Turning 60 two weeks ago, on the day that marked the 40th anniversary of my arrival in Israel, provided an appropriate pause for reflection.
After all, there is the tradition that a Jew is reborn upon arrival in Israel, when he assumes the inheritance of the land that G-d has given to every Jew.
Arriving in Israel in 1970 was to experience a nation which was undergoing some kind of “Post Miracle Traumatic Stress Syndrome”.
In 1970, three years after the Six Day War, there was a post miracle atmosphere that enveloped Jerusalem at the time. In so many conversations, people would recall that three week wait before the war and share the fright of what it was like to live through the trauma of wondering whether the Jews would face yet another holocaust – this time in Israel.
Kibbutz Merom Hagolan. Summer 1971. My first kibbutz experience.
My friend Shaul from Hebrew University, a founder of the Kibbutz, had invited me to join him on the Kibbutz for a little while.
After each day in the field, Shaul took me walking through the abandoned Syrian Army camp in Kunetra, adjacent to the nascent kibbutz. And then we would ride in the Kibbutz jeep, from one abandoned Syrian bunker to another.
The Golan, four years after being wrested from Syria, looked like one massive abandoned Syrian army camp.
That first night on Kibbutz was the longest.
I was treated to my first artillery barrage.
Shaul was in a guard post somewhere. I will never forget that night in the Kibbutz shelter, listening to the Israeli record “Ish Chasid Hayah”, sitting with Shaul’s wife Yael and their three little kids. Yael, who had grown up in a kibbutz at the foot of the Golan, mentioned that she had grown up listening to hassidic records in the shelter, which she liked to listen to when the Syrians would let loose a barrage on her kibbutz in the Galilee.
Now, Yael said, her kibbutz “down there” was out of range, and Merom Hagolan was in range.
Until the ceasefire that Israel signed with Syria in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Merom HaGolan remained within range of the Syrian guns.
On my last day on the Kibbutz, Yehudah Fichtman, the kibbutz secretary, had the patience to spend time with me, and explained why he had come to live in the Golan. Yehudah’s words have remained with me ever since.
He explained that he had fought for the Golan in 1967, and that he wanted to raise a family in the place where he had risked his life.
“We fought for it. Now we will live for it”, said Yehudah, quite resolutely.
A few months later, Yehudah was killed in an artillery barrage while he was working in the fields, His wife and three children never left the kibbutz. Yehudah’s grandchildren now serve in the IDF, on the Golan.
Nearing the close of yet a third year in Israel, and a student at the Pardes Institute in its first year, was a time I looked forward to seeing four of my closest friends who were “lone soldiers, without families in Israel”, on a rare furlough in Jerusalem..
I felt kind of guilty, not yet in the army, but stomach illnesses would not go away. Three years of Alyah nervousness, you might say, kept me out of the IDF for yet another decade.
On Israel’s 25th birthday, five of us got together for a “kumsitz” – the Israeli version of a barbecue, on the hill overlooking the Israel Museum, on the night before Israel Independence day in Jerusalem.
Each friend had come o Jerusalem to march in the IDF military parade, in full “ALEPH”-dress- regalia.
My four friends in the IDF served on the front lines. Each friend reported. matter of factly. that Syrians and Egyptians were poised to attack. They could not tell that to anyone. The attitude in Israel at the time was that Arabs are not capable of attacking Israel. Until the attack finally occurred on Yom Kippur.
These “single soldiers” were not surprised. Their commanders were.
David, whose Golani unit got the award for the “best marchers” in the parade, said that their “marching prize” was that they would get “more activities” and see more action.
It was no coincidence that it was the Golani brigade was selected to scale Mount Hermon six months later. Three young men around David were killed in that battle to retake the Hermon.
The Yom Kippur War.
The sudden attack on the Golan Heights in 1973 hit home.
I had been having terrible stomach problems my first few years in Israel, always nervous about the Israeli reality that I was living in.
On the first day of the Yom Kippur War, the man whom I called “my tummy doctor”, Dr Moshe Ramon, the former Dr. Murray Raymond of Seattle, lost his oldest son.
I remember walking into his living room which doubled as a waiting room where I had been writhing in pain only a few weeks before.
I would never again feel the stomach pains that I had felt before. I said to myself that Moshe would have more pain than I ever would.
Moshe’s son’s friends from their Nachal kibbutz sat around the Ramon Shiva home and described the sudden Syrian attack, how the Syrian soldiers had scaled the fence of their community and mowed down the young,surprised Nachal soldiers, young men and young women, with automatic machine weapons firre, snuffing out fifteen lives in a matter of minutes. To this day, by the way, it has never been publicized that the Syrians had also killed a bunch of young women soldiers.
After the initial ceasefire, I hitched up to the Golan Heights to file a news story for the Jewish Student Press Service.
It was there that I witnessed the enormity of the Syrian advance. Rows of Syrian tanks and vehicles stopped in their tracks, strafed and bombed and left for any photographer to use his imagination as to just how close the Syrians had come to conquering the whole Golan Heights. Yet they had mysteriously stopped in their tracks.
