My Story: Our magical first visit to Israel

Visiting in exhilarating days after 6-Day War offered euphoria of peace.

six day war 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
six day war 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nineteen years after the birth of the State of Israel, we came for the first time. It was after the Six Day War, when the young nation, again fighting to survive, defeated its hostile neighbors. We were living in Munich, where Gene was senior adviser to the director of Radio Liberty, which broadcast into the Soviet Union. Our plan, made in the spring, was to fly to Israel with our two teenage children at the end of the school semester. Our nephew and niece, also teenagers, were to come to Germany from the States, and the four of them would spend the summer at the ZOA Kfar Silver camp in Ashkelon. Gloria's parents would join us later for the 70th convention of the World Zionist Organization. But when the war broke out early in June, the US government prohibited Americans from traveling to Israel, so we were deeply disappointed. At the end of the month, as a result of Israel's stunning victory, we were permitted to travel. But even before that David Crohn, a former University of Michigan classmate of Gloria's who had made aliya in 1948, had written on the second day of the war, "Don't change your plans. The Egyptian air force has been destroyed, and the war will be over in a week." He was right, and our dream became a reality. He met us at the airport and took us to the Tel Aviv Hilton, where protective sandbags still filled the lobby. All over the city, young men were unshaven, observing the shloshim of mourning for their fallen comrades. The few Americans in the country were invited to observe our Independence Day on July 4 at the US Embassy. Later we drove up to Jerusalem on the old winding highway, past the shattered remains of military vehicles destroyed in 1948, stark relics of the conflict. Once inside the city, we offered prayers at the Western Wall, grateful that at last Israeli territory was no longer occupied by enemies. Jordan's control of access up Mount Scopus to the Hebrew University was ended. Now the liberation and the reunification of Jerusalem were to be commemorated by a concert in the amphitheater of the university. On Sunday, July 9, the bus drove from the King David Hotel, through the recently opened Mandelbaum Gate, to the amphitheater. Israelis and foreigners were already filling the seats and Leonard Bernstein was rehearsing the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the aptly chosen final movement of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, the "Resurrection." The Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir standing behind the orchestra was composed of men and women from many walks of life, including our friend David. We sat with his wife Annette and Gloria's parents, who had just arrived from the States. Also with us was Alfred Kazin, the writer and critic, who happened to be in Israel. Gene knew him from New York, and when he told him about the concert, he eagerly joined us. Bernstein and the other organizers were also honoring the IDF. While the rehearsal was in progress, Gene moved about freely, photographing the dignitaries at close range, the soldiers, Bernstein and the orchestra and chorus. The performers left the stage and returned a short time later dressed for the concert. "Lennie" spoke a few words of welcome in fluent Hebrew, to everyone's delight. Then he introduced Isaac Stern, who played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. When he finished, he and Bernstein embraced each other affectionately. The Mahler symphony was unforgettable: Its transition of moods from tragedy to triumph was accompanied by the sound of land mines being detonated in the distance, adding an ominous and dramatic counterpoint to the music. The most thrilling point was the final movement, with mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel and soprano Natania Davrath joining with the chorus. Then we all stood for "Hatikva." Since that indelible day, we have never sung it without conjuring up the exhilaration we experienced that afternoon. The next day, although not as aesthetically and spiritually satisfying, was equally exciting. Together with Gloria's parents, we drove with the Crohns from their house in Herzliya into the West Bank at Tulkarm. Gene wanted to stop and take a few photos of the bleak panorama, but David was concerned that snipers might still be lurking in the caves nearby. En route to our first stop, Nablus, we saw an abandoned Soviet truck bearing the inscription in Cyrillic: "Gorky Auto Factory." On the tailgate, someone had scribbled in Hebrew "from Russia with love." The presence of soldiers patrolling the streets in Nablus with their Uzis reassured us. We spent an hour or so walking in the city center without feeling anxious about the Arabs shopping nearby, and surrounded by a crowd of children urging us to buy their cheap ballpoint pens. Ramallah was next. Continuing south, we approached Jericho, stopping to look at a building where soldiers were relaxing; their sign read "Discotheque Jericho - guests welcome." The city itself was rundown, with poorly dressed shopkeepers who sat passively in front of their stores. Nearby was an empty structure identified as a Russian Orthodox mission. Returning through Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, we ended with a delicious Middle Eastern meal in Old Jaffa. We were privileged to be invited for a private chat with president Zalman Shazar, thanks to the efforts of his assistant, Sulamith Nardi, a Brooklyn girl, Barnard graduate and the cousin of close friends. We discussed with Shazar a number of issues, including the name he was born with in Belorussia - Rubashov - and the coincidence of its use by Arthur Koestler for his Russian revolutionary protagonist in Darkness at Noon. While in Jerusalem we taped an interview for Radio Liberty with mayor Teddy Kollek, who described his plans for the city. We traveled through many parts of the land and were in Gaza on the first day it was opened, thanks to Gene's press pass. But nothing could compare to the seven weeks our children and their cousins spent as Kfar Silver campers. The campers toured the length and breadth of the country, north to Rosh Pina and to the Golan Heights, south to Beersheba, Ein Gedi and the Negev, hiking up to Masada before dawn, exploring Solomon's mines. They were even taken to the eastern part of the Sinai and into the West Bank. The experience left a lasting impression on them; they still sing the Israeli songs they learned, and enjoy looking at the scores of color slides that evoke and refresh our memories of that first visit. A euphoria of peace reigned throughout the land. No one foresaw the stressful decades ahead, marked by suicide bombings and intifadas. Nor could they be aware that 60 years after the nation was founded, the joyous celebration would be accompanied by constant vigilance and courage. The writers live in White Plains, New York. They are Russian specialists and have written books and articles on their involvement in the Cold War.