Jerusalem's history: The first time living in Israel's capital

As we celebrate Jerusalem Day for the 55th time, I continue to bear witness to the Teddy Kollek era, which shaped the city into the likes of what it is today, a metropolis of a million people.

 KING GEORGE Avenue, 1960. (photo credit: MOSHE PRIDAN/GPO)
KING GEORGE Avenue, 1960.
(photo credit: MOSHE PRIDAN/GPO)

The darkness was terrifying as we twisted and turned on the road to Jerusalem. I kept asking the driver – will we be attacked? He answered in the negative, but it did not satisfy me.

David and I had traveled 16 hours from New York to land at Lod Airport. The only cabs – enormous Studebaker cars from another era, purchased by transport companies, then used after covering them with a protective metal coating. [Rita calmed down a bit.]

Every so often, something with lights was coming at us from the other side. 3 a.m. very little traffic. We held our breath – finally some of the lights of Jerusalem.

The key welcome – a traffic light. Jerusalem, wonderfully, had swallowed us up. In a few minutes we arrived at an empty neighborhood where our home for the next year stood.

My late wife, Rita, wrote this as her first entry in a diary she kept sporadically from June 25, 1963, until March 1964, when she had surgery.

 THE WRITER and Rita board a plane in Leningrad after visiting refuseniks for two weeks. (credit: Courtesy Geffen family) THE WRITER and Rita board a plane in Leningrad after visiting refuseniks for two weeks. (credit: Courtesy Geffen family)

It was very fortuitous that she wrote because I had not reached my “archives” stage. Not even one scrap of paper of that year, 1963-1964, was saved when I studied at the Jerusalem branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

As we celebrate Jerusalem Day for the 55th time, I continue to bear witness to the Teddy Kollek era, which shaped the city into the likes of what it is today, a metropolis of a million people.

What is the spirit of Jerusalem?

What is the spirit of our city? What motivates its leaders and citizens to try to make it better?

My favorite answer – the light rail, already recommended by a visitor in 1903: “I can see electric trains knitting the city together.” Even though the new lines of Jerusalem will only be completed in six to eight years, the well-planned extension of the Red Line will soon be operational, even reaching Hadassah Medical Center, Ein Kerem.

THE MAJOR event, 60 years ago, on November 22, 1963, was the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy. In Jerusalem, the four student couples in our building awoke to the news on a very early Shabbat morning. One of the husbands knocked on our door, announcing dramatically, “The president has been killed.”

First we thought of Zalman Shazar, who was Israel’s president then. As we scurried through the halls of the building, preparing to leave quite early to visit Sephardi synagogues, the real news hit: JFK had been assassinated.

On Sunday, two days after the killing, we were in a class in our building. Someone ran in, shouting loudly, “A Jew in Dallas, Jack Ruby, has killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin.”

I said to myself, “American Jews will be accused of trying to bury the evidence about JFK’s death by paying a Dallas Jew to kill Oswald.” Fortunately, I overstated the possibility of an outbreak of antisemitism.

The gathering, which calmed the American students in Jerusalem that year and American olim, was held in the Brandeis University building where students were in residence for a year. A noted historian, Prof. Howard Sachar, the director of the study-abroad program, soothed us and helped us mourn for JFK.

Rita and I saw ourselves as wounded Americans. We rode on our motor scooter to Tel Aviv and signed the Book of Condolence at the American Embassy.

“The death of JFK was totally unexpected,” Rita wrote. “We all had studied about the tragic death of Abraham Lincoln. Now, there was no Civil War – just some crazy young man who wanted to get his name in the newspapers, in the history books. I doubt that he thought of being killed so quickly.”

For us, the Dallas event became much more real. We drove from New York to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in September 1965, where I was to take up my chaplaincy post in the US Army. We decided to drive through Dallas and climb the stairs of the Book Depository. The FBI believed the killer had stationed himself there and shot.

In 1965, the Book Depository was not open to visitors. A guard was standing at the entrance. When I emphasized to him that I was a military officer, he permitted us to enter and to climb the stairs and view the killer’s “sighting spot for death.” It certainly was cathartic.

OFTEN, RITA and I strolled down King George Avenue in Jerusalem where the Great Synagogue is today and where the Yeshurun Central Synagogue, built by the funds that Conservative Jews in the US raised in the 1920s and 1930s, stands. I found a delicacy on the sidewalks.

Rita was skeptical in her diary. “I cannot believe David is picking up the seed pods from the carob trees. He is planning to take them back to our place, wash them and eat them.”

I, on the other hand, looked at these pods with disbelief, since they seemed to be the “St. John’s bread” given to us in Hebrew School for Tu Bishvat. What a pleasant surprise!

We joined a protest on King George Avenue by Indian Jews, Bene Israel, near the Jewish Agency building. The Chief Rabbinate had ruled that Indian Jews were not Jews. “Either leave Israel or convert,” they were told.

Rita and I believed that the Indian Jews needed supporters. So during the six-week protest in the fall of 1963, we sat with them, three hours a day, several times each week. They sat there day and night. Kind people brought them food and blankets as the weather became chillier.

The triumph of the Bene Israel was monumental. In 1964, prime minister Levi Eshkol told chief rabbis Isser Yehuda Unterman and Yitzhak Nissim, “Enough religious foot-dragging! Announce they are Jews!” And so they did.

When did she want to make aliyah?

IN READING Rita’s diary, I found an entry that was the first indication that she wanted to make aliyah.

February 25, 1964: “As time passes, Jerusalem and Israel grow on you. A few weeks ago, we could only strain, standing and looking from Mount Zion, and be told that the Kotel was beneath the Intercontinental Hotel in Jordanian Jerusalem. Our motor scooter has joyfully taken us for visits to kibbutzim and moshavim where we had friends. Visiting JNF forests, we embraced our homeland being restored to its tree-filled past. I think Jerusalem, with so few cars, is the way a modern city should be. [In Jerusalem then, there were only three traffic lights. Sadly, that changed dramatically. – D.G.].

“I can only imagine raising our children here – listening to them speak Hebrew naturally, watching them grow, marry and give us grandchildren. I have always been a big city girl in New York, but I had other plans, pushed myself to learn Hebrew well as a high school and college student.

“David really wants to be a rabbi, but I do not want to be a rabbi’s wife in the US. It will be a sad fate for us to live there when our Jewish homeland is an Israel reborn. Will the Geffens make aliyah? At this point, I doubt it.”

Considering Rita’s intensity about Jerusalem and Israel in what she wrote in her diary, it is understandable why we are here.

LET ME close with one other entry. “Sara Herling, who oversees the pnimiya [dormitory] with her husband, Dovid, took me to the henna of the daughter of one of their friends. No men, just women singing and dancing.

“Watching the henna being put on the bride’s hands, I, an Ashkenazi Jew, felt strongly. I am fortunate to be a part of the Jewish people, and here in Israel we are all woven together. I am certain Israel will never stop growing.” ❖