There were no classes on the morning of June 5, 1967, the first morning of war, in my yeshiva high school. Instead we prayed like I never prayed in my first 15 years, as if my life depended on it — Israel’s life to be more exact, but that’s how we thought. Our freshman class bulldozed through Tehillim, reading Psalms I never really considered before, thinking Psalms only for old people to say for the dead and the dying, but who knew how many dead or dying there’d be by the end of first period?
April was ugly and May was worse. We watched Abba Eban state Israel’s case on black-and-white televisions, jiggling wire hangers as antennas, as we tried
balancing the contradiction that Jews were both blessed and doomed. We knew we were doomed, thousands of New Yorkers were walking around with blue numbers on their arms, the Angel of Death hovering over their shoulder, with the world rather neutral, but Israel had us convinced we were blessed.
Over in Israel, on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook interrupted the celebration at his yeshiva with a cry as wounded as a mourner: "Where is our Hebron? Where is our Shechem?" He had no reason to think he’d ever see those biblical towns, or Jerusalem’s Old City, all in Jordanian territory where no Jews were allowed.
There had been rogue New York Jews, such as Simcha Feingold, a tough Bogart of a yeshiva guy and a future dentist, who illegally crossed Jordanian lines to find himself the only Jew in East Jerusalem, davening undercover at the Western Wall. Up in the Catskills, at the Pine View Hotel, with snow still covering the April earth, Feingold told me his story. I had no reason to think I’d ever see the Wall myself, let alone be driven there by that same Feingold before too much longer.
That Yom Ha’Atzmaut, with Old Jerusalem still a forbidden city, composer Naomi Shemer was readying a song that, like Feingold, would take listeners across enemy lines. Based on a Basque lullaby, "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" (Jerusalem of Gold), was an ethereal love hymn that would be introduced that night at the Israel Song Festival, performed by Shuli Natan with a voice so clear, so lonesome, as to be coming from the holy Wall itself: "The wells are dry. The shuk and the squares are empty. No one visits the Temple Mount in the Old City. Through the caves in the rocks, the winds howl. And no one goes down to the Dead Sea by way of Jericho."
That night, the Egyptian army sent hundreds of tanks toward the border. The first Israeli soldiers were called up. And at the festival they were singing of a shofar on the Temple Mount, "Jerusalem of gold, of copper, of light…"
There was not yet a war, but that war now had a song.
Shemer’s ballad became a hit in New York’s Jewish neighborhoods. I wanted to learn Hebrew, just to get the words, to imagine a Jerusalem that, frankly, not too many of us thought about: "The clear mountain air is like wine, the scent of pines waft on the winds of dusk with the sound of bells. The slumbering trees and stone, the solitary city with a wall through its heart is held captive in its dream."
Parents whispered so not to frighten the children: Israelis were digging 10,000 graves, ready for the worst. Israeli students were told to bring two sandbags to school for fortification. In New York, we went to rallies and the Salute to Israel Parade. The parade organizers tried to be as modest as possible, with The New York Times noting that the parade would not be on Fifth Avenue, and organizers pledging "not to disrupt cross-town traffic." No sooner than the route was announced — up Riverside Drive, from 72nd Street to 95th Street — than we heard that an Arab group planned a shadow march on the sidewalks of Broadway along those same streets.
The parade was much like we know it today: floats, youth groups, hand-clapping, dancers, non-Jewish marching bands, and no overt politics, even as Arab war councils were planning the end of Israel. The Times observed that Ray Goodman, the parade coordinator, "darted into one group, snatched from the hands of a boy... a sign reading ‘Stop Arab Aggression,’ squashed it and dropped it in the gutter."
The parade emptied into a three-block sprawl at the Fireman’s Memorial at 100th and Riverside, where Barbara Tuchman, author of the "Guns of August," about the ignition of World War I, told the crowd and the newspapers that the U.S. had to help Israel, "not by futile fiddling in the United Nations but by straightforward, independent action."
