In 1967, I was a fresh-faced sophomore at Yeshiva University High School for Boys, Manhattan, New York City, the Center of the Universe. Daily, I rose at 6 am, davened with tallis and tefillin, stuck my head beneath the sink tap to douse my hair and comb it smooth, poured about half-a-bottle of Vitalis onto my scalp to erect a pompadour that would have pleased Ronald Reagan, ate my plowman’s breakfast of rye bread and yellow American cheese, kissed the mezuzah with my right hand, stepped out on my right foot (Mother’s orders), and joined the Morning Crush Hour onto bus and subway, my cardboard, plastic-encased Manhattan Transit Authority (MTA) pass clutched tightly in my sweaty adolescent palm. I was off to the Shining Edifice on the Hill, the copper-colored Bastion of Modern Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University’s Main Center, in Washington Heights, about an hour’s ride away. On the ride, I might do homework, read for class, or do some last-minute cramming for any exam coming up. Like the Billy Joel song, I was constantly Under Pressure.
I was the first graduate of my elementary school, the East Side Torah Center, to attend that venerable pile. In my little childhood yeshiva, I had been a shining light; at YUHS, I became just one more drone in a busy hive of all-male Orthodox Adolescent Go-Getters, all striving to impress our rebbes, learn “just one more blatt” of Gemara with Rashi, Tosefose (Medieval Commentaries), and excel academically. Leaving an exam, drained of whatever information we had memorized and spewed out on paper, we greeted one another, not with, “That was a ball-buster!” but, “Wodjaget? Wodjaget? Wodjaget?” (i.e., “What grade did you attain?”) repeated endlessly, like a competitive talisman.
When Gamal Abdel Nasser, the semi-insane dictator of Egypt, blocked off the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and sent the United Nations observer team packing, I (and many of my classmates) shared some concern with our elders, all of whom had lived through the Israeli Independence War, but, truly, did not realize the gravity of the Situation. Israel, to us, was more a prayerbook reference, or a mention in the Torah reading; it was, after all, on the Other Side of the World, and the world was a very big place, in those days. Our World began with Talmud and concluded somewhere in an Academic Morass of Geometry and Biology. We knew more about rate times time equals distance and the genus and species of the Bullfrog (Rana Catesbiana) than we did about Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.
As the days went on, the tension mounted—New York City was the most Jewish city in the world in those days—our rabbis (most of whom held shul pulpits, besides their teaching positions) began to allow us boys to bring our transistor radios to school—pitiful tinny-sounding Japanese boxes they were, but we treasured them as our music lifeline to the 1960s, which were passing us by. We had heard vague rumors of the hippies, LSD, and “Make Love Not War,” and we knew that LBJ was slowly turning up the heat in Vietnam by sending in more US troops—but we were just high school boys, and the Reb (our classroom rabbi, whoever that might be) was giving a Gemara quiz tomorrow: we had to study, study, study… What did the Rosh say about a messenger bringing a Get (Jewish writ of divorce) from abroad? “He must state, ‘Before me it was written; before me it was sealed.’ What if he said only one of those things? Then, the Get is invalid….”
“I’m fifteen years old, I’m not even dating, and they’re teaching me how to get divorced!” I would complain to my parents.
The Situation in Israel grew progressively worse, and we did begin to worry. Our family had no personal connection to Israel; we had no relatives there. But we heard rumors, as did all of us, of Nasser’s fulminations, threatening to kill every last Jew and fill the Mediterranean with their bodies. This was not good. This was becoming frightening. Would there be, God (He was G-d in those days) forbid, another Holocaust?
And then, of course, finally, like a lightning bolt, came Israel’s sneak attack, or preemptive strike, whatever you choose to call it—and massive military triumph. We saw the photos: Israeli paratroopers weeping before the Wall; long lines of despondent Egyptians soldiers, mostly barefoot, marching off to captivity; bewhiskered, bedraggled, exhausted-looking Israeli soldiers waving flags and smiling brightly at the camera….We, like everyone else, were caught up in the sheer euphoria of the military and spiritual victory—tiny David had, once again, vanquished Goliath. Our ears rang with “Jerusalem of Gold” and “Sharm al-Sheikh.” We read thanksgiving prayers; we laughed and cried.
