The 28th of Iyar in 1967: Where were you?

Atlanta's Rabbi Emanuel Feldman was on sabbatical in Israel in 1967. His dramatic day by day diary of how it felt on the home front has been reissued, perfect reading for the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem.

Rochel Sylvetsky,

OpEds Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

Where were you before, during and after the Six Day War? If you are old enough, you remember, as I do, the nerve-wracking weeks before the war broke out. A college student in New York, I heard, along with the rest of American Jewry, the repeated, ominous threats of Arab regimes preparing to "drive the Jews into the sea," watched the noose tighten around Israel's narrow neck, and listened in vain and with increasing anxiety for an international response. It really seemed that another Holocaust was about to take place. Israelis, many of them survivors, watched helplessly as young adults were called up to IDF service and the Chief Rabbi prepared thousands of graves in Tel Aviv.

A good number of Americans living in Israel left the country, albeit with mixed feelings and under intense pressure from their families overseas, explaining their choice by saying that they could not really help in the war effort anyway. The danger was  palpable – and not a few Israelis looked upon them with envy. Ironically, at the same time, young Americans in the US were lining up in front of Israeli Consulates, trying to fly to Israel to help in any way they could.

In the midst of this frightening confusion, an American family, their pleasant sabbatical year in Israel now a thing of the past, steadfastly decides to stay put and remain a part of the "people living in Zion."  Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, his wife and children, courageously continue their lives in Bnei Brak, half-jokingly telling their astonished neighbors: "We can't leave you here to fight the Arabs alone." The rabbi actually becomes a volunteer mailman when his is the only car not requisitioned. And this is happening as the media broadcasts Egypt's genocidal pact with King Hussein of Jordan.

The well known, much respected rabbi of Atlanta's Beth Jacob Synagogue is just a man in the street in Bnai Brak, and he decides to keep a diary and record his day to day experiences during the tense weeks before the war, the country's reaction to the miracle that ensued, and his trips to the liberated Jewish holy sites. Written in an anadorned, candid style, the book is enhanced by the rabbi's keen observations and his understanding of Jewish history and thought.

Because he is writing from within Israeli society, but is looking at things as an American, the book is unusually enlightening and easy to relate to, absolutely heimish, and all the more engaging for it.  Rabbi Feldman writes things down as they happen, joy, sorrow, laughter and tears, moments of faith and moments of introspection.

There is the Holocaust survivor neighbor who refuses to go down to the building's shelter, the fathers and mothers who tell him how they are worried sick about their soldier sons, the yiddische mamas preparing food packages for them, the empty classroom in Bar Ilan once filled by his now-mobilized students, the yekke professors who continue their academic discussions despite their sons in uniform. It is the story of how people of all sorts cope – even a nudnik student who tries to get by without doing a stitch of work, but turns out to be a paratrooper (and I won't give away the surprising and amusing conclusion to this story).

A rabbi, he sees the living connection to verses in Psalms, relating simply how chapters 83 and  142 are recited daily at morning prayers. He  gets across the atmosphere of Bnei Brak's outdoor minyanim to the reader, the effect on that community of the encouraging letters penned by Rav Wosner, Kabbalists and other rabbis to their followers. He states proudly that religious leadership has risen to the occasion, admiring those Jews trying to improve themselves so as to deserve G-d's mercy rather than building up rage against the enemy.

There is a bemused note of how "even the JPost" is writing positively about religious Jews in a spurt of pre-war unity, respect for what Rabbi Feldman terms the wonderful stubbornness of the haredi community in clinging to their mode of dress, a wry account of the aptly termed green-eyed monster, aka the tea-drinking Israeli bureaucrat with his Russian-Turkish-British tradition of the public be damned (I spent yesterday in the Jerusalem municipality offices, so if this seems heartfelt, it is). There is the understated, so American remark that "Israelis are not given to courtesy" juxtaposed with beautiful stories of real kindness and faith – like the butcher who pointedly tells the rabbi to pay next week when being alive next week is not at all a certainty - down to the news-casting role of the songs played on Israeli radio.   

By now you are there with him. You are also there with him as the war breaks out and he records those Six Days one by one, including a media interview in which an observant Jew says "we will win either by a miracle or a natural way. The natural way would be a miracle and a miracle would be natural." Tevya the milkman couldn't have said it better.

You join him in appreciating that miracle as he sees the photo of one IDF soldier guarding 500 Egyptians and remembers a parallel picture taken not-so-long ago of terrified Jews herded by Nazis. - and it is not only our victory that is juxtaposed here, it is that "we are feeding them and not killing them," he reminds the reader. Meanwhile, Cairo is still yelling that Netanya is being bombed, that 40 million Arabs are coming to liberate their "homeland," and Jordan's King Hussein, believing what he hears on Arab radio, joins the war.

You also mourn as Rabbi Feldman writes that there is no dancing, the casualty lists preventing that (Bar Ilan University students paid a steep price) but you join his euphoric.feeling that a supernatural miracle has occurred. "An outmanned army of clerks and students has routed six Egyptian divisons and 900 tanks and 400 planes in a few hours," he writes, adding that the secular Yediot Ahronot newspaper has Isaiah 52:9 on its front page: Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.

And the next morning an old man in shul says "we have to say hallel no more tehillim" – and glowing-faced soldiers. kiss the Wall, put on tefillin at the Kotel. The country is filled with people returning to their 4000 year old faith.

By now you have tears in your eyes as you continue on to Hevron and Rachel's Tomb with the writer.

Rabbi Feldman has made us a part of  Israel 1967 in this book, The 28th of Iyar - The Dramatic, Day-by-Day journal of an American Family in Israel during the Six Day War (available through Amazon, click the link for details).

Thanks are due to Feldheim Publishers for reissuing his bestselling book in time for the year of Jubilee celebrations of the story it tells.