I know, the title of this piece seems incredible, but keep on reading. This passed week was the 48th anniversary of the Six Day War. The month before that, I celebrated (well, maybe not celebrated, but noted) the 50th anniversary of my bar mitzvah and yes, the two are intertwined in an odd sort of way.
You see, like many of the 13 year old Jewish boys I grew up with, Hebrew school was an annoyance and a drudgery. We had to go three or four times a week, after spending six hours in regular school, to sit in an airless room attempting not to fall asleep or act out in an inappropriate manner, while for 3 or 4 years we had to suffer the interminable agony enduring a intolerable education from either an old man (who usually smelled of whiskey) or one particular female teacher I remember who loved to take out her upper and lower false teeth and put them in a glass of water on her desk-a tempting target for mischief-a story I am saving for a different piece later.
Anyway, we learned the Hebrew alphabet, enough to read a Siddur (prayer book) whose translations were hardly ever told to us and what we usually repeated by rote without any emotion (other than boredom) and stifled yawns. Oh yes, we did learn to recite “Chow Mein” at the end of the prayers instead of the Ashkenazic “Aw Main.” We couldn’t wait to leave this horror and go play outside. We knew that all this preparation was to foster the alarming bankruptcy rate of our middle class working parents in order to throw a huge party after we were significantly embarrassed by all our friends and relatives by being forced, in our 13 year old cracking voices, to sing ( or more accurately, croak) several paragraphs of ancient writings for which we would receive a prayer book with a certificate pasted on the inside front cover and innumerable cheek pinches by elderly relatives and envelopes stuffed with cash which our parents quickly absconded.
Like most of my colleagues, as soon as we could, we vowed never to go to a synagogue again. We tossed our Hebrew lessons and notebooks into the flames of the incinerator of our apartment buildings and relegated the practice of our faith by taking complete advantage of the munificence of the New York City public school system’s closure on the high Holy Days of Rosh HaShana(Hebrew New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
No, not to go to temple, except for the few of us who went for 5 or 10 minutes to kiss our grandparents and then make a hasty exit homewards to change from our good clothes into our street fashion and go to the park to play ball or just hang out in the gutter (for you non-New Yorkers that’s the “street”) and enjoy whatever games could be enjoyed with marbles, chalk, a broomstick and a spaldeen (okay-a spaldeen is a pink ball made by Spalding). we enjoyed games like running bases, errors, points, punch ball, hit the penny and King/Queen-for an explanation of these street games, use Google or ask a person from New York City who is definitely of the baby boomer generation.
No, we didn’t fast, nor did any of us keep kosher as the pizzeria was open on both holidays and so was the Greek owned diner where, for less than 50 cents, one could indulge in a hamburger, fries and a soda. Shades of Epicurean apostasy!!!
What has all this got to do with my title-here it comes. A year after my obligatory performance in the House of David, my maternal grandmother, z”l, went on her first and only trip to Israel. This was in February, 1966. Of course, she came back glowing with the beautiful country and the magnificent achievements of the brave pioneers and the wonderful museums and hospitals and projects that she visited with the other ladies from Pioneer Women or Hadassah, I forget which group she made the journey with. She told me of the family members who left Europe both before and after her and how it was terrific to renew their kinship after decades of separation.
I really paid little or no attention to her stories-I didn’t know Tel Aviv from Tarrytown, and I really could not care less. All I knew of Jewish history was what I saw watching Biblical epic movies like the Ten Commandments or Solomon and Sheba. Of course, I knew about World War Two from my father, z”l and listening to some of his pals when they would reminisce, but as far as the Holocaust was concerned, all I knew were a few older people in my building who had numbers tattooed on their arms. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that our local kosher butcher, Izzy, met his wife in a DP camp after they had been liberated by the Red Army that captured Auschwitz. Or that my favorite counterman at the local deli had fought with the partisans from Vilna during the war.
