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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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