Friday, September 21, 2018 -
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Too old to crawl like a rat into a dark hole

Everybody is talking about how the Six Day War changed Israel forever. It’s true, but it’s also not true. There is no better evidence for the enduring delights-oddities-idiosyncrasies-madnesses-quirks-styles-pleasures-idiocies of Israel than Emanuel Feldman’s memoir of the pre-Six Day War weeks in Israel.

Feldman was writing in May, 1967.

Change a few names, dates and places, and his memoirs could just as well have been written in May, 2017.

The 28th of Iyar (the Hebrew date on which Jerusalem was reunited, June 7, 1967) is the diary of an American rabbi on a sabbatical in Israel, 1966-1967, teaching at Bar Ilan University.

For people who did not live through this war because they were not yet born but wonder what all the fuss is about, I cannot think of a better book than Feldman’s memoir. The history books — and there are many fine ones — will capture the international tensions, the Israeli fears, the diplomatic feints and the Arab threats, as well as the leading political and military personalities, involved in the Six Day War, June 5-10, 1967.

But what was it for the Israeli citizen on the ground — those called up to the front for military service and those left behind in the rear?

Feldman tells their story.

He was there.

He had the foresight to keep a diary.

He is an engaging writer.

Open his memoir at random. You find:

Rumors

“Today I heard this one: the US Marines may land in Haifa. I also heard that the American Sixth Fleet is already in Haifa.

“‘How do you know?’

“‘I saw them from the top of the Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv.’

“‘How do you know it was the Sixth Fleet you saw? After all, that’s 50 miles away from the Shalom Tower.’

“‘Well, they certainly look like American ships.’”

2017 update, two days before President Trump’s visit to Israel:

Trump has already demanded that Israel stop all settlements. 

“How do you know?”

“My neighbor went to a wedding at which the American ambassador’s secretary’s daughter said so.”

Or: Trump has given Bibi the wink on settlements. Bibi can do what he wants.

“How do you know?”

“My neighbor went to a wedding at which the American ambassador’s secretary’s daughter said so.”

In Feldman’s memoir you find:

Bureaucracy.

Feldman, watching all able-bodied men called up to Army service, leaving every government service virtually in a state of collapse, figures he can volunteer at the post office and deliver mail. After he makes the offer, the menahel, the PO’s chief factotum, greets this act of good will with:

“You realize, of course, that we will not pay for your gasoline.”

Feldman agrees to use a bicycle.

Then something unheard of happens: the menahel smiles at Feldman.

I couldn’t help but laugh at how perfectly Feldman captured the news that, upon first volunteering, a low level postman refers him to the “menahel”:

“The sound of the word menahel almost makes me reel. Every tiny office in Israel, every business, every school, every factory, every two-bit operation has its menahel. Literally it means ‘director’ or ‘manager.’ In actual fact, it refers to the chief bureaucrat, chief pencil-pusher, chief red-taper, who is usually a small, narrow-eyed, suspicious, green-visored monster who has waited 25 years to attain this exalted position and is not about to let you tell him anything. If he is drinking tea while you and 12 other people are waiting humbly in line to see him, you wait. Tea comes first. And tea comes at ten and at three — b’diyuk, punctually, come hell or high water — or Nasser. It is no wonder that Israel in in the midst of a recession. Israel is full of menahelim, they are all drinking tea, and all work comes to a thirty-minute standstill twice a day, b’diyuk, six days a week.

“After tea-drinking time, you are ushered into his sanctum sanctorum, you state you case politely and you genuflect with your words, you pay obeisance as to a king, you wait on his every word and you depart quickly.

“He is, after all, the menahel, and you are simply a lowly member of the public, and in a country which bears the Russian-Turkish-British tradition of the-public-be damned, you had better learn quickly your place in the scheme of things, which places you down at the bottom and the menahel up at the top.”

2017: The menahel remains the menahel.

In this memoir you find:

Beautiful Jewish bullheadedness.

“Old Mr. Katzenelenbogen is not so mysterious about his refusal to enter the bomb shelter. He has remained in his apartment all day. When I urge him to come down, he announces to me in his deep, booming voice, ‘I have lived in Israel for 50 years. I never hid from the Arabs, not in the 1930s, and not in 1948, and not in 1956. And I am not going to begin hiding now. I am too old to start crawling like a rat into a dark hole.’”

2017: Inside the green line, outside the green line — wherever, Israelis stare down the odds by ignoring them. Bullheaded, they keep building farms, high-tech companies, homes, hospitals, high-speed trains, highways, nature reserves, you name it.

You find:

Stark memories.

“In today’s paper is a photograph of a single Israeli soldier with a gun guarding about 500 hundred Egyptian prisoners. . . . the mind moves back 20 years and I recall the famous photograph of hundreds of terrified Jews marching down a European street in front of a single German soldier with a gun. That lone Israeli soldier: chances are that his mother and father were burned in Auschwitz. In 20 years the captives have become the captors, the oppressors have become the victims, the conquered have become the conquerors, the defeated have become the victors.”

2017: In this paragraph, you see Israel’s visceral opposition to the nuclear deal that Obama cut with Iran.

In this memoir, you see Israel then, and you find Israel today.

The 28th of Iyar, originally published by Bloch Publishing in 1968, is republished in a 50th anniversary edition by Feldheim.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg may be reached at hillel@ijn.com.



Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor | hillel@ijn.com


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