Sunday, November 12, 2023

Remembering the Yom Kippur war (October 1973)

 In October 1973 I was 9 (nearly 10) and living in a small house my parents had bought in what was then an immigrant neighborhood at the West end of Ra'anana, a small Israeli town of 30,000 or so (its larger now). 

Yom Kippur in Israel is a remarkable day, there are no cars on the roads, no TV, no radio broadcasts. The airports and ports and border crossings are all closed. In those days there was no internet and Israel had only a single, black and white TV station. I have quite a vivid memory of the day. I was reading the Lord of the Rings. I was so deep in the book that it took a while for me to notice that the air-raid siren was going off (I evidently knew what it was). Eventually, I put down my book and went outside to see what was happening.

My parents and other neighbors were wandering around wondering what was happening.  Nobody was aware of any tension.  Eventually my father went in and turned on the radio: There was music. 

"Something must have happened" he said, "There shouldn't be radio on Yom Kippur".  The TV was the same. Eventually a radio news broadcast said that Israel had been attacked by Syria and Egypt. The announcer gave astonishing figures: hundreds of tanks destroyed on the fronts (Egyptian, Syrian and Israeli), I don't remember precise numbers but I remember that they were huge: Many hundreds.  At the time, these were the largest tank battles since the Second World War.

Our house was next to a bomb shelter, which served all the houses in our alley. The shelter entrance was a door with a slope behind it, the slope covered stairs going underground, leading to a sizeable underground chamber with an emergency exit. The door and the emergency exit were the only visible features. The emergency exit was a concrete bulge with a window from which one could escape.

The shelter in 2023, the emergency exit is red, the door is on the other side of the far structure.

 In 1973, the area round the shelter was all sand.

The bomb shelter was locked and nobody had the key.  My father got a hack saw and started sawing at the padlock. After 10 minutes a large Russian man appeared with a hammer, waved him away and with one blow smashed the padlock.

Me and my friends used to play on the bomb shelter. The slope was a bit like a slide, it had an element of danger, but was not high enough to cause major issues. The younger brother of my friend David Wiseman, once peed on him from the top. David's family were immigrants from South Africa and they lived in the expensive neighborhood near ours.  His father was on the Israel cricket team and had opened the first Burger restaurant in Israel: The Burger Ranch (it still exists under different ownership). Another friend was Eli, whose family were religious. Eli's family lived close by; His parents were Moroccan immigrants and he had about 7 siblings. Their house had only 2 or 3 bed rooms: They had double beds everywhere and he shared his bed with one or two brothers.

The slope of the bomb shelter in 2023

Before the war, when we were playing, Eli had suddenly needed to shit, he didn't ask to use our toilet (we were only 8) and I didn't think to offer, so he simply climbed into the shelter's emergency exit and shat there. We never told anybody. The emergency exit had a latch at the bottom so you couldn't get into the shelter from outside, but you could climb into the shaft.

So, when the adults went into the shelter, one of the first things they found (and had to clean) was Eli's shit. 

I went over to Eli's house in the first couple of days, two of his brothers were in uniform listening to the radio which was broadcasting codes: Instructions for soldiers of where to go. There was a lot of hissing and my parents later told me this was "jamming" attempts to disrupt radio signals.

The first night of the war, we watched Golda Meir on the TV and my parents blacked out our windows (against bombers) and put tape on them (against flying glass). They were very cheerful about this: They said it reminded them of the Blitz. They also set up a little bag of stuff to take to the bomb shelter, should we need it.

They must have been worried, because the next day they left me with a family they knew from the British Consulate who had a child my age. He had a huge house, with a massive garden and lots of toys and for a while I went there regularly. The boy (I think his name was Daniel) had a hearing problem and at some point I teased him about it, after which I was no longer invited.

We had some rather odd neighbors, who were from the American mid-West.  A family of blonde haired, blue eyed Americans  who in the excitement of the post-Six Day war era had converted to Judaism and moved to Israel. My parents said that in the first days of the war, the family had listened to the BBC World Service which religiously relayed Arab announcements as facts. The Syrian government announced that "Haifa was burning" and they freaked. It was nonsense. The BBC still relays such  announcements as fact, usually disregarding Israeli news. I think they have a lot of Arabic speakers and no Hebrew speakers.

