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The war that changed everything: Bay Area Jews share their memories from the Yom Kippur War

Forty years ago, unholy war came to Israel on the holiest day of the year.

Israelis were caught by surprise when forces from Egypt, Syria and other Arab nations, hellbent on retribution for their defeat six years earlier, attacked Israel on Oct. 6, 1973, the day of Yom Kippur.

Before it was over some three weeks later, the Yom Kippur War claimed the lives of 2,688 Israeli soldiers, with several times that many Arab combatant deaths. Israel won, according to most estimations. But the country would never be the same.

The euphoria of the 1967 Six-Day War victory had evaporated, supplanted by a sense of vulnerability that endures today. The war became a tense proxy battle between the United States and the Soviet Union, and very nearly drew in the superpowers for a global showdown.

In the wake of the war, Israel engaged in much soul-searching and fault-finding. Prime Minister Golda Meir and the military were blasted by the Agranat Commission, which claimed in a 1974 report that the government suffered from “excessive overconfidence” in the run-up to war.

According to the map, the Yom Kippur War raged mostly on Israel’s margins — along the Golan Heights and in the Sinai, far from most cities, towns and kibbutzim, though some missiles landed in the heartland.

But for Israelis and foreign visitors in the country during those days, there were no margins. For them, the war was all too close and personal, reverberating even today, 40 years later.

Some Bay Area residents happened to be in Israel during that fateful time, many of them teenagers on youth programs. Without warning, they found themselves in the maelstrom, but they still managed to contribute to the home front, whether packing loaves of fresh-baked bread or keeping a watchful eye on kibbutz children while soldiers and reservists went off to war.

Here are some of their stories.

Yoel Kahn

Yoel Kahn had the day off. Sure, it was Yom Kippur, but rather than sit in synagogue, the 15-year-old preferred strolling around the grounds of Kfar Blum, a kibbutz in Israel’s north where he was spending the year with a high school program.

It was a beautiful day. The steep mountains of Lebanon loomed to the west, the hazy Golan Heights off to the southeast. All was quiet.

American teens in bomb shelter at Kibbutz Kfar Blum, October 1973 photo/rabbi yoel kahn

“Suddenly the ground starts to shake,” Kahn remembers. “It was noisy, like a low-level earthquake, for quite a while. Then a [Syrian] MiG flew into Israeli territory. This was my experience of when the war began.”

Uncomprehending, he ran back to the dorms and saw one of the men of the kibbutz grabbing a rifle. Kahn and 23 other visiting American students were ushered into a bomb shelter.

“It was a pretty primitive structure that had been there a while, and there wasn’t a lot of room,” Kahn recalls. “It was a long, narrow room with bunks. We spent much of the next three weeks down there.”

That enemy MiG was not the only military aircraft to fly over Kfar Blum. In the first days of the war, Kahn saw scores of Israeli fighter jets and heard plenty of sonic booms, as well as artillery fire near the Lebanese border. Three Katyusha rockets fell on or near the kibbutz during the war, though there were no casualties and little damage.

All of the young Israeli men from the kibbutz reported for reserve duty. Three died in battle. In their absence, everyone else, including Kahn and his fellow American teens, filled in and helped out.

“There was a meteorological station on the kibbutz,” Kahn says, “and the army sent a few meteorologists to do readings every hour. So we volunteered to help with the weather observations. That was our contribution: to write down the temperatures.”

After a few days, the students were allowed to leave the shelters at night and sleep in the dorms. There was no phone service, so calls home were not possible.

Kahn notes that in those pre-Internet days, the government carefully managed war news. He says he and others on the kibbutz had no idea how serious a threat the nation faced in the early days of fighting. Syrian tanks almost made it across the Golan and into the Hula Valley where Kfar Blum lies.

But that never happened.

Today, Kahn is senior rabbi at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El. But the war, coming when he was at so impressionable an age, seared him.

“It was only six years after the Six-Day War and only 25 years after 1948,” he says. “At the time the distance a Katyusha could fall was a few miles; therefore Israel had this idea if we could only push the borders, we’d be safe. Now technology has changed and what could make Israel safer then is no longer relevant.”

Esther Salem-Politi

Forty years later, the memory still makes Esther Salem-Politi cry.

A 19-year-old nursing student at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital in October 1973, Salem-Politi was in the middle of a chaotic 12-hour shift in the neurosurgical ward when a military chopper brought in a soldier wounded in the war. She had tended many in those first awful days of fighting, but for some reason, this one got to her.

Esther Salem-Politi at 19, a nursing student at Hadassah Hospital photo/courtesy esther salem-politi

“He was as old as I was,” says Salem-Politi, today a nurse at Kaiser in San Francisco. “He had gotten shot in the jaw. It was terrible. A good-looking guy. Did he make it? I don’t know.”

That was one of many unanswered questions during those days. Salem-Politi had come to Israel to attend ulpan at Kibbutz Shefayim, and after a few months decided to study nursing at Hadassah.

Like most everyone in the country, she had Oct. 6 off, and was fasting at her aunt’s house in Bat Yam when air-raid sirens suddenly went off.

