It began as just another morning in Jerusalem. Beneath our balcony, the green and brown valley stretched ahead to the foot of the Israel Museum, rising to the Knesset. Soldiers in partially hidden tents, their military equipment camouflaged, waited for final orders. The sun pleasantly heated the air.
Early on, there was no reason to believe the day would be different from any other. By noon, I feared I would never see the sun rise or set again.
Israelis had completed three weeks of provisional war arrangements, and we were still counting the Omer.
“What are we supposed to prepare besides taping the glass windows with tape we don’t have, and storing food that’s unavailable?” I asked my husband, Sholom.
“Candles,” he advised. “Lots of them.”
A week earlier, just scanning an empty supermarket had momentarily stunned me into becoming a replica of Lot’s wife. I recalled my father’s grocery in Brooklyn, its shelves bulging with foodstuff. Here the lone food item in the entire store was salt.
Friends had warned me to stock up. I hadn’t taken them seriously. After all, government sources maintained that Israel had large food reserves. What I didn’t know was that the army had enlisted most trucks and drivers for emergency reserve duty, rendering them unavailable to transport goods to population centers.
After I’d spent two weeks worrying I’d be the only Jerusalemite without food for her family, the government storage shelters finally opened and old-fashioned burlap bags of rice, beans, flour and sugar were released. Women stood on line for the rationed commodities; our grocer distributed no more than a kilo per household. Men, cars, and buses were scarce, as almost everyone except mothers and children had been called, or had volunteered, to serve.
American citizens had obeyed the warnings of the U.S. consulate and left Israel en masse. Family members tried to convince me to return to the U.S. with the children. But my parents, who’d settled in Jerusalem three years earlier, wouldn’t leave Zaida, who was recuperating from major surgery and remained hospitalized. My aunt and uncle wouldn’t leave my parents alone in charge of Zaida. My husband insisted he would not leave Israel in “troubled times.”
I, too, refused to leave. What would my life be worth if tragedy were to befall the loved ones I’d left behind? It was all or nothing: either we all remained or we all departed.
Truth be told, I was still a foreigner, even after seven years in Israel. Three weeks earlier, a neighbor’s six sons, each dressed in army fatigues, bid farewell to their mother and grandmother, pending their father’s blessing. Witnessing this scene together with my two young children left a chilling impression, as well as naïve thoughts. My children will never be called up to serve in a war; peace will have arrived by the time they reach that age.
The day before, Sunday, June 4, we’d gone to the park as usual. It was empty. Mothers and children stayed home. They said good-bye to husbands and sons and, readying themselves for a long siege, cleaned out bomb shelters. Sitting on a bench alone, watching the children play, I heard what sounded like artillery shots.
I won’t be afraid, I thought. Foolishly, I didn’t move, despite the inherent danger. Growing up in America, I’d never experienced war in my own backyard and so was hardly prepared for the reality of life on the frontline of a real war.
Except for a somewhat frenzied stocking up on food, Israelis remained calm. Concern appeared only in the fine lines around their eyes. Politically, they pressured Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to form a unity government and hand over the defense portfolio to the popular general Moshe Dayan.
I won’t be afraid, I told myself again. My neighbor had experienced so many wars that she even knew how to walk through them, knew how to avoid exploding shells. Her self-confidence forced me to maintain a bold exterior. Nevertheless, I’d read and heard about the mass graves being prepared, and I couldn’t sleep at night.
There seemed to be no reason not to send our four-year-old daughter, Hennie, to kindergarten that morning. The children had already, as part of their activities, emptied the sandbox and filled burlap bags with sand. These sandbags, piled on window ledges inside the gan, would serve as a buffer against falling shells and shrapnel.
A windowless room was prepared for use as a makeshift shelter, and the children practiced how to act should the school come under attack. Mere kindergarten children, already acquainted with the world’s dark underbelly. The ganenet, younger than my own 26 years, was calm and confident and shooed away my fears.
We dropped Hennie off at the gan, and Sholom and I, along with our two-year-old son, Itamar, drove up to Bayit Vegan, where Sholom worked. I had my morning planned: War hadn’t broken out yet, so why not breakfast with friends? Who knew when I might get to see them again?
The moment I stepped into my friends’ apartment, I knew this was not going to be a normal day. My friends were at the kitchen table trying to catch a BBC news broadcast. It seemed a major air strike of some kind had been carried out. It was not yet clear that Israel had wiped out the entire Egyptian air force.
There was no time for discussion. A few minutes after my arrival, Sholom blew into the apartment, trundled us back into our ailing, bug-like two seater, and drove us home, furious that I’d chosen that particular morning for a social call.
We stopped at the kindergarten where the teacher calmly reassured us. “Everything is fine; the children are safe, no need to worry. If anything happens, Civil Defense notifies and administers instructions.”
“None of the parents are concerned?” we asked in disbelief, surprised that no one had come to pick up any of the children. We wavered back and forth, undecided but acting fearless. We left Hennie at gan.
Hatibonim, a narrow horseshoe-shaped street parallel to Aza, curved around until it reached our building, at that time the last residence in Rechavia overlooking the Valley of the Cross. Sholom let me off at the entrance to number 22 with instructions to prepare the shelter.
“And don’t forget to take the key with you, otherwise the front door will automatically lock and you’ll never get back into the apartment,” he warned.
I stood there staring at the faded and peeling blue paint on our ready to-be-junked mini car. My brother in New York had recently written that his shiny Lincoln Continental conked out near a fire hydrant while he was purchasing Israel Bonds, and he’d paid a hefty fine for towing. Ironically I felt comforted. “In case of failure,” my husband often bragged, “this lightweight mini can be carried home on my shoulder.”