Nobody had a phone - The waiting time for a phone was about a decade, unless you were a doctor or high ranking military. There was a single payphone by the little shopping center which served the whole neighborhood. My mother told a story about how it malfunctioned once, giving free phone calls and generating a long queue of people who phoned all over the world.

My friend Yossi Abu-Salem (whose parents were immigrants from Morocco) told me that a jeep drew up outside his father's Synagogue on the morning of Yom Kippur and soldiers took him away. I think Yossi's father must have been in a commando unit, because he also told me that at some point his father came home on leave and when he took off his shoes, a massive knife fell out. Abu-Salem is Arabic for "father of peace".

My best friend at this time was Gur, who lived in the fancy neighborhood that bordered on ours - The houses were detached with nice gardens and terracotta roofs. Gur's parents were born in Israel: Generally the kids in my school whose parents were born in Israel lived in that neighborhood. Gur's great-grandfather Norman Bentwich was a British lawyer who moved to Palestine in the 1920s and designed the British Mandate's legal system: Its the British system but without juries (Ottoman rules remain valid unless new laws replaced them). It evolved into the Israeli legal system.

Gur's mother would stick the map of the front on their fridge and we used to study it, to see how things were going. By the end of the war, the Israeli army had crossed Suez and was visibly heading for Cairo, about 80 kilometers I think. In the North it was heading for Damascus and was less than 50 kilometers from Damascus.  

We had no school for a couple of months. Most of the fathers were in the Army, but mine was too old. Because my father was an actor, he had no work for months: All the theatres and movies etc. were closed. 

During the war, Israeli troops crossed the Suez canal into mainland Egypt and it became common to see military trucks with "Africa" written in large letters, proudly advertising their destination. The Suez canal is a long drive from central Israel. 

Gur's father was a Maths professor with complete disrespect for authority. He came home from the army with a bag of "toys": Bullets and a broken pistol.  We played with the bullets. Bullets have two parts - A copper jacket containing gunpower and a smaller lead shot (the actual bullet) which is wedged into the jacket. When a hammer hits the back of the metal jacket, a spark ignites the gunpowder causing a massive gas expansion which forces the bullet out at speeds which can pass the speed of sound. Me and Gur used pliers to pull out the bullets and then poured the gunpowder out of the jackets.  If you did this to a few bullets and lit the gun powder they create a firework like flame and a satisfying bang.  We did it on wasteland between our neighborhoods where no grown-ups could see us. 

After the war, Gur's mother handed the bag of tricks into the local Police station. Many homes had momentos of the war, mostly military sleeping bags and rain coats.  Tank and artillery shells are basically very large bullets and people would use the empty artillery jackets as umbrella stands or flower pots. Ammunition boxes became flower pots or storage boxes and I once saw a clock that had been welded onto a dead hand grenade. Occasionally the Army would declare an amnesty so people could hand back all the military hardware they had acquired over the years.

Over 2,000 Israeli soldiers died in the war and the government published a book with a list of the names that I remember viewing. As school slowly got back to normal, I remember large groups of children "enacting" battles and throwing clods of earth at each other. 

Every night we watched the news in Hebrew on the one and only (black and white) TV channel. I remember lots of articles about the Suez canal and about friendly interactions between Israeli and Egyptian soldiers.  That and Henry Kissinger meeting Gold Meir, I remember them joking in English together and the impression of genuine affection between the two. 

Almost everybody in our neighborhood was an immigrant. I knew the kids in the local school better than any kids in any school I ever attended. I have never felt I belonged anywhere as much as I did in that neighborhood, maybe it was my age, maybe it was the school or the effect of the war which brought us together.

