I awoke early in my dorm room at Beit HaStudent, a short block from Beit HaNasi (The President of the State of Israel’s House) in the Rechaviah neighborhood of Jerusalem in order to walk to the Kotel (Western Wall) to daven at that holiest site in Judaism on that holiest day in the Jewish calendar year of Yom Kippur, 1973.
I dressed quickly, put on my kippah, took my tallit, and left the dorm to begin the 30-minute walk to the Old City. The dawn was breaking and all was quiet in the streets of Jerusalem. Not a car moved. As I passed the President’s House, I saw a single guard at the gate and we greeted one another with “Gmar chatimah tovah – May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.”
I heard in the far distance the siren of an ambulance, but nothing more. The stillness of the day was in stark contrast to any other day in Jerusalem. I descended past the famed King David Hotel on my left and walked down through Mishkenot Sh’ananim, the first neighborhood built in the 19th century outside the Old City Walls. Passing through what was called “no-man’s land” between 1948 and 1967 when Jordanian troops guarded the walls of the Old City (I was studying for the year at the Hebrew Union College in my first year of rabbinic studies), I reached the nadir of the valley and headed up to the Jaffa Gate.
Suddenly, three American made Phantom Jets flew in triangular formation over the Old City streaking south at between 5000 and 10,000 feet. The crack of the engines shattered the quiet of the Jerusalem morning, and I thought to myself, ‘What’s going on? How could Israel send its aircraft over Jerusalem on this day of all days?’
I arrived at the Kotel at about 6:30am as the Chassidim were flowing into the Kotel Plaza. I found a space at the Wall, took out my Machzor and began reading the Shacharit service. The din of prayer was all around me, but the sound of those Phantoms stayed in my mind.
I spent about two hours there and then returned to the dorm by way of David Street through the Arab Suk and through Jaffa Gate back into West Jerusalem.
Along with the rest of Israel and the world, we learned the meaning of those Phantom Jets flying over Jerusalem. At about 2 PM, sirens screamed throughout the Jewish state announcing that Israel was at war once again for the fifth time in 25 years (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1970-72). I turned on my transistor radio to the BBC and learned that 1300 Syrian tanks were crossing the Israeli border on the Golan Heights and that Egypt had attacked and penetrated into Israel over the Bar Lev Line that was supposed to stop any Egyptian attack. Throughout the day, Israeli radio called unit after unit and instructed where every soldier where to report immediately.
The first days of the war were a disaster for Israel. General Moshe Dayan, the Defense Minister, believed that Armageddon was at hand and that Israel was facing the fate of Masada. PM Golda Meir was terrified, but publicly reassured the nation that Israel would prevail in the end, as it did in 1967. The story of the war is now well known, and the most recent film “Golda” starring Helen Mirren, tells of the inner life of Israel’s leaders in that fateful three weeks of war.
On the third day of the war, I took a bus from the center of Jerusalem to Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem to give blood. As I stepped down from the bus, a helicopter descended near the ER to deliver injured soldiers from the Sinai front. Already on that day by early afternoon, a dozen Israeli injured soldiers had been brought to Hadassah, some severely injured. By the end of the war 2656 Israeli soldiers were dead and 11,656 soldiers were injured, some severely for life. Everyone in Israel knew someone who died in defense of the Jewish state – a parent, spouse, sibling, cousin, friend.
Israel eventually turned around the tides of disaster with a daring operation led by General Ariel Sharon across the Suez Canal and surrounded the Egyptian Third Army thereby forcing Egypt to call for a cease fire. The American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger persuaded President Nixon (in the midst of Watergate hearings) on the 10th day of the war to send massive armaments to Israel to replenish all that was lost in the fighting of the first days. Israel prevailed on the battlefield in the end, but the shock of the war on the Israeli psyche was as great as anything since the War of Independence in 1948.
During the nearly three weeks of war, I volunteered for night duty (10 pm to 6 am) at one of Israel’s large bakeries, Berman Bakery, and worked alongside 40 international volunteers and a skeletal staff of 20 Israeli Jews who were assigned by the government to bake bread for the Jerusalem municipality and for the troops in the south. On the night before Sukkot that year, we baked 80,000 loaves of challah, a grueling task. At the end of our shift each morning, we volunteers were transported back to the center of Jerusalem where we were picked up the night before and dropped off. From there, in the dark, I walked back to my dorm in a totally blacked-out city. Thousands of stars sparkled in the moonless night before dawn belying the ferocious fighting in the north and south. Cold and filthy from work, I took a cold shower (all heat in the dorm was shut down), climbed into a sleeping bag on my bed in my 45 degree Fahrenheit room, and fell asleep. The Israeli Civil Guard had taken up residence in the downstairs of the dorm throughout the war. (Years later that dorm was torn down and converted into an expensive condominium complex.)
My dean of students, Professor of Hebrew Literature Ezra Spicehandler (z’l), had told my class of 53 rabbinic and education students on the 2nd day of the war that Israel would be victorious within a week. He was expressing the over-confidence (and hubris) of a nation that won the 1967 war in 6 days. Only Golda, her generals, and the troops on the two fronts thought otherwise. It was a terrible three weeks. Yom Haaztmaut in April, 1974 was low-key. The country was in mourning throughout the year.
The day I left Israel to return home to Los Angeles in May 1974, Palestinian terrorists dressed as Israeli soldiers sneaked into Maalot in the north and took hostage over a two-day period 115 Israelis including 105 children. The attack ended in the murder of 25 hostages and six other civilians including 22 children were killed. 68 more were injured.
Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, needed to be able to claim a victory (as limited as it was in the first days of the war) into to make peace with Israel 5 years later.
The memories of Yom Kippur 1973 and those three weeks of war have never left me. It was a turning point for Israel and resulted in the resignation of Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir, among others, though Golda was not blamed by the Agranat Commission of Inquiry into the war the next year. As she herself said, “I am a politician, not a general.” But, the loss of Israeli life weighed heavily upon her for the rest of her life.
Zichronam livracha – May the memory of all those who gave their lives in the defense of Israel be an abiding blessing.