Monday, October 07, 2013

40 Years Ago: The Yom Kippur War Begins

It was for me my junior year abroad from the University of Minnesota. All summer I had been in the Hebrew University ulpan trying to get my Hebrew up to snuff. As foreign American college students, we had purchased cheap high holiday tickets at the Hillel House in the neighborhood of Rehavia. As the morning services ended, we could walk in the middle of the street without fear of blocking automobile traffic. But 2 things occurred on the walk home that - had I been a Jerusalemite - might have given me pause. One was an army jeep with 2 soldiers on board that came barreling down the street. I thought that if any vehicle was going to interrupt the Yom Kippur calm, it would be an army vehicle. That seemed to make sense. The I heard a sonic boom. These too were a near daily occurrence, so it meant nothing to me at the moment.

Desiring to rest from the services and the fast, we returned to our apartment. The air raid sirens went off at 2:15 in the afternoon. I turned to my roommate, also from Minnesota, and said in utter naïveté: "I don't believe it - a tornado in Jerusalem?" The sky was only partly cloudy. I just couldn't process at first that I was suddenly in a war zone.

When the air raid sirens went off, I literally tried to figure out where the southwest corner of the basement apartment was - so completely acclimated to tornado-preparation was I. But when I opened the front door to my apartment I saw clouds in the blue Mediterranean sky which did not portend trouble. And suddenly a young girl - couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 - came running down our alley screaming in Hebrew: "War on all the borders! War on all the borders!" In those days I was working at being an observant Jew - "shomer shabbes" as Walter from the Big Lebowski would say - and this became the moment I will never forget and never regret. I needed to know if I was going to soon die. So - expecting in my 19-year-old simplistic theology that lightning would strike me on the spot - I turned on a radio. God didn't strike me dead; this millisecond would be the beginning of a long process that ultimately led me to the secular agnosticism I live with today. But in those days, Israeli radio - even the Army Radio - went purposely silent for this sacred day. All I could get was an AM broadcast of BBC, and they only had a report from Syria, that Syrian and Egyptian forces were attacking Israel. It would be 5 or 6 hours before Israeli domestic radio got back on the air, with a speech by a clearly rattled but nevertheless resolute Golda Meir.

About an hour after the air raid sirens, I ventured out on the streets of downtown Jerusalem. I remember that across the street from me was a synagogue, and I watched two uniformed soldiers enter the synagogue and leave, a group of the congregation hastily departing within minutes. I remember seeing public buses lining up at certain prearranged locations, and watching young men arrive by car to board the buses. I saw something I will never see again - on the holiest day of the Jewish ceremonial year, I saw an ultra-Orthodox bearded Jew in his High Holiday finery driving a car! Whether, as in the case of the synagogue across the street, people were being delivered with a specific Order Eight call up command, or people were simply responding with a prearranged protocol, the process of marrying up manpower to equipment had begun.