Yom Kippur: The war that still haunts Israel
Images and sounds that permeate Israel this week ...
There’s something strange about Israeli TV before Yom Kippur. Before Passover, there is a lot of programming about …. Passover. Before Sukkot, a lot of material about … Sukkot. The same with Rosh Hashanah and most other holidays.
But not Yom Kippur. Watch Israeli TV before Yom Kippur, and much of what you’ll see is about … the Yom Kippur War. Even half a century after the war, the war continues to trump the holiest day of the year.
It takes being in Israel, at Yom Kippur and for much more time, to begin to appreciate the degree to which the Yom Kippur War still haunts Israel forty-nine years after the war, and the degree to which the horrors of the war’s failures have shaped Israeli life, discourse and even religion in the decades that have passed.
Five years after the Yom Kippur War, Avraham Balaban, a noted Israeli poet, published a poem to mark the anniversary, pointing with painful simplicity to the fog and pain that simply refused to clear. The poem is called “October 12, 1978”:1
At a Tel Aviv department store a stooped-over woman Writes a date on a check, She writes 10.12.1973. Seventy-eight, not seventy-three Calls the cashier laughing, Freezing on his seat, Murmuring: what can be done, ma’am, What can be done
The 1967 Six Day War was, Israelis told themselves, the war that had ended the wars. After the punishing defeat the Arabs had suffered in June 1967, who would dare attack them now? And there was the Bar Lev Line along the Suez Canal that was said to be impregnable.
But the answer was that Sadat would dare attack; and the Bar Lev Line fell like a house of cards. If in 1967 Israel had tripled its size in six lightening days with some 775 soldiers killed, in 1973 Israel would manage only to claw its way back to the borders from which the war started, but lost more than 2500 soldiers. The country entered a depression which has largely lifted, but not entirely.
The return of existential vulnerability which the Six Day War had seemed to banish forever, the reversion to the fear and worry that Israelis thought they’d never feel again, left them shattered. If they were going to stay on the land, they would have to fight for it forever—just as Moshe Dayan had foretold in his eulogy for Roi Rotberg, which we’ve covered in an earlier column.
But was the fight worth it? Was the land worth the horrifying cost?
What emerged was profound introspection. It was a hurting generation of wounded, empty Israeli souls (see our column about the song, The Winter of ‘73, here). In hindsight, then, it should have come as no surprise that a renewed interest in Jewish tradition, spirituality, and religiosity began to emerge in that period.
Kibbutz Beit HaShita, in Israel’s north, had been a bastion of hard-nosed secularism ever since its founding. In 1973, the kibbutz watched with shock and worry as its young men were called up in the early hours of the war, many of them sent south to fight Egypt, which in the early days of the war was crossing the Sinai and seemed unstoppable.
By the end of the war, eleven young men from the small kibbutz community had fallen. When eleven IDF jeeps eventually drove through the gates of the kibbutz, one casket on each jeep, the sight broke the hearts of the kibbutz and shocked the rest of the nation to its core. So, too, did television footage showing other Israeli soldiers being taken captive. Something began to give in the wake of those losses.
“What is the purpose of the country? Why do we need to live here?”
People began to discover that it was difficult to make a case for the Jewish state absent the world of Jewish substance. Without being in dialogue in some way with the substance and majesty of Jewish civilization, where would Israelis find purpose?
Musicians began turning to classic Jewish sources for material. Some wove parts of the liturgy into their otherwise contemporary music. The singers from the Banai family—Ehud Banai, Yossi Banai, and Meir Banai among others—are national sensations, much of whose music is based on traditional religious texts. Etti Ankri, long a beloved secular musician and singer, put out an album of music renditions of the poetry of the medieval Rabbi Yehudah Halevi (and later became religious herself). Berry Sakharof, an Israeli rock musician sometimes referred to as the “prince of Israeli rock,” released an album of his rendering of songs by Shlomo ibn Gvirol, another medieval poet and religious figure.
In 1977, Uri Zohar—then a film director, actor, and comedian who was the very symbol of Israel’s hyper-secular society—announced that he was becoming religiously observant, would study to become a rabbi, and was leaving the world of entertainment. (Zohar died just a few months ago.) Other public figures followed, some more publicly, some less. Sands were shifting.
At Beit HaShita, the kibbutz that had lost the eleven young men, the fissures finally broke wide open in 1990, seventeen years after the war, when Yair Rosenblum, one of Israel’s most prolific songwriters, visited the kibbutz. He ended up writing a melody for the Yom Kippur liturgical poem U-Netaneh Tokef, which includes the words “who shall live, who shall die, who by fire, who by water …,” words that every religious Jew knew well, language that even many secular Jews remembered from their parents or grandparents, a poem that Leonard Cohen had brought to the attention of a worldwide audience after he visited Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
Rosenblum recruited Hanoch Albalak, a member of the kibbutz known for his beautiful voice, to sing this new melody to a classical, deeply religious text, at the Yom Kippur ceremony of this passionately secular kibbutz. Matti Friedman, in his wonderful new book, Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, described what happened next: The song was sung at the end of the ceremony on the eve of Yom Kippur that year, 1990. Rosenblum had introduced an unapologetically religious text into a stronghold of secularism and touched the rawest nerve of the community, that of the Yom Kippur War.