Most of the kids were children of Russian or North African immigrants. Both groups tended to arrive in Israel with nothing. Russians were allowed to take two suitcases when they emigrated and asking to leave was dangerous for them: People lost their jobs and were treated as potential enemies. Some of the Russians had highly educated parents, while others were clearly working class. I remember Arye Pukan, who told me that he read the Encyclopedia for fun and that he hadn't been circumcised in Russia because it was banned. I think he had it done after they immigrated. I also remember watching Stella's mother separate grits from rice. Stella's family home was simple and had no books.

Moroccans usually emigrated illegally, leaving their homes behind and bringing very little.  Among them, there were those who were educated in religious seminaries, those with a secular French (Jewish school) education and those from the mountains who had little education. My friend Yossi had a French speaking father who worked as a welder. He had a single sister but most North African families were 7 or 8 kids. There were many girls in my class who had religious parents, their brothers went to the religious school and then the girls came to ours. Perhaps the parents felt that the religious schools didn't educate the girls properly, or perhaps there just wasn't a school for religious girls. 

After the war Yossi's family emigrated to Montreal. The all-American blonde family from the mid-West left Israel and returned to the USA but their eldest daughter Debbie stayed. Debbie was my baby-sitter. She was gorgeous and I adored her.  She had fallen in love with a dark-skinned Orthodox boy of Moroccan origin. They got married in a huge wedding which we attended, I don't think her family were there (but then flights were very expensive in those days). They moved to Kfar Habad, a Haredi Lubavitch community, we also attended their first child's circumcision.  

I was the only British born child in my year. There were other kids who were the only ones from their country: I was the only Briton, there was an Australian, a Persian, an Argentinian, a Turkish girl and a girl whose parents were from Syria.

In general the only kids one identified by their origin, were the ones born abroad. Kids like me, often had a slight accent and spoke a different language at home.  There were also native Israelis - kids with parents who were born in Israel and they all lived in the wealthy neighborhood, where houses were detached and had tiled roofs: Except for most of the Yemenites. 

The first people to live in our part of Ra'anana were Yemenite immigrants, I think that they had arrived before Israeli independence. They owned land and worked as farmers. Shmuel's family had a stand selling watermelons by the main road, and in the watermelon season he would sometimes sleep in the watermelon stand. The Yemenites, all lived in one street at the start of our neighborhood, which was the first street of the area. They had the nicest houses, big detached houses with flat roofs and large gardens. Many of them became very wealthy: Land in Ra'anana is very valuable. In those days Ra'anana was mostly farmland and orange groves, but now it is a small city 20 minutes from Tel Aviv. One of the Yemenite men was an alcoholic, who used to hang out in the little shopping center.

One North African family near our house bought a sheep, which grazed round the bomb shelter, then the son had a bar-mitzva and the sheep was slaughtered. Next to them was an unmarried Dutch woman who had lots of dogs. Her house is now a 24 hour veterinary surgery. I think she must have died and left it as a free site for vets. Our most immediate neighbor was Kadosh, an 80 year old Orthodox Russian who came with his son, a talented 50 year old artist (he left his wife in the USSR). The Jewish Agency built a massive art studio for the son, just next to the house. The son built a huge sculpture that decorated the main Herzliyya post office for many years. He eventually emigrated to the USA and my parents told me he did very well there. The older Kadosh taught me to ride roller-skates. My parents had bought me a pair but neither of them knew how to use them, so 80 year old Kadosh showed me  how to slide my feet at angles. I remember him inviting me into his house; I was fascinated by the massive samovar that stood on his dining table and he was delighted. He showed me how it worked and poured me some tea.

The studio in 2023 - It is now a local authority center for the elderly

Further down were Tommy and Tanya from Czechoslovakia (as it was then called), he was doing a Phd in Physics and she was studying medicine: They had left (Soviet-controlled) Czechoslovakia in the middle of their studies and continued them in Israel - in Hebrew. An unimaginable challenge. Many years later they migrated to the UK and settled in Cambridge. They remained close friends of my parents.
The experience of living in the neighborhood inspired my mother to write a TV series for Israeli educational TV which taught English. Some scenes were shot in the neighborhood. My father acted in that series and it made him famous in Israel, but that is another story.

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