But, at the time, all this meant nothing to me other than as a curiosity. I really had never experienced any anti-Semitism personally. The few wisecracks that I heard from some of my Italian and Chinese friends were promptly answered by my own and really, it was just friendly bantering-nothing serious.
Something changed in me on the morning of June 5th, 1967 that could be called, rather oddly, a Jewish Epiphany. I was in 10th grade at the time and because of my high school schedule, I didn’t have to be in school till 8:30 in the morning. So, I usually made my breakfast and turned on the TV for the news and I saw Walter Cronkite( who was usually on during the CBS TV Evening news) with a huge map of the Middle East behind him and showing all these arrows denoting Arab troop movements and attacks on Israel. If you’ll remember, or if you have read this in history books, Israel kept the news of its successful air strike on the Arab air forces secret.
I don’t know what came over me but I ran into my mother’s bedroom shouting “It’s WAR!!!!” I didn’t want to go to school, I just wanted to sit and watch the news. But, of course, Jewish mother that she is, told me that unless I was bleeding from all my orifices and going into a feverish convulsion, I was going to school. So I practically ran to my first class, which was World History and met my friend, Alan S., who had been trying for years to make me join some Zionist youth group and I always rebuffed him because I was only interested in Jewish girls who made out in the movies with me ( hey, weren’t we all teenagers once?).
However, living in a Jewish neighborhood and seeing my friends and their parents walking around with transistor radios in their pockets and the ear plug wire dangling from their ears, and seeing friends of mine walking down the streets carrying a huge Israeli flag which people were throwing money into and seeing on TV, Arab mobs screaming “Death to Israel” and “Kill the Jews,” made me feel something inside that I had never felt before. Sure, I knew I was Jewish, I speak Yiddish (better then than now), but no one had ever threatened me or my family. I knew that there were relatives in Israel because my granduncles and grandaunts were always reading me letters from them and I would sometimes walk with them to the post office to send off a package to the family in Israel.
But somehow, all this happening on that June morning made it personal-it made me angry-it made me want to scream bloody murder and, more than any of that, Israel’s victory made me swell with pride-as it probably did to millions of Jews all over the world. For the first time in my life, I felt part of something greater than myself. I felt a connection that went beyond the personal feelings I had for these older friends of my parents and grandparents-I felt their fear and I saw the anguish in their eyes during those eventful six days.
I had to learn more. I read every book I could get my hands on, Leon Uris and Herman Wouk became my best friends. The volumes of Israeli historians filled my bookshelves and my phonograph sang with the tunes of Naomi Shemer and the music of Yehoram Ga’on, Geula Gil, Jo Amar, Shuli Natan and so many others.
I joined this Zionist youth group called MASADA of the ZOA (Zionist Organization of America), went to the meetings of BETAR (a right wing militant youth group of the Revisionists, the party of the late Menachem Begin) and demonstrated with the Jewish Defense League. Cursed at the Russian anti-Semites behind their windows at the Soviet Mission to the UN and threw rocks and beat up members of the Nazi movement that came to protest at the Salute To Israel Parade in New York. In university, I was president of the Jewish Student Union on my campus and was a featured speaker for the University Department of the American Zionist Youth Foundation. You can say that I caught the Zionist bug real bad!
So today, as I sit in my office, writing this missive, after making aliyah seven years ago to the most beautiful Israeli city in the Judean Desert, I have to thank Gamal Abdul Nasser, the former president of the United Arab Republic, who, in May, 1967, greased the wheels of what would be known in history as the Six Day War by blocking the Gulf of Eilat to Israeli shipping, and forcing my tiny Jewish country to kick his ass along with his fellows from Jordan, Syria and a plethora of other Arab states. That created, in me, the right wing Israeli “settler” who, to this day, is ready to spit in the face of anyone who looks at me, my family, or my country, with a jaundiced eye. Thank you Nasser, for making me into the Jew that I had hidden within me. Thank you for making me come home to Israel.