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Photo by: Seth J. Frantzman
My shell casing from the 1917 Battle of Jerusalem
By DAVID GEFFEN
08/12/2013
Today, as a resident of the great city of Jerusalem, I also have been given an opportunity to relive the emancipation of Jerusalem in the last century, via holding an actual shell casing from that battle.
 
Were You There? was a wonderful and subliminally instructive program on the radio in the 1940s and then on TV in the 1950s. The purpose of the program was the reenactment of great moments in history so that “you were there.”

I never thought it could happen, but on July 4, 1976, my wife and I and our three kids were in Independence Hall in Philadelphia to see a recreation of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on its 200th anniversary. For me that was old hat because in my youth, I had heard Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and of course George Washington – actors of course, as they signed in 1776 – on Were You There? Six decades ago, our young rabbi at the shul worked mostly with the youth. He ran the three-day a week Hebrew school and led a rousing Junior Congregation on Shabbat and holiday mornings in the late 1940s. His name was Hyman Friedman and he became a distinguished American scholar in the area around Boston.

He was loaded with ideas, so he created a Jewish “Were You There” to make Jewish history more vibrant. We were involved in many key Jewish historical events via that format, but at this time of the year I recall the Maccabees.

One year I got to dress as one of the five brothers and march in to Jerusalem singing as we officially retook the Holy Temple site. Next of course, we reenacted the miracle of Hanukka, lighting the menorah but waiting breathlessly for the new oil to arrive so there would be no breakdown.

We were instructed to act in a cautious manner when the Menorah kept burning day after day. How we cheered when the new oil arrived, not sure from where, assuring the continuance of the “holy light” in a sanctuary waiting to be rebuilt.

Today, as a resident of the great city of Jerusalem, I also have been given an opportunity to relive the emancipation of Jerusalem in the last century, via holding an actual shell casing from that battle.

A little less than a century ago, on December 11, 1917, Gen. Edmund Allenby marched in through the Jaffa Gate as the liberator of Jerusalem. It was Hanukka and for the Jews of the world, he became our Judah Maccabee. This personal fascination of mine with the English general only began after the Six Day War, when Jerusalem became ours and we moved here to live.

In my case, I received a gift which made that event in the 20th century come alive in an even more personal manner. One of the greats whom I have met in my lifetime is a person very few know. Her name is Esther Topkis Potts, and she came here for six months in 1923 with her parents, William and Vi Topkis. One day her father bought her a souvenir – a German shell casing from 1917 engraved by Bezalel students as a souvenir vase marking Allenby’s triumph.

Before she died, because of our friendship and my writing about her noted father, she gave me that souvenir to possess in Jerusalem from where it had come.

“David take care of this – as you are now a resident of Jerusalem it will have much meaning for you and your family,” she told me.

My second link to the 1917 event stems from my friendship with Yaakov Gross, the great “old film finder” of Jerusalem and other locales of this country.

In 1992 he reissued the film of Allenby’s march into Jerusalem taken by an early photographer, Yaakov Ben-Dov. The appearance of this short clip marked the 75th anniversary of its filming.

Subsequently on two special occasions, with my shell casing and with my visual appreciation of that moment in time, I had a chance to enter through the Jaffa Gate in the 1990s with my entire family, as we walked to the Kotel for the bar mitzva of Ori and Lyron, our oldest grandsons.

Once again this year I reenacted Allenby’s stroll through the gate on Hanukka, the festival of light and liberation. May God grant me the strength to do it for many years to come.
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