edition newspaper held over his head with the headlines that the Israeli Air Force had demolished the Egyptian Air Force planes on the ground. We felt a lot safer and much cheered by that report, despite the sounds of fighting around us.
It was a very happy moment when Dad appeared. He had driven down along with a friend and neighbor, Eliyahu Lankin. Mr. Lankin had been a high ranking member of Menahem Begin’s Irgun underground group. Dad’s sympathies were decidedly opposed to Irgun’s tactics back in 1947, but they had a good friendship of mutual respect. Dad realized that he needed a guide who could direct us along a route where we would be least exposed to attacks; Mr. Lankin knew the city inside and out and was happy to help. Given the fact that the Valley of the Cross had become a major military installation this was, indeed, a tricky task.
Anyone who lived anywhere near Nayot piled into our Peugeot. It’s not a big car, but somehow a dozen or so students and substitute teachers (mostly American college and rabbinical students) jammed themselves in.
It was an eerie ride, going the wrong way down one-way streets, encountering almost no other vehicles. Finally we pulled up in front of the house, and I caught a whiff of honeysuckle. Mom greeted me with a fierce hug. Whatever happened now, at least we would be together.
Dinner was eaten sitting in the hallway of our apartment. Our shelter was crowded and stuffy and Mom figured that with the stone walls of our apartment building, especially since we were on the lower level we would be safe. We were fine, but later learned that a piece of shrapnel had pierced not only both walls, but the refrigerator of another apartment in the neighborhood. It’s better to be lucky than smart.
There was not much sleep that night. Mom tried to distract me by tapping out song rhythms on my palm to see if I could guess the song. It was a worthy attempt, but a complete failure. I decided to join my brothers in the hallway. As I made my way down the hall I absent-mindedly opened a bedroom door. Outside the window a flare was gently drifting down, the only light in the blacked out city. It was an intense light, very bright, and it totally mesmerized me. I was quickly called back to reality by the rest of the family, slammed the door shut and found a place to lie down.
The ground was constantly shaking – we couldn’t tell if it was artillery being launched from our side or enemy shells landing in our neighborhood. (After the war was over Noam and Meir walked around Nayot and gathered a shoe-box full of shrapnel. It is sitting on a shelf in the basement of my parent’s house). In the middle of all that tumult the phone rang. What was something so utterly mundane doing in all of this noise and crisis? Dad found the phone and answered it. The publisher of the Oregonian newspaper, a close friend of the family, had called to get an on-the-ground report. “So what’s going on?” he asked. Dad said, “Well,” and he held the phone at arm’s length so the caller could hear the explosions. “That’s what’s going on.” Dad was able to fill in a few details and descriptions, and, most importantly, was able to pass along a message to our Bobie in Atlanta that we were okay.
By morning the general consensus was that we should move into the shelter, and that is where we spent a very long day. Every time they heard planes, my brothers would run outside so they could watch the bombings, despite Mom’s scoldings. The only came inside when the Civil Defense patrol came through and told them to stay put.
I had been quite rattled by my night in the hallway, and decided to spend the second night in the shelter, even though it was stifling.
By the next day things were a lot quieter. We could barely believe the reports on the radio. Some months before we left for Israel one of my teachers had drawn a map of Israel on the board, emphasizing the fact that at the country’s narrowest point, the distance from Tel Aviv to the border was just 10 miles. He proceeded to explain how, should the Arab armies decide to attack, they could quickly split Israel in three, attacking from the, east and the south. That fearsome diagram was vividly fixed in my head.
We were able to emerge from the shelter. The artillery camp had packed up and moved east. We continued to listen to the radio reports, especially when we heard that the Old City of Jerusalem had been taken and the Kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient temple, had been returned to Jewish control. The broadcaster wept when he reported the news and we all wept along with him.
And then it was over.
Next up: Shavuot at the Kotel