Israel through a rabbi's eyes: Looking back 50 years

The daily journal of an American rabbi in Israel narrates the feelings of citizens during the Six Day War

An IDF armored car passes through the Lions’ Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem on June 7, 1967 (photo credit: ILAN BRUNER/GPO)
An IDF armored car passes through the Lions’ Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem on June 7, 1967
(photo credit: ILAN BRUNER/GPO)
When American rabbi Emanuel Feldman took 1966-67 as a sabbatical year in Israel, he could not have imagined that he would be witness to an extraordinary moment in history.
On May 18, 1967, after a year of “lecturing, writing, studying, learning the country and the language,” the Feldman family was weeks away from returning to the US. Sensing that the tension that was thick in the air might prove to be significant, Feldman began keeping a daily journal of events.
“It may be helpful someday to know what actually did occur,” he wrote. “And a practical benefit is that writing things down at the end of each day will do much toward keeping me sane.”
The entirety of The 28th of Iyar takes place between May 18 and June 8 of that fateful year. In a world that predates social media, smartphones and even email, Rabbi Feldman describes the ordinary conversations on the street, the rumors and the growing fears of a young country facing a major war.
There is a certain amount of current events reporting in the pages of The 28th of Iyar, but the heart of the book focuses on daily interactions – conversations with anxious neighbors at the makolet (neighborhood grocery), the discrepancy between the tension that mounts daily and the stillness of Shabbat, the growing frequency of army call-ups.
The Feldman family spent its sabbatical year in Bnei Brak, today a center of haredi life. In 1967, the men of Bnei Brak were being called up in large numbers.
“In our little shul,” Feldman wrote, “a soldier walked in, tapped several men on their shoulders as they prayed, they turned, followed him out, went home, said goodbye to their families and went off with him. By now there was no longer a six-hour notice and the men were lucky to get 15 minutes.”
On 19 Iyar, given the extreme shortage of Israeli men in civilian life, Feldman volunteered himself and his car to deliver mail. The need was real, since 10 of Bnei Brak’s 11 mail trucks were doing duty in the Sinai desert. The 11th mail truck was in need of a mechanic, but all the mechanics were also in the Sinai desert.
“I worked all day as a mailman,” Feldman wrote about his volunteer gig. “I delivered special delivery letters and telegrams, and noticed that almost all of them were from the United States and were delivered to Americans here. One does not have to be a Sherlock Holmes to deduce the nature of the messages: Come home!” The details of his adventures delivering mail in the days leading up to the Six Day War are what the book does best – making everyday life in Israel during those dramatic days come alive.
As an American family, the Feldmans were constantly asked by fellow expats and Israeli acquaintances why they weren’t leaving. In incident after incident, they tried various responses when pressed to explain why they weren’t busy packing up and heading out.
Musing about the decision just days before the Six Day War broke out, Feldman wrote, “All kinds of factors are involved: shame at leaving; desire not to give in to fear; a kind of bravado, maybe false; a wish to be part of whatever will come; exhilaration at the crisis; the feeling that we are involved in historical events; the desire to share with the community of Israel whatever will come.”
Anyone who lived in Israel during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge will recognize the civilian responses to what became the Six Day War – sending food to the soldiers on the front lines, watching the news obsessively, running to the shelter over and over in response to the piercing blare of air raid sirens.
The book ends on a high note. Less than 48 hours after the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and the Old City of Jerusalem were in Jewish hands, Feldman was given the chance to walk through the Damascus Gate to pray at the Western Wall. The scene he witnessed and described is stirring.
“Soldiers, grimy and hot from battle, are running up to it, touching the huge blocks of stone, caressing them, prostrating themselves on the ground. They put on tallis and tefillin and with their guns on their shoulders and in full battle dress they pray and shout out the Shema – Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One.”
Weighing in at under 200 pages, The 28th of Iyar is a smooth, gripping read that succeeds in making the month of Iyar of 50 years ago seem very, very real.