It didn’t seem particularly unusual at the time. It just seemed like a workable — and free — living arrangement.
But in May-June, 1968, I was one of only two Jews living in the former Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. My roommate’s first name was the same as his last: Rachamim Rachamim.
“Roommate” is a misnomer. We actually shared several rooms, probably a couple of thousand square feet in total. There was no kitchen. In the middle of our courtyard was a fountain. Our bedroom (which we did share) overlooked the narrow road winding from the Jaffa Gate down to the Western Wall, about three-quarters of the way to the Wall.
I don’t know how Rachamim came to his living arrangement, nor can I fully remember how I came to mine. I only remember this: I left Ulpan Akiva in Netanya, where I studied Hebrew day and night since the time of my arrival in Israel in February, 1968. I left because living near the ocean was bad for my health.
I arrived in Jerusalem, knowing exactly one person, and somehow wound up in the office of an organization I never heard of before or since: “Edah ha-Sefaradit.” I met with some distinguished gentlemen, who were interested in staking a claim to property in the Old City for a yeshiva, but, as is often the case in that part of the world, a “claim” was not a deed and not a payment. It was occupancy. Would I be so kind as to occupy a few rooms in the Old City?
The rent: zero.
What’s not to like?
My most poignant memory of my time in the Old City was the first Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of Israel’s capture of the Old City and the Western Wall a year earlier, in the Six Day War. At 5 a.m., endless streams of singing children poured down the road to the Wall just below our window. Their joy was palpable and infectious, starting, as I say, at the crack of dawn.
That celebration, that joy, that atmosphere, summed up a time that no longer exists in Israel; and that people who did not live through that period find hard to understand. What is this big deal about the Six Day War that everyone who lived through it talks about?
Indeed, it is hard to recapture, even by those who did live through it, perhaps because nothing like it has happened since, not in Israel, not in the wider Jewish world, and nowhere else in the world.
The Six Day War made explicit something that had only been implicit in Jewish consciousness: Jewish power. Jewish pride. Jewish confidence.
And the holiness of the Land of Israel.
One of the reasons that a younger generation of Jews finds it incomprehensible that American Jewry did not protest against the Holocaust at all, or only feebly, is because American Jews today never lived without Israel. Never felt a pervasive vulnerability to anti-Semitism, a sense that Jews need to be careful, should not be too prominent. Emblematically, a Jewish congressman from New York would not stand up to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to do something for Jews being murdered in Nazi gas chambers.
The creation of Israel did away with that feeling.
The Six Day War accelerated a radically new American Jewish confidence, expressing itself in everything from a sense of freedom to write Jewish novels for mainstream publishers to a sense of entitlement to lobby the government for aid to Jewish agencies.
Israel was on the brink of possible destruction, or so most Jews in and out of Israel felt in the dramatic days and weeks that led up to the Six Day War. Egypt’s Nasser was screaming about “driving the Jews into the sea.” The UN was pulling its troops out of Sinai, leaving no protection between the Egyptian army and Israel. Other Arab leaders were joining in the frenzy. Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran, a formal casus belli, but, beyond that, a clear attempt to choke Israel to death by denying it its only sea route for imports and exports.
Israel was mobilizing all of its soldiers. Banks, factories, universities, buses, food stores — all normal civilian services and production — were on the verge of closing down.
Dread and waiting and preparing for war were the order of the day.
Without prior announcement.
What would happen?
Other than during the Yom Kippur War six years later, never before or since have I uttered, or seen others utter, the Psalms of King David so emotionally, praying to G-d and begging for salvation.
At stake was our national existence, our bulwark against a world that only 28 years earlier had brought the Holocaust.
For those of us in America, it was crystal clear that our president and our government could not care less. When the war broke out on June 5, 1967, the State Dept. infamously declared: The US was “neutral in thought, word, and deed.”
News did not come out right away.
Those Psalm sessions continued, sustained. It was frightful. We were perched on a crevice of uncertainty.
Then. Suddenly. News came out. Astounding victories.
The Egyptian Air Force — dead in a few hours.
One astounding news bulletin out-topped the prior.
Now we were hearing about the capture of Jerusalem.
The Western Wall!
“Har ha-Bayit be-Yadeinu.”
Yet, our credulity was still further to be strained. Israel was going after the Golan Heights.
Those high places from which Syria maliciously hurled weapons of destruction at the kibbutzim below for the previous 19 years.
Everywhere — in every direction — Israel was victorious.
Salvation from darkness to light, from potential disaster to redemption.
We were floating, as if on a cloud.
It was a miracle, and was sensed as a miracle, of biblical proportions.
It left us speechless.
Until Abba Eban, Israel’s orator non-pareil, gave a speech at the UN after the war that left all who heard it astonished that a human being could put into words all that we had lived through.
Levi Eshkol, the colorless prime minister of Israel, he who lacked in military experience and flair, came through as the administrative genius who assembled a government and military team that saw us through.
Yitzhak Rabin. A household name.
Moshe Dayan. Military hero again. His heroic conquest of Sinai 11 years earlier utterly eclipsed.
Naomi Shemer. “Jerusalem of Gold.” Her song resummoning the depth of emotion — the liberation of the Western Wall — the reunification of Jerusalem — suffusing everyone who lived through this period.
Shlomo Goren. Military rabbi. Shofar in hand. Sounding it at the Wall as if to herald the Messiah.
David Rubinger. His iconic photo. Three soldiers at the Wall, stunned into silence. The furies of war all around them, transcended.
The holiness of the Land of Israel, palpable.
A mass wave of interest in aliyah swept through Jewish student and young adult circles around the world. Indeed, the years immediately following the Six Day War saw the largest aliyah from North America, before or since.
By 1968, plans for the fortification of Jerusalem via a circle of new Jewish neighborhoods were on the drawing board. But nothing had been built yet. The restoration of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem — destroyed by the Jordanian occupation, 1949-1967 — was but a dream. We all knew it was coming, but when?
The first order of business, or so it seemed to the obscure “Edah ha-Sefaradit,” was bodies in beds in the Old City of Jerusalem. If no one else were available to fill these beds besides Rachamim Rachamim and Hillel Goldberg, well, that would be just fine.
From the Old City of Jerusalem I returned to the US in July, 1968, and on July 3, 1968, I met the woman who would become my wife.
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