An olah's memories of the Yom Kippur and Yom Kippur War - excerpt

The news we heard, broadcast on Yom Kippur because it was an emergency situation, informed us that battles were raging on two fronts and reservists were being mobilized.

 YAAKOV (JACOB) RAMON fell in the Tel Saki battle on the Golan Heights. (photo credit: Hava Rembrand, nee Ramon)
YAAKOV (JACOB) RAMON fell in the Tel Saki battle on the Golan Heights.
(photo credit: Hava Rembrand, nee Ramon)

An excerpt from the forthcoming book MiHamishim Kokhavim L’Kokhav Ehad – From Fifty Stars to One Star – about the writer’s aliyah as a child in 1969.

I looked forward to Yom Kippur 1973, for even though I had fasted before, this was the first Yom Kippur since my Bat Mitzvah where I was obligated to fast.

On the way home from synagogue, during a brief break in the marathon praying, I couldn’t get over the magical quiet of the Jerusalem streets, usually humming with activity. I recalled the cacophonous sounds on Yom Kippur in Far Rockaway, where I grew up: the roar of planes from nearby JFK Airport provided a constant counterpoint to the shrill sirens from police cars, fire trucks and ambulances that accompanied our prayers.

Suddenly, my train of thought was interrupted by the startling crescendo of a siren, rising and falling, causing instant dread. As new immigrants, we figured it must be serious to interrupt the solemnest of days. Everything shuts down on Yom Kippur – except for emergencies.

Our neighbors, most of them also recent North American immigrants, gathered in the building’s yard to discuss the situation.

 ‘I COULDN’T get over the magical quiet of the Jerusalem streets, usually humming with activity.’ Pictured: Contemporary view.  (credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90) ‘I COULDN’T get over the magical quiet of the Jerusalem streets, usually humming with activity.’ Pictured: Contemporary view. (credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)

Something terrible is going on during Yom Kippur

They understood that something terrible was going on, and that it would be permissible to listen to news on the radio, since it was pikuach nefesh – potentially lifesaving. The news we heard, broadcast on Yom Kippur because it was an emergency situation, informed us that battles were raging on two fronts and reservists were being mobilized.

Questions burst forth: Do we go into the shelters? Are they ready? Should we break the fast? Do we return to the synagogue? Will the fighting end shortly? What was happening with the IDF, whose miraculous victory we remembered from the Six Day War?

A vine-covered wire fence separated the building’s yard from that of the neighboring houses. As the adults were worriedly discussing the situation near the fence, they were approached by Ze’ev Altbaum who lived with his wife Yael in a wing of the two-family house.

ZE’EV WAS bearded, with understanding eyes framed by glasses, and seemed to me to be about 35. He calmed us down, saying: “Don’t worry. Yihiyeh b’seder, it will be okay. If I wasn’t called up to the front yet, everything is okay. The situation will pass in a few days.”

“Don’t worry. Yihiyeh b’seder, it will be okay. If I wasn’t called up to the front yet, everything is okay. The situation will pass in a few days.”

Ze’ev Altbaum

His calm tone and soothing words relieved us. In our “green” eyes, Ze’ev was experienced – and very Israeli.

I knew Ze’ev through Yael, who gave me piano lessons in their home. She emphasized the importance of hard work and precision to cope with challenges. She instilled in me the appreciation of the composer’s effort in his piece, as well as the importance of the artist’s investment in any form of art. I find Yael’s rules still pertinent, although I use a different keyboard for other purposes. The music that she played and taught, and the artwork that she created mirrored her noble soul.

Ze’ev worked as an assistant producer for Israel Television. The small yard of their charming, modest home was shared by a neighbor whose large collie often blocked my way when I came for my weekly lessons. I would wait outside until the previous student left, and then sidle into the house while the dog was distracted. Unless Ze’ev was there. Then he would come out and say, “Don’t worry, yihiyeh b’seder.” And he would accompany me to the house.

After the war broke out, we had a break in piano lessons. I hardly practiced at home because nightly blackouts were imposed as a security precaution. 

The tension grew over the ever-escalating casualty rates. Chaim Herzog, the spokesman on TV, spoke almost nightly with an Irish-accented Hebrew, his warm tones delivering the dire news of the day. He reported on the battles, the casualty rates and what was expected on the home front.

After about a week and a half, piano lessons with Yael were renewed. Bartok continued to present dance melodies; Beethoven still arranged variations for his theme.

THESE LESSONS were like an interlude that somewhat reduced my anxiety over the horrible news of the heavy casualty rate at the fronts. Yael’s teaching also kept her occupied, when she remained alone after Ze’ev had been mobilized to the Golan Heights as part of an engineering unit that cleared minefields.

After one of the lessons, we arranged for the next session. Yael then added an expression that I had never heard from her – “b’ezrat Hashem, with the help of God.” Yael’s timing and tone immediately conveyed to me her deep concern for her husband at the front. My gut feeling was that we would not meet for our next lesson.

My father, Dr. Henry Hashkes, was also involved in the grim news of those days. A physician, he volunteered as a civilian with the IDF K’tzin Ha’ir (City Officer) unit that had the most difficult mission of notifying families that their dear ones had fallen. Years later, he commented that this was the most difficult and most traumatic task he had ever done.

My parents were shocked and greatly saddened upon hearing that Yaakov (Jacob) Ramon fell at the beginning of the war. Yaakov was the son of Dr. Moshe and Ruth Ramon. Moshe was a colleague of my father. The Ramons had emigrated from the United States. Yaakov was a combat medic and hoped to become a doctor. He fell at the beginning of the war in the battle of Tel Saki in the Golan.

Meanwhile, Ze’ev’s plight and Yael’s concern for him were on my mind. I was very worried. 

After a couple of anxious days and sleepless nights, my parents informed me that Ze’ev had been killed in the Golan. He fell while rescuing a tank crew caught under heavy shelling in a minefield. Yael had known he was missing in action during the few lessons she had continued to teach me. It took utmost strength for her to teach, until she received the official notification of his death.

After receiving the message about Ze’ev’s death, my mother drove me to school, as I tried to absorb the enormity of the tragedy. Now it’s final, there’s no doubt about his fate, things can’t be turned backwards. How will I meet Yael? What will I say to her? What would be the key to my heart? To her heart?

After the war, I continued learning with Yael, practicing Tchaikovsky’s waltzes, but without Ze’ev’s reassuring tones. ■

The book also includes inspiring stories on olim from around the world. Originally in Hebrew, Pomerantz is rewriting the book in English.