Sunday, April 30, 2017

Jacob J. Gross' Six Day's War Experience

I was only 18 and had to  get notarized permission from both my parents to go as a volunteer. Plus I needed to get a passport as I had never been anywhere before then. My rush passport was issued on May 25th. I got my Israeli visa at the Consulate in NYC on May 30th and landed in Israel on the second or 3rd of June aboard an El Al 707 that was half Israelis returning to fight and half loaded with military gear.

We landed for refueling in Orly and were concerned that the war may have started and  we might be stranded there. Thank G-d we were allowed to continue to Lod.

Lod was a madhouse – hundreds of volunteers and returning soldiers landing to join the war effort, and hundreds of Haredi yeshivah bochurs waiting to leave.   I was the only Betari on that flight. A group of us were assigned to Kibbutz Lavi in the lower Galilee and were put on a sherut with blacked out headlamps – one of those ancient De Sotos.  The driver stopped at his sister’s apartment in Afula and she fed the lot of us.

Our time at Lavi was unforgettable even though the Kibbutz itself treated the volunteers horribly (there were nice people among the members, but the administration was disgusting and treated us as if we were hired laborers from Sudan).

None of the mitnadvim were particularly religious, yet they forced us to attend services on Shabbat. At the same time we were not allowed to eat in the Kibbutz dining hall, or use the kibbutz moadon.  Our work was in ‘falha’(hay) and/or in picking mishmash (apricots). I have not eaten a single apricot since then. There was a platoon of Nahal girls on the kibbutz and the administration made us work separately in order to discourage fraternizing and maximize output.

Nevertheless we did fraternize and, lo and behold, I (alone) was presented on Friday night with a kippah srugah by one of the girl soldiers. Her name was Ruti and she made the war days unforgettable for me. G-d bless her wherever she is today.

From the kibbutz we could view much of the air combat with Syria. More than one enemy jet fell rather close to where we were watching. On Friday night the big assault on the Golan began and I will never forget the endless column of tanks and half tracks with soldiers singing Kabbalat Shabbat on their way to battle.

The day after the war I visited my first Israeli ‘city’ – Tiberias, then a acient and sleepy town – where we enjoyed a peaceful day at the Kineret. The next day we were taken up to the Golan for a tour. And a day or two after that we went on our own to Jerusalem, a journey that took many hours of ‘trempim’ and a very long Egged bus ride from Tel Aviv.  The Kotel plaza had already been cleared somewhat and the atmosphere at the Kotel – remember this way before it was turned into an Orthodox shul – was one of free wheeling, unfettered joy, total kinship with whoever was there regardless of gender or religious observance.

Around that time all the volunteers on Lavi decided to quit en masse without so much as a goodbye. I didn’t go back there for 45 years, until my parents were visiting in 2012 and wanted to stay at their hotel.

Now it was time to move to the Jabotinsky Youth Village which many of the volunteer Betarim remember. It was a glorious time. Finally I was among my own, and it just felt great to be there.  I volunteered to take care of the hen house. My work consisted of collecting the eggs and throwing out the hens that had bled to death while laying oversize eggs (sorry, not all eggs fit perfectly into an egg carton).  The stench was intense, but at least it was out of the sun.  When I would finish my work I would go the shower still dressed in my shorts, T shirt and sandals in order to wash the stink out of my hair.

After work we would all hang out or go to Tel Aviv for the beach and whatever.  I recall that a few days after I started, a new girl came. Her name was Doris Dronski and she assisted me in the ‘lool’. There was some more history after that between us; bittersweet memories from a half century ago.

Having been a volunteer I was eligible for admission to Hebrew University. I moved to Jerusalem in August. At first we were housed in Bet Avigdori right off Rehov Strauss which was then a totally secular street where one could go to concerts of movies at the Histadrut Building on Friday nights. From there were we relocated to a brand new shikun building in Shmuel Hanavi which, prior to the War, was the very frontier with Jordanian no-man’s land. Today it is a slum at the center of Jerusalem in the heart of harediland The others in the building were quite a mixed multitude – communists from Argentina, Moroccans from France, right-wingers from New York and Johannesburg, religious, ex religious, starting to be religious, atheist…, the lot. The music ranged from Guantanamera to Re’I Rachel Re’I, to Aznavour to Das Lied von der Erde. It was an unprecedented and unforgettable mélange, yet we somehow all got along and made lifelong friends.

Jerusalem was an amazing city back then – only one traffic light (Yaffo corner King George/Strauss), much more cosmopolitan and secular, and one of the world capitals of the free flowing hippy migration along the route between Afghanistan and Europe. No one had a phone.  We were much less connected to parents and families back home. We had no one to answer to. We had so much less and we enjoyed so much more.

I feel sorry for our children and grandchildren who will never get to experience a time like that, a time of both courage and innocence, a time when we knew how to appreciate the little we had and it never occurred to us to cover the much that we lacked.  I’m just so ever-grateful to have been part of all that, and it is such an integral part of who I am to this day.

Amazingly enough, I actually got my BA from Hebrew University.

JJ Gross


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