October 13, 2023

Letter from Jerusalem – opinion

By Barbara Sofer

I look back at the articles I wrote during the Yom Kippur War and am glad I have them. The details, the feelings, what I did when.

Write down your feelings, where you are every day and what is happening to you and your loved ones, dear readers. This time will be remembered forever, and we are living it.

In addition to equipping my house for a possible time when there is no water and electricity (is that supposed recommendation by the Home Front Command just a rumor? Who wants to be unprepared? The upscale supermarket open late last night was out of regular mineral water. People were buying cases of Perrier), I’m trying to write down what I have been feeling and doing.

In the meantime, I’ve been meeting the men and women patients who are in the surgery and intensive care wards of Hadassah Medical Center. They were evacuated from the South or injured by the rockets near Jerusalem. They all have severe wounds. Still, they consider themselves the luckiest people in the world. One man had his leg blown off by an RPG rocket. A young woman had a bullet in her leg. A soldier was shot in his face. But they’re alive and free, and getting superb medical care.

Through our tough modern history, we have created the experts who know how to treat trauma. Everyone I met will need a long period of physical therapy.

They all saw friends murdered or captured. Everyone I met will need a lifetime of post-trauma therapy. Citizen alert: We need to invest in this now!

Who could have guessed? I wrote on my Facebook page on Friday, “Holiday Weekend Ahead,” and explained how special it was to have Shmini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, and Shabbat all together.

Memories of the Yom Kippur War

On Shabbat morning, when I heard the siren in Jerusalem, I was thrown back 50 years. I was then a new immigrant living in a basement apartment, a converted shelter, which turned out to be an advantage. On the ground floor lived a remarkable family, my role models in family dynamics and religious observance. When I came home during the Yom Kippur synagogue break, their new son-in-law – a pious yeshiva student and medical student all rolled into one – was sitting at his mother-in-law’s table eating a full meal.

Then he took the car keys and drove off to war. I stood on the sidewalk and watched him drive away. My world shifted.

He would survive the war, but barely. 

His childhood polio made it difficult for him to catch up with the half-tracks in Sinai. That was an early lesson in heroism.

On this Simchat Torah Shabbat, I remembered that back then, even the religious were encouraged to turn on their radios. Unlike many households, today in 2023, we still have a radio.

When we ordered a new one during the pandemic, the young delivery man saw the picture on the package and expressed his amazement that anyone would still buy a radio/tape. I was glad I had it. So I turned it on, and just like the scary days 50 years ago, neighbors came up to our apartment – this time a top floor with no elevator – to listen. 

My husband, recovering from a broken pelvis, was staying with a daughter who has an elevator. I was alone and had to decide whether to go to synagogue. Even with the reports of war in the South, maybe the single siren in Jerusalem was a fluke, I tried to convince myself. My husband and I had the honor of giving out the candy bags in our synagogue on Simchat Torah. He wouldn’t be there. A hundred and fifty bags of specially packed sweets from Amedi Sweets were waiting. This is candy from another family that adopted me when I was a newbie. They would lose a son when their market vegetable stall was bombed by a terrorist. Another life shift for me. They switched from vegetables to candy after that.

All of this floated in my mind as I convinced myself I’d be okay. The siren sounded when I was on the way to synagogue. I knocked on a door, and a family invited me to crouch in their stairwell. The thought of kids’ disappointment at not getting candy pushed me on – maybe also the thought of being with others. I felt relieved getting to the Beit Yehudit, the community center where Shira Hadasha congregates.

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Fais, the custodian, was standing outside to make sure he heard the sirens so he could alert the congregation. Twice during the service we had to retreat to safe rooms, until the Home Front Command sent us home. The two children who came and one older person got candies. The rest had to wait for a better time.

Afterward, I walked to a Jerusalem daughter’s home, where she has a safe room.

I KEEP thinking that there have been too many TV shows and movies about the Yom Kippur War. Instead of teaching us lessons about preparedness, they dwell on our weakness and enlarge our enemies’ already lusty appetite. Why would we think that we are cleverer or have less hubris than the Israelis of 1973? The single lesson we have a hard time learning: Listen to your enemies and take them seriously.

I have heard people comparing the current war to 1948, when we struggled for independence. There were massacres then. But when I listened to the stories of the men and women at Hadassah Medical Center this week, I kept thinking of the Holocaust.

A young woman who attended the so-called Nature Party to trance dance until dawn described the truckloads of armed terrorists arriving at first light, like an unbelievable nightmare. She ran for her life. At one point, her boyfriend threw her into a car, where she lay on top of other passengers, sure she would get the next lethal bullet. When the terrorists caught up with them, they ran again, scattering, seeking hiding places. 

She thought she found help when she saw an Israeli tank. It was empty except for a dead soldier inside. She thought she could hide under the tank. She lay there for hours, a bullet in her leg.

At every stage, she texted her mother to give her the location, begging for rescue. Others were also drawn to the tank, compromising her hiding place.

They became a new target. Again she ran. At last she reached safety. 

She told the whole story again and again, but then she couldn’t speak anymore. The trauma of her near-miss took hold.

Other patients described rows of dead bodies, whole families lying dead on the ground. Burned cars, burned safe rooms to force out families.

This is the helplessness we created our state to protect us from. Awful, horrific, shocking, depressing. No word captures the feeling. Right?

And then, there’s a bombing near Jerusalem. My son, a spine surgeon, pulls shrapnel from a child’s back. 

Stunning are the acts of heroism of our soldiers and the civilians who got into their cars to search for loved ones. 

Inspiring is Israelis’ readiness to volunteer. Awe-inspiring is the willingness of so many young people to continue to serve.

Devastating is the lack of leadership – leadership they deserve.

We don’t know where this war is going. Friends and family abroad keep asking whether we are safe. Members of our family from different generations are in uniform. A grandson was evacuated. We have all been in shelters. So far, we are among the lucky ones. May God protect our courageous soldiers and all of us.

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