The result appears to have been overpowering.2 “When Hanoch began to sing and broke open the gates of heaven, the audience was struck dumb,” Shalev wrote. “Something special happened,” another member, Ruti Peled, wrote in the same kibbutz publication from 1998. “It was like a shared religious experience that linked the experience of loss (which was especially present since the war), the words of the Jewish prayer (expressing man’s nothingness compared to God’s greatness, death to sanctify God’s name and accepting judgment) and the melody (which included elements of prayer).” “When I sang, I saw more than a few people crying,” Albalak recalled. Word spread after the holiday, and a year later, in 1991, Channel 1 TV filmed a documentary about the prayer and the kibbutz’s fraught relationship with Yom Kippur.
Rosenblum’s tune began to catch on. In Israel, it is now one of the most widespread melodies used for the prayer that marks the height of the Yom Kippur service. In ways that its founders could never have imagined, the Jewish state was becoming Jewish in an entirely new—but also ancient—way. If Bialik had blamed religiosity for the vulnerability of Kishinev (we covered Kishinev and Bialik’s classic poem about it in this column), Israelis now saw vulnerability as inevitable, and sought solace in the religious tradition Bialik had angrily rejected.
Balaban’s poem, above, gives a bit of a glimpse into Israeli life after the war. So, too, does Rosenblum’s haunting melody, sung across Israel and now beyond.
The video to which I’ve linked below is a bit over-produced for my taste (and does not have subtitles), but I’ve used that one because it contains some of the images that invariably filter across Israeli television in the days before Yom Kippur. The images appear only fleetingly, because they are so iconic in Israel that everyone watching TV knows them. Still, if you look closely, you’ll see the following:
00:49 bewildered worshippers leaving synagogue on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, as sirens pierced the air. You can see that they’re wondering what was happening
00:56 worshippers meeting up with soldiers from their units, units that they would then join and with whom they would head to war
01:02 reservists reporting to their units, looking for their assignments, asking where they were to head to join the fighting
01:23 young children anxiously filling sandbags to fortify civilian locations
02:11 rushing the wounded off the battlefield and onto medevac helicopters
04:16 more evacuation of the wounded — the wounded, many of whom are still alive and still carry physical and psychological scars with them, color Israeli sentiment about the war, to this day
You’ll also hear Shay Abramson, the Chief Cantor of the IDF (yes, the army has a cantor), who has an exceptional voice. (The video was filmed in a Tel Aviv synagogue, which is why everyone has their head covered … normally, orchestras certainly do not.)
Here are the words from the Yom Kippur liturgy that he is singing:
We shall ascribe holiness to this day. For it is awesome and terrible. Your kingship is exalted upon it. Your throne is established in mercy. You are enthroned upon it in truth. In truth You are the judge, The exhorter, the all knowing, the witness, He who inscribes and seals, Remembering all that is forgotten. You open the book of remembrance Which proclaims itself, And the seal of each person is there. The great shofar is sounded, A still small voice is heard. The angels are dismayed, They are seized by fear and trembling As they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment! For all the hosts of heaven are brought for judgment. They shall not be guiltless in Your eyes And all creatures shall parade before You as a troop. As a shepherd herds his flock, Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff, So do You cause to pass, count, and record, Visiting the souls of all living, Decreeing the length of their days, Inscribing their judgment. On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
For most Jews around the world, Yom Kippur is about much more than the war. But to understand Israel, one needs to appreciate the ways in which Israel is still mired in Yom Kippur 1973, to one degree or another.
Still, there is also what to be thankful for. No one who was not alive in those opening days of the Yom Kippur War has ever experienced a single moment in which Israel’s existence was in question. The Intifadas were terrible, but bombing buses and blowing up restaurants cannot bring down a country. The 2006 Lebanon War was a disaster, but Hezbollah could only fire rockets—they could not get boots on the ground. And without boots on the ground, which has not happened in the past half century, no country is going anywhere.
In the end, 1967 did not end the wars against Arab states. But 1973 did. And peace has come, slowly but surely. Egypt. Then Jordan. Then the UAE and Bahrain. Sudan. Morocco. Warming ties with Saudi Arabia.
From the caldron of that disaster, peace has slowly emerged. Listen to the plaintive voice singing U-Netaneh Tokef, and join the prayer: that the images you see in that video become ever fainter memories, and that the peace still dawning continues to shine ever brighter.
Gmar chatimah tovah: may we, and all humanity, be inscribed in the Book of Life.
With the holidays coming up and many of them falling on Mondays (our column day) and Yom Kippur on Wednesday (podcast day), here is the tentative schedule for Israel from the Inside for the weeks of the holidays:
Our twitter feed is here; feel free to join there, too.