In disbelief I watched Sholom drive off, returning to his job at Boys Town, where he and a few staff members who had not been conscripted into army service were responsible for the students. I closed my eyes. When, if ever, would we see each other again?
Entering our apartment with Itamar held tightly in my arms, I gazed out over the porch rails at my valley that had been so green. Soldiers were now actively removing brown camouflage netting from the artillery. Cannons, halftracks, and other equipment were spread out below, looking extremely menacing. The long necks of guns, their open-ended holes exposed, pointed straight at me.
Suddenly there were sirens, rising and falling, alerting us to the reality that Jerusalem was once again under fire. King Hussein of Jordan had joined the Egyptians and Syrians and gone to war against Israel.
The key to the front door dangled from the rubber band-turned bracelet on the table next to the telephone. Sholom’s instructions shook me out of my stupor. Slipping the key on my wrist, I grabbed two folding chairs under one arm and Itamar in the other. Halfway down the stairs, one of the neighbors scooped up my baby, allowing me to negotiate the steps with only chairs under my arms.
The dingy shelter wasn’t large enough for all the neighbors, but not everyone had sought protection. One neighbor had a portable radio. The Israeli government had placed a blackout on news and was instead broadcasting instructions regarding wartime regulations.
The initial fright and excitement of heading for the shelter had served to filter out the explosive sounds of the first round of shots fired from the eastern part of the city. But as the conversation lulled, the explosions grew louder. My heart pulsated, drowning out thoughts. Even the heat of the day could not dissolve my fear.
At 1 p.m. my experienced neighbor could no longer sit still. “I know how to walk through shell fire, I did it in ’48, I’m used to it, the children can’t be left in gan any longer,” she said. “The shelling will get worse. Do I have your permission to bring Hennie home with me?”
For the first time in my life, my tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth. Speechless, I nodded my consent.
The kindergarten was less than five minutes from our apartment. My neighbor was gone for close to an hour. Was it a mistake to give her permission? But if I hadn’t given permission, how would Hennie ever get home?
More thoughts:What is Sholom doing? When will I see him again? He’ll return, I know he willHe won’t let me down. He’s always late, but in the end, he turns up, unless no never I wouldn’t let my mind wander there. I couldn’t even cry. It was as if my tear ducts were frozen.
I was terrified at the thought that the Jordanians were fewer than ten blocks away. I imagined Jordanian soldiers flooding shelters throughout the neighborhoods along the border, gaining momentum and moving into Rechavia. I closed my eyes and prayed silently for the safe return of my husband, my neighbor and the children – and that we would be spared any torture in the event we were overrun. That was my single greatest fear.
At last the children returned unharmed, and joy briefly replaced fear. Nevertheless, I was stunned to hear that my parents had been in the gan.
“Why didn’t you bring them back with you?” I shouted, shocked by the shrill sound of my voice.
“Believe me, I tried, but they refused,” my neighbor apologized.
My parents were returning from Hadassah Hospital on a bus that just happened to have stopped in front of the kindergarten when the sirens sounded. The driver directed the passengers to the nearest shelter. My parents had no idea where they were until they heard children’s voices. Curious, someone opened the door. There, clapping and singing cheerfully together with the rest of the children, was their granddaughter Hennie.
“So where did they go?” I asked frantically.
“They left the gan when I did, and insisted on walking home.”
How could they walk all the way home from the end of Aza to Shaarei Chesed? Normally it was at least a fifteen-minute walk, and under non-stop shellfire? Did they reach home unharmed? I fed myself large portions of well-spiced alarm.
We remained in the shelter throughout the afternoon; the children ate sandwiches and drank the last of the refrigerated drinks. The electricity had shut down throughout the city, and whatever was still in the fridge upstairs was left to spoil.
There were two mattresses piled in a corner for the younger children to sleep on. The blackout on news in Israel left a void that was filled with the propaganda emanating from Arab capitals that the Egyptians had overrun Israel. Fortunately my neighbors not only knew how to walk through shellfire, they also knew how to interpret the news. They advised me that any such obvious disinformation should be ignored.
The Jordanians continued shelling us as dusk approached, but it wasn’t long before Israeli forces initiated their offensive. From the murky valley outside the shelter we heard the countdown. Four three two one Fire! The entire shelter rocked. Instead of holding my chair, my hands groped for the children and I was jolted out of my seat.
Turning around, I watched the squeaky metal door open slowly. For a brief moment my heart stood still. The Jordanians are here, I thought and then a dark figure appeared in the doorway. I felt rays emanating from the entrance and melting my frozen fear into tears of joy. Sholom, the man I “followed into the wilderness, to a land not sown”had returned.
Indeed, our tiny old car had failed. To Sholom’s distress, he was unable to carry it home on his shoulder. Instead, he left it on a narrow street and ran home.
There was no relief in the shelter from the sounds of the fierce battles raging nearby. But even as artillery shells burst through the night, Sholom’s faith was unwavering. “You’ll see,” he assured us, “this Shavuot we’ll all daven at the Kotel Hamaravi.”
To that, one neighbor responded, “I still have my mother’s siddur, which I’ve never used. If your prediction is correct, I promise I’ll also walk to the Kotel on Shavuot and I’ll pray from mother’s siddur.”
Sholom was our mevaser tov in the shelter that night, forecasting good news of salvation. Israel, he declared, was on the road to victory. As we listened, with varying degrees of trepidation, to the guns of war thundering in the outer darkness, he assured us that voices of thanksgiving would soon rise in unison, singing in the streets of a restored Jerusalem.