Just as Americans remember where they were when Jack Kennedy was assassinated, Israelis remember where they were when the sirens went at 2 p.m. on Saturday, 6th October, 1973. Anyone who is now under forty or had not yet immigrated to Israel and wasn’t there at that crucial time may not be aware of the extent to which that event changed the life of every Israeli and of the State in general.
Two days previously I had given birth to my third child. This means that he is just about to turn forty (according to the Gregorian calendar, and has already turned forty according to the Hebrew one). And so I was in the maternity ward of Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem, sharing a room with two other women. As it happened, these two ladies were extremely orthodox Jews.
Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which fell on a Saturday that year, is traditionally marked by fasting and prayer in the case of observant (and also some secular) Jews, as well as by radio silence and a complete absence of traffic on the roads. This gives children of all ages a golden opportunity to turn out on their bicycles, tricycles, skateboards, roller skates, scooters, and whatever wheels they possess and proudly show off their prowess on the otherwise deserted roads. One could say that fasting on Yom Kippur has become a national sport, as it were, accompanied by a relaxed atmosphere on the streets on the first evening, when many people enjoy a stroll in the unpolluted air.
But forty years ago I was stuck in hospital, far away from my family, who were unable to come and visit me because of the inability to travel by car on that day. The hospital’s policy was to provide food for patients who were unable to fast on medical grounds, and this was especially the case with regard to women who had just given birth.
Apparently, the rabbis whom my room-mates took as their authority in matters religious had declared that women in our position were permitted to eat a small portion of food ‘as much as an olive’ every hour. Their devoted husbands had provided them with scales, and so throughout the day the two ladies were busy weighing and eating, weighing and eating, and occasionally feeding their babies.
I partook of the lunch provided by the hospital, and continued to read whatever book I had brought along with me. But once the siren sounded everything changed. In an instant doctors and nurses were rushing from one room to the next, placing each mother’s baby in her arms, and instructing us all to be ready to go down to the air-raid shelter.
I apologized to my room-mates and told them that I felt impelled, under these unusual circumstances, to turn on my little portable radio. Sure enough, announcements were being made, soldiers and reservists were being called up to their military units and the general impression was that something terrible was happening. This was, after all, the holiest day of the year, and one that was usually marked by nothing more dramatic than children falling off their bicycles or fasting teenagers fainting. No one had envisaged that a war would break out.
My frantic efforts to contact my home (mobile phones had not yet been invented) were fruitless. There was no answer. I was just wondering what to do, when my husband appeared at the door like a guardian angel ready to take me to safety. There was no time or need for questions or explanations as he had left our two small children waiting outside the maternity ward.
We quickly gathered my things together, dealt with the accelerated discharge bureaucracy, collected our children and walked as quickly as my condition would allow to the waiting car. Once home, our minds were focused on protecting our family to the best of our very limited ability. Our flat was on the second floor, and the building had no shelter. We moved the baby’s cot and the children’s beds away from the windows, then turned the TV on to see what was happening. Of course, we got no information from the one channel that Israel provided in those days.
All that day, and for many subsequent days, we were left in the dark as to what was happening. We barely knew in which areas fighting was taking place. Many of the events of that dreadful time are only now being brought to light. Mistakes were made by those at the top, there were some unbelievable acts of heroism by men in the field and the end-result was that almost three thousand soldiers lost their lives.
Although the war ended in a way that can be regarded as a victory, it constituted a blow from which Israel took a long time to recover and has coloured its political landscape to this day. It gave rise directly to the peace treaty with Egypt and indirectly to that with Jordan. It cast a shadow over the entire country for many years, and still does on every anniversary of that war. Israel lost a great deal of its buoyancy and sense of self-confidence, but also took steps to ensure that nothing like that could ever happen again.
Let’s hope that those steps do indeed have the desired effect.