Following the death of the last of my mother’s generation this past year, my cousins came across two letters from Israel that my mother wrote to our family in late 1970 when she lived for a few months in the heart of West Jerusalem at the now permanently closed Eden Hotel only steps from Zion Square. My cousins scanned and sent these letters to my brother and me.
Our mother died five years ago at the very old age of 98 years, so reading her correspondence from more than 50 years ago was a sudden throw-back to a much earlier time in my life and in the life of the State of Israel.
My mother jumped off the page in her characteristic way as a keen and engaged observer of people and an enthusiastic visitor in the Jewish state in that period of national euphoria following Israel’s lightning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. This was her second visit to the State of Israel. During the first, in 1965, Jerusalem was divided, East Jerusalem, the Old City, and the West Bank were part of Jordan, and the Gaza Strip was controlled by Egypt from which the Fedayeen never ceased crossing the border to attack Israelis.
My mother described Israeli life as she encountered it then, the economic deprivations most Israelis felt, the steely Israeli acceptance of the ever-present threat from hostile neighbors, the Israeli personality characterized by the sabra fruit of the cactus, prickly on the outside and sweet within, and her amazement of all that Israel, still a young nation of only 22 years, had accomplished since the pre-statehood period and the establishment of the State in 1948.
In reading my mother’s letters I missed her and felt again her energy, passion, and love for the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and our family there and in the Diaspora. I also miss the Israel she encountered in that time.
I spent my first year of rabbinic school in Jerusalem three years later (1973-74). I landed at Lod Airport on June 29, 1973 while Nixon attorney John Dean was testifying in the Watergate trial. I studied there until May 13, 1974. On the flight home, the Maalot massacre grabbed the headlines and shook the Jewish people. I learned of that horrific attack when I landed at LAX the next day. It involved two-days of Palestinian terrorist hostage-taking of 115 Israelis in that northern Israeli town, and ended in the murder of 25 Israeli children.
That event continued a traumatic turning-point year in Israel’s history. In the early days of the war that began on the afternoon of October 6, 1973, Israel was almost overtaken by Egypt and Syria in a coordinated surprise attack on the Jewish people’s holiest day in a war Israel might well have lost had the United States not sent massive re-armaments on the tenth day of the war. Israel’s fortunes then turned and the near disaster became a battlefield triumph ending in an American imposed ceasefire to save Egypt’s surrounded army from total humiliation and prevent the IDF from occupying Damascus.
To gain a sense of the trauma that the war inflicted upon Israelis, who lost 2,656 soldiers and suffered overall causalities of 11,656, I recommend viewing the recently produced Israeli 10-episode season of “Valley of Tears” (עֵמֶק הַבָּכָא – originally named שְׁעַת נְעִילָה – “Ne’ila time” – HBO Max; dubbed over in English) that tells the story of the fighting on the Golan Heights in graphic detail. A second season is planned to focus on the war in the south.
I was then a 23 year-old student in Jerusalem. Classes were canceled until after the war, and like most of my classmates who volunteered at a wide variety of vital businesses and charitable causes filling in for Israelis defending the state, I spent every night from 10 pm to 6 am helping the skeletal staff of the Berman Bakery in Jerusalem bake nightly 60,000 loaves of bread, much of it sent to soldiers at the Egyptian front.
I’ve often imagined how Israel, the Palestinians, and the Middle East would be different had PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership been willing to accept Israel’s existence in those years and agree to negotiate an end-of-conflict peace deal for a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and had Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and her government been willing to accept a Palestinian State on its borders. Few were imagining such a possibility then.
Fifty years is a long time and much has transpired since my mother wrote her letters from Jerusalem. She was in her early 50s then, vital, engaged, enthusiastic, optimistic, and loving. I miss her, and I miss too the Israel of those years, a less polarized nation despite the trauma of war, terrorism, political and cultural division that would eventually challenge the state and the Jewish people.