Once Lag B’Omer comes the weddings begin. Two-thirds of the mourning period for Rabbi Akiva’s students is over and many rule the stringencies of remembrance can be relaxed. Forty-six years ago, though, the period after Lag B’Omer was anything but joyous for the Jews in Eretz Yisroel.
At that time I was thirteen-years-old living in Wichita, Kansas and the build-up to the Six Day War barely touched my untroubled life. Summer vacation had begun. The municipal swimming pool had opened. I was going to have a fun summer. One morning I came home from a sleep-over at my friend’s house to find my mother listening to my father’s transistor radio. She was crying and she was angry as she listened to an Arab leader proclaim that Allah would assist them in this Holy War to push the Jews of Israel into the sea. Some of her concern did penetrate my carefree existence but I did not feel threatened. The same could not be said for my contemporaries living across the ocean in Israel then.
My friend, Yoella, a year younger than me, has not forgotten the terror of the three weeks leading up to the 1967 war. Living in Jerusalem, she was on the front lines. Earlier, during the intermediate days of Pesach, she had taken an outing with her family to Mandlebaum Gate, a short bus ride from her home in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood. Mandlebaum Gate, a checkpoint on the Jordanian border, was a mere four kilometers from the Kotel, the last remaining wall of the Holy Temple. However, those four kilometers were in enemy territory and Yoella could only imagine what the Kotel, captured by Jordan in the 1948 war, was like.
Two weeks after Pesach Egyptian forces began amassing at the Israeli border and five days later closed the Straits of Tiran. War was imminent and in Israel they knew they were preparing for a war of survival. Those preparations are still vivid in Yoella’s memory. She will not forget the filling of sandbags, the stockpiling of food, or the drills.
It was on Monday that the war began. In Yoella’s school they knew it had started when they heard an explosion coming from Mt. Herzl, a three minute walk away. Of course, school was evacuated but the children were released into their parents’ hands only, and those parents had to sign a form that they were taking the responsibility for their child. Yoella’s mother was there in a matter of minutes to take her youngest child. They did not go home to their apartment. Rather they went down the stairs to the dark, crowded bomb shelter in the basement of their building. Except to use the bathroom they did not leave there for three days. At the time they did not know if they would be there for days, months, or years. They did not know if they would die in the shelter or be taken prisoner by Jordanian soldiers and shot. All they knew was that they needed to pray with all their might.
Israeli news was blacked out and the news from Egypt and Jordan was full of Arab victories. Somehow, though, Wednesday afternoon a rumor began circulating. It was a rumor that was almost impossible to believe: the Israeli paratroopers had reclaimed the Old City of Jerusalem.
Elsewhere in Israel the danger was less intense. My friend, Chaya, was nine-years-old then and living in Haifa. She also remembers the sandbags as well blackout curtains on the windows. Unlike Yoella and the others in Jerusalem, she remembers being in the bomb shelter for short periods only. What she does remember, and will probably never forget, was the stirring announcement on the radio. The Temple Mount is in our hands!
The rumor they had heard in the bomb shelters in Jerusalem on Wednesday was indeed true. By Thursday there was no keeping anyone in the shelter. Instead they all ran to the roof with tears of joy. On Friday the fears were over. A miracle had occurred!
The joy in Israel of the liberation of so many sites sacred to the Jewish people was tempered by the loss of so many lives. As a nine-year-old, Chaya wondered why her father’s joy was not as exuberant as her own. Somehow she understood that he was also thinking about the high price they had paid for their euphoria.
Back in America I was awed by the famous picture of the three paratroopers staring at the Kotel in wonder. At that time, I had no understanding of the sacrifice that had been made here in Israel. Now, forty-six years later, I live in Shilo which was returned to Jewish hands the same time that Jerusalem was reunited. I am able to go to the Kotel whenever I so desire. This would not be possible had it not been for everything that Chaya, Yoella, and the others endured. I will always be grateful to them. I am proud that HaShem has allowed me to join them in being part of the Jewish people living in Eretz Yisroel.