On June 5, the shooting started. At one New York luncheon, the United Jewish Appeal’s Israel Emergency Fund raised $15 million in the first 15 minutes. There were stories of poor Jews who literally emptied their bank accounts. On street corners, my classmates, listening to transistor radios for war news or "Strawberry Fields Forever," were collecting coins and bills for Israel, in shopping bags and in sagging Israeli flags.
France already announced it was neutral. Then, on that first morning, with Israel fearing annihilation, the State Department announced that the United States was "neutral in thought, word and deed."
Some callers to talk-radio, such as to the Brad Crandall show on 660-AM, reportedly said around that time, "Why should we send American boys to fight Israel’s war?" "We fought their war in Germany, why should we do it again?" "They won’t fight in Vietnam, why should we fight in Israel?"
Sen. Robert Kennedy made a major address supporting Israel, attacking the idea of neutrality and the immorality of the Arab world where wealth "has gone into palaces and Cadillacs, above all into armaments and trappings of war," while "irresponsible leaders have turned their peoples’ frustrations outward," against the West and Israel.
On June 5, 1968, exactly the first anniversary of the war, a Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan fired bullets into Kennedy’s head. Most people considered Sirhan a loner in the cliché of American assassinations; they didn’t think of him as an Arab terrorist, the first to bring the war against Israel and the West into American cities.
All that came later. Somehow, on June 5, 1967, there was a breeze of messianic energy in the air. In New York, small miracles sprinkled the old and unlikely. Betty Grable, years from being a star, was announced as the new lead in "Hello Dolly." Mickey Mantle, on his last legs, hit a home run in the Bronx. Young Mike Epstein of the Washington Senators, a rookie nicknamed "Super Jew," hit his first home run in the majors. The 10th-place New York Mets were flying to Pittsburgh to sweep a doubleheader with eight players who’d soon be the core of a miracle all their own.
With victory, the Jews were everyone’s darling. Posters depicted a chasid in a phone booth changing into Superman. Life magazine’s cover showed an Israeli swimming in the Suez. Comedians joked that Israel’s eye-patched defense minister, Moshe Dayan, who "sees more through one eye than our generals see through two," could finish the Vietnam war in a week. Even South Vietnam’s Premier Nguyen Cao Ky said, "I’m for Israel."
James Reston wrote in the Times, "The Israelis are now very popular in Washington. They had the courage of ‘our’ convictions, and they won the war we opposed. Everybody here is so pleased with the re-enactment of the David and Goliath story — which incidentally took place on the very spot where the little guy slew the giant…"
Secular journalists believed the Bible; non-Zionist Orthodox believed in Israel. In Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox quarter, the Times reported that flowers were thrown into the streets in front of the returning soldiers.
In Brooklyn, the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, declared, "Only rarely does the Almighty show Himself to the entire world and so openly proclaim the eternity of His people. Such a moment was the Exodus from Egypt [and] so it was last week." God, said the rebbe, "showers us with kindness and miracles."
The rebbe warned, however, that if this was a miracle, then let’s not "fall into the trap of attributing this victory to our own military prowess." His other concern was that most Israelis were still intimidated by "world opinion," despite the world being neutral to Israel’s fate.
But in the streets a messianic breeze led to a braiding of Israel’s miracle summer with America’s "Summer of Love." For young Jews, The Beatles’ "Sgt. Pepper" shared the record stacks with Shemer. Climbing the charts was the anthem, "Flowers In Your Hair" (If you’re going to San Francisco), and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv became every bit the youthful destination San Francisco was. Maybe "summer time will be a love-in there," in California, but there was a love-in, an erotic awakening among Jews, too. For a moment there, we really loved each other. A mystical mistletoe hung over everything Israeli. Young American women in Israel were smitten by Israeli soldiers — some of whom were American boys who enlisted; while young American Jewish men saw the tanned and freckled Israeli women redefining Jewish womanhood. Young Americans even seemed to have an easier time falling in love with each other in the Mediterranean nights than in New York’s ethnic static. It was a bad time only for professional matchmakers, even the Orthodox were about as prudish as, well, King David himself.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, visiting Israel directly from his "holy hippilach" in San Francisco, suggested that every Jew bring flowers, like the flowers they wore in their hair, as a gift to each Palestinian.
But the Messiah was already on his way out of town.
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