After visiting the Golan, I went to stay in the mystical city of Tzfat.
It was there that I met a Rabbi HaLevi who told me an amazing story that he later put in a book. As soon as Rabbi HaLevi heard of the Syrian attack on the Golan, he organized a group of women to chant from the book of Psalms and to invoke the memory of Channah and her seven sons, who martyred themselves rather than convert from Judaism. Legend,has it that Channah and her seven sons are buried on a slope just below the Old City of Tzfat.
We associate the act of Channah and her seven sons with the Chanukah story and the war with the Hellenists. Yet there is an additional part of the story, mentioned in the Talmud, that Channah and her seven sons ask G-d for a favor in their merit. The legend goes that they ask that, in the merit of their self-sacrifice, G-d would save a Jewish city under siege. The first time that Rabbi HaLevy had asked a group of women to invoke Channah and her seven sons was when the 2,000 member Jewish community of Tzfat was under siege in 1948 from an Arab army of more than 12,000. There was no rational reason for the Arab that army to pull back. Yet the Arab army withdrew from Tzfat and the Arab residents of Tzfat fled, for no apparent reason
In 1973 the women had prayed again. The Syrian army stopped in its tracks, for no apparent reason.
Why the Syrian army stopped its advance remains one of the unknown factors of middle eastern warfare.
I returned to the Golan for the Jewish Student Press Service to try to capture the spirit of those who returned to the Golan Heights after their homes had been overrun in the war.
Kibbutz Ramat Magshimim, on the southern tip of the Golan, seemed to be a logical place to travel to. Their kibbutz had been the first to be overrun. After ascending the Golan with the one bus that got there on a Friday morning, it took seventeen different rides until I got to Kibbutz Ramat Magshimim, where my postcard, saying that I would like to vist, had arrived only the day beforet.
They had no way of calling me, but I knew that this was the nation of miracles and hoped that this Shabbat visit would work out. Moshe Ben Tzvi’s family with their four children welcomed me to their home.
The kids seemed to be regular kids.
During the Shabbat meal, two of the kids began to cry.
Moshe took me aside and said that they had cried almost constantly every Shabbat, since that terrible Yom Kippur in 1973, also on a Shabbat, when the families had been told by the regional IDF commander in the middle of the night to abandon the kibbutz because of the sudden advance of a Syrian tank column. The family came back to a badly damaged home, and Moshe explained that the kids were still disoriented.
Possibly the calmest moment on the Kibbutz Ramat Magshimim was the gathering of many of the families in a modest, improvised “moadon” clubhouse on Saturday night.
The children sang popular Israeli folk songs at the top of their lungs, while a young mother, Esther Ben David from Los Angeles, played the accordion and led them in communal singing
Esther had told me that she was determined to wipe the tears from the eyes of every nervous kid on that kibbutz. Now that is a good Kibbutz mother, I thought.
I left on the bus back to Bar Ilan University the next morning with a “song in my heart”, so to speak.
On Monday morning, following class at Bar Ilan social work school, I walked by the Bar Ilan mensa cafeteria. I heard the lunchtime newsreel on the radio.
An artillery bombardment had suddenly hit Kibbutz Ramat Magshimim.
After the dust had cleared, Esther Ben David was found dead in a ditch near the baby clinic from which she had just emerged, where she was getting medicine for her baby boy, whom she was clutching in her hands.
Esther was struck by a direct hit, yet had the presence of mind to hold that boy so that no harm would come to him. No harm came to that baby, who was found cuddled in Esther’s lifeless arms.
Esther, who brought so much happiness to the children in her kibbutz, saved the life of her little boy in those terrible seconds of the artillery barrage.
That little boy, saved in a ditch on the Golan while his dying mother hovered over him, lived to marry a neighbor of ours, only a few years ago.
A year after the Yom Kippur War
Israel witnessed a series of brutal PLO attacks. One of these attacks was the Maalot massacre, where high school students were held hostage by the PLO, with carnage taking place at the end of the day. The PLO started the day with a slaughter of an Israeli family-parents and children.
At the end of the day, 22 youngsters were dead and 72 injured.
Our social work class volunteered to go to Tzfat to help the students who had survived. One girl sobbed that the doctor said that she would survive, not to worry, but that she would not be able to have children. It was hard to console the young girl.
Ten years later, when I was a social worker in Tzfat, the same girl walked by with a baby carriage. She had given birth to her first child, a girl. Without flinching, she said that the baby had been born despite the shrapnel, and that she had recited psalms for ten years, never missing a day of prayer.
That miracle baby represents the era of the Yom Kippur War.
As one less than observant Israeli friend said at the time, the outbreak of the war on Yom Kippur imposed a permanent solemnity on Yom Kippur for all of Israeli society. The 1972 Yom Kippur disco that had taken place in the Hebrew U dorm would never happen again.
No longer could any Israeli deny the weight of Yom Kippur on every Jew in Israel.