A defining moment, for me, was when our Biology teacher, Mr. Wepner, took time out from tossing hapless leopard frogs into a massive glass jar prior to pouring in a killing chemical and dispatching them to Frog Heaven, so we could dissect them. As we sat eagerly, scalpels in our hands and frog-mayhem on our adolescent minds, he stood up at his desk, which, in the school basement Biology Lab, was perched over our heads. (Charles Dickens would have been proud.)
“Boys,” he addressed us, solemnly, “I’m giving out tsedakah, charity boxes. Fill them up: I don’t care if you go up to perfect strangers in the street—Jews, non-Jews, whomever. Israel needs our money; Israel needs our help.”
To this day, that appeal remains at once the shortest and most effective plea on behalf of Israel I have ever heard. And Mr. Wepner (whom none of us had even suspected was Jewish) was right: on the way home, via bus and subway and long walks in between, perfect strangers, Jews and gentiles, all colors and ethnicities, were coming up to me in the street—a definite no-no in the City—and shoving coins and big bills into my cardboard box. By the time I reached home, it was bulging, and I felt proud: proud to be a Jew, and proud to be supporting Israel, the Second Home I never realized I even had.
Even amid the joy, turmoil, and unbelievability of the event, there was, as with All Things Jewish, a Dark Shadow, one which I myself learned from my various rabbis through the years, and, once I became a rabbi, passed on to my students, as well:
We worldwide Jews love Israel, the birthpangs of our Redemption, beginnings of the Age of the Messiah, May He Come Speedily in Our Day. And we need Israel—why? Because if the anti-semites ever conquered America and threatened our Jewish Existence, the Israeli Army would come to rescue us.
Was this a good thing to teach to small children in Hebrew School? Good or bad, nevertheless, I did—until one bright little girl went home and told her parents (we like it when the kids do that; it shows that They’re Listening, and They Care) What the Rabbi Had Taught About Jewish Survival. And her mother told the Grandfather, who was a veteran of World War II.
And what did Grandpa reply to both Mother and Granddaughter?
“If the anti-semites try to take over America, why can’t we fight them here? America is different.”
And, you know what? He was right. So I changed my narrative. Now, I strive to reach out to members of other faith, cultural, and racial communities—mainly, when I teach English (the rabbinics does tend to creep in; it’s part of Who and What I am)—I am trying to Build a Community of Good Will, so we can look out for one another—against Haters of All Kinds, in this country and the world.
But now, 1967 has come and gone, and Israel and Palestine are fighting on Facebook. How do I feel about this?
It means that we’re getting a lot of information all at once—not from news organizations that edit and filter out the rumors, but “raw intel,” as the spyboys call it. And because Israel is a democracy, there are, I would suspect, possibly one or two reporters on every Israeli block (I exaggerate, but you get the idea). As for Palestine, which does not really exist, but is an agglomeration of different families, tribes, and power-grabbers (Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and Allah alone knows who else), there are no certified, trustworthy reporters to bring the news; therefore, there is more rumor and propaganda (let’s face it) than on the Israeli side.
So, of all the reports bursting onto Facebook and other social media, ever second, whom can we believe is telling the truth? There are many versions of Truth. If I tell a story, and you reader, tell the Same Story, we both filter it through our respective consciousnesses, and color it according to our personalities, experiences, and biases. There is no such thing as Purely Objective Truth. This always Lies in the Middle.
So, in the end, we can only wait, hope, and pray.
I pray that the hostilities end quickly, and that the air war, rocket to missile, does not inflict too many innocent casualties.
I love my brothers and sisters in Israel, Jews, Arabs, and Christians—they are my tribe—but I am concerned for the lives of innocent Palestinians, as well.
I believe that, in the end, a negotiated settlement and Peace are the only solution—a two-state solution.
Finally, we live in a world where the Questions are, frequently, easier to ask than there are Answers for them. But, for some cosmic or existential reason, Israelis and Palestinians have been linked by Fate, or God, or Allah, depending on your beliefs or politics. They will never separate, nor can they ever be separated. There is a Wall of Hatred and Suspicion between them; even worse, there are Walls separating members of both communities from one another, as well—Jews hating Jews, Palestinians hating Palestinians….
The only solution is Dialogue, beneath the auspices of a Neutral Power—and who might that be?
The Question stands….