What were you doing during the 1973 Yom Kippur War?
I found myself asking this question recently while watching the “Valley of Tears” television series about the war. To the best of my memory, the following essay answers that question.
On the High Holidays, in synagogue, it’s hard being a kid. The Rosh Hashanah prayer service is long, the Yom Kippur one even longer. The prayer melodies are foreign, different from the rest of the year. It can be a struggle trying to sing along with the cantor. And, before becoming an adult, the ideas of the liturgy are inherently difficult to grasp.
Without a strong sense of one’s own mortality, and an openness to read words not literally but metaphorically, is it even possible to find meaning in the annual symbolic act of pretending the synagogue is a courthouse and you are coming before G-d as judge?
We had seven people (five children) in my immediate family. That may have been the largest family unit at Herzl Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue and our family’s congregation on Mercer Island, Washington. With Fanny Rosenbaum, a friend we considered closer than a blood relative, we numbered eight.
Because both High Holiday services are long, few arrive at synagogue early in the morning when prayers begin. Members enter the sanctuary at different times while the service is in progress.
“Every year, it’s kind of cool entering the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur,” my older brother once observed with a grin. “It’s hard not noticing us as a family walking in and taking up an entire row of seats.”
Oct. 6, 1973 was Yom Kippur day. It was the first time on the holidays when I wore my tallis. I had celebrated my Bar Mitzvah the previous April. With my prayer shawl fitted perfectly over my shoulders and my tallis bag and Mahzor in hand, I waited patiently with family in the foyer for a break in the service so we could enter the sanctuary.
I missed out on our grand entrance. Right before we walked in, a Hebrew School friend tapped me on the shoulder and told me to wait. He had something important to tell me. “Are you aware that Israel was attacked?” he asked. “In the Middle-East, all-out war has broken out between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It’s really serious.”
I thanked him for the information and then walked into the sanctuary alone. I didn’t immediately take my seat but walked around to the other end of our aisle where my parents sat. I whispered into their ears what I had just heard. I wasn’t alone relaying the news. One couldn’t ignore the audible level of so many congregants at the same time mumbling to one another.
A few minutes later, Rabbi Pomerantz stood before the congregation. He waited for silence. He interrupted the service to publicly announce the tragic news.
Rabbi Pomerantz told us he had already asked a certain synagogue member, one who was active in the broader Jewish community and followed “Israel affairs” closely, to update the congregation later in the day on what was happening. In response to the war, he wanted everyone aware of what would soon be going on in the local Jewish community. He wanted everyone to know what they could do to support Israel.
Rabbi Pomerantz then said that it is better to be with family and friends when tragedy occurs. Inside the synagogue, with one’s community, is probably a good place to be at a time like this. He advised everyone not to obsess over matters in which they had no control. At this moment, he encouraged everyone to channel their attention toward the liturgy and the readings from the Torah and Prophetic passages we would soon be reading together.
Later in the day, a friend invited me to take a break from the service. We walked outside through the Herzl-Ner Tamid parking lot and then across the street to the Jewish Community Center. The JCC parking lot was also filled to capacity. As we walked, we noticed a number of synagogue members sitting in their cars listening to their radios.
I definitely realized the seriousness of this particular moment. That didn’t erase, though, my curiosity about other events taking place that day. Yom Kippur was occurring on a Saturday. The first game of the American League championship playoff series between the Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles had already been played. The Washington Husky football team had traveled down to UC Berkeley where they were presently playing the Cal Bears. Did anyone know the scores?
I found an older teen sitting in the driver’s seat of his parent’s car listening to the radio. He kept the front door open. I asked him if he knew any of the scores. I think I startled him by my question. “Hmmmmmm! I know I should be inside the synagogue,” he responded. “I shouldn’t really be in a car in a parking lot listening to the radio. But I think G-d will forgive me listening to the news on a day like today. Do you think G-d will forgive you for asking such a question at this time?”
By his facial expression, I could see he was joking. He informed me the Orioles beat the A’s 6-0. He was surprised I asked about the Huskies, since the team was having such a dismal season. He didn’t know the score.
A week later, on Sunday, the local Jewish Federation sponsored an event to show the Jewish community’s solidarity with the state of Israel. Temple De Hirsch Sinai, Seattle’s largest Jewish congregation, was the chosen venue.
We arrived early. We were lucky to grab seats toward the back of the sanctuary. For people not able to find seats, there was a sound system set up outside the building so the overflow crowd could stand and listen to what was happening inside.
The program began when about a dozen men walked in together and took seats on the bimah. My mother whispered annoyance just loud enough for others to hear.
“Oh, G-d! We have been glued to the television or radio for over a week. Are we going to have to listen to 12 different speeches? … I want them to tell us what we can do right now to support Israel, mention Jacob Raymond, say Kaddish for him and all the other fallen soldiers, and then conclude by singing Hatikvah. Unless they have new information to share, I don’t think anyone has patience for more than that!”
The Jacob Ramond my mother mentioned was a boy who grew up in Seattle whose family made aliyah. He was my older sister Laurie’s age. I think they were once Hebrew school classmates. I vaguely recall an image of him playing baseball in a local park. While my sister started her second year of college, Jacob was serving in the IDF. When war broke out, he was stationed on the Golan Heights. He was one of the first casualties.
I think the men on the bimah agreed with my mom because only about three or four of them addressed the crowd. In his speech, one of the leaders told the audience how generous and supportive some community members had been in response to the crisis. In doing so, he awkwardly revealed financial information that those people may not have wanted made public.
Across the country, in every American city with a sizable Jewish community, gatherings like the one at Temple De Hirsch Sinai took place. At these events, everywhere one looked, one could see blue and white posters, buttons, and t-shirts all proclaiming, “We are One!” At these rallies, every local elected politician who cared about the “Jewish vote” made sure they were noticed by their constituency.
One of the speakers mentioned in his address that he had “never seen so many different types of Jews in the Seattle Jewish community together in one place, at one time!” His words received a thunderous ovation.
In a Reform temple, there were Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews all together. There were Jews who did not affiliate with a synagogue but supported other organizations in the local Jewish community. And there were Jews who had no formal Jewish involvement but still felt the need to be there.
Before 1967 (and especially before 1948,) this type of gathering would have been unimaginable. The American Jewish community was divided clearly between anti-Zionists, non-Zionist, and Zionists; with the Zionists being in the minority.
After the Six Day War, a “love affair” started between American Jews and Israel. The passionate romance lasted about three decades. During that time, American Jews supported and were connected to Israel like never before, or since.
Today, the world is definitely a different place. In terms of American Jews and Israel, does the relationship resemble more “pre-” or “post-” 1967?
I don’t think I am the only one who misses the clarity and intense solidarity of a past bygone era.
ELLIOT FEIN is a contributing writer to jlife magazine and a retired Jewish Religious Educator who lives in Orange County. He is presently reconstructing history in writing a childhood memoir, “The Best of Times,” about growing up in Seattle in the 1970s.