“I bolted upright and went downstairs,” she recalls. “All the neighbors were listening to transistor radios.”

Salem-Politi immediately returned to the hospital. She sensed little panic during those first few hours. People were tense but calm. The buses were running. Jerusalem seemed normal. “I had just one thing in mind — to get to the hospital,” she says.

She was assigned to the neurosurgical ward, but as a first-year student she was turned away at first. That didn’t last. Once casualties began arriving, it was all hands on deck. “We had been working in the wards anyway, but now we really were used,” she says. “The wards at the time were big, holding six to eight patients [per room], and they kept coming in.”

All of Israel was on curfew, with a mandatory nighttime blackout strictly enforced. This didn’t affect Salem-Politi, who spent all of her time during the war at the hospital. She says she was too busy to be scared.

She remembers huddling in her dorm during breaks, playing board games with fellow nursing students and listening to the radio, including Hebrew-language news from Egypt (one announcer claimed Jerusalem was burning). She remembers the hospital treating an enemy soldier.

And she recalls slipping out with friends once for a night off in the blacked-out city. On the way home, she hitched a ride. The young man who picked her up was on army leave because his brother had just been killed in battle. He later became her first husband.

A Sephardic Jew born in Egypt, Salem-Politi always loved Israel, but the war reinforced it. Though 40 years have gone by, she still looks back on the war days as especially electrifying.

“Everyone had a purpose,” she says, “and that was to defend the country. For me the purpose was to serve.”

Shelley Hebert

Funny, the little things you remember at moments of great import. For student Shelley Hebert (Smolkin at the time), then 19 and spending six months of her junior year in Jerusalem, it was the tiny black-and-white TV broadcasting Golda Meir’s address to the nation on the first night of the war.

“I remember thinking she had a very pronounced American accent,” Hebert says. The surprise attack “was a complete shock. The idea that something frightening is coming toward you, but you don’t know how bad it’s going to be, was part of how I processed this.”

The New Orleans native had arrived in Israel the previous June, eager to immerse herself in learning Hebrew and studying political and social sciences. She rented a room in the home of an elderly couple, filling her days with study and volunteer work in an orphanage.

Shelley Hebert volunteered at Berman’s Bakery during the war.

Then, on Yom Kippur, everything changed.

“It was very surreal,” she recalls of the war’s uncertain first days. “I remember sitting in the living room with the couple watching ‘Gigi’ on TV. Imagine every knock at the door, every telephone call, your heart leaps to your throat, but meanwhile you’re watching Maurice Chevalier singing ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls;’ that feeling that I’m an involuntary actor in an absurdist play.”

The surrealism didn’t last. Like other American Jews visiting Israel, Hebert volunteered to be of service to the war effort.

She took on two jobs, packing medicine bottles at a pharmaceutical company and working at the famed Berman’s Bakery. During those weeks, foreign volunteers staffed the jobs normally held by Israelis who had all gone off to fight.

“I was catching this hot bread and putting it on a rack,” Hebert says. “I had friends there writing messages in the bread dough. We did feel [the work] was meaningful and significant.”

When Israel suffered terrible losses on both fronts in the early going, fear gripped some. Hebert remembers an Israeli acquaintance later admitting that she felt at times that “we were all going to die.”

National morale may have wavered in the first days of the war, but Israeli resiliency soon resumed. Hebert remembers attending free concerts at the Jerusalem Theater. “There was a sense that everyone wanted to do their part,” she notes. “What an inspiring lifetime lesson.”

As Israel seized the advantage on the battlefield, little by little life returned to normal. Hebert remembers the night the lights came back on in Jerusalem.

“There wasn’t euphoria,” she says, “but suddenly the cafés were open, people were going out into the streets again, and it was this strange sense that now things would just resume, except you knew it couldn’t be the way it was.”

Hebert went on to have a career in journalism. After moving to the Bay Area, she served as executive director of development for the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto from 2003 to 2007.

Today she serves on the advisory board of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and is board president of Hillel at Stanford.

Looking back on the 19-year-old girl she once was, experiencing a pivotal moment in history, Hebert shakes her head in amazement.

“Many years later I read a history of the war,” she says. “That book told me how scared I should have been. It made me reluctant as an American Jew to make judgments about what Israel should or should not be doing to protect itself. Being there during the war made me very cautious. While I sit here in the comfort and safety of Silicon Valley, I don’t pass judgment on what Israel does to protect its citizens.”

Norm Frankel

Soaking up the sun by the kibbutz swimming pool that lazy Yom Kippur, Norm Frankel thought it “unusual” to see warplanes flying overhead.

Then a 20-year-old U.C. Santa Cruz student, Frankel was spending time after his sophomore year at Kibbutz Mizra in Israel’s Jezreel Valley. The Ramat David air force base wasn’t far away, so when the war broke out, jet fighters took to the air.

Syria targeted the base, firing multiple missiles that triggered constant air-raid sirens. When the first siren went off, Frankel was eating lunch in the communal dining hall.

Norm Frankel on Kibbutz Gezer in 1979.

“All the American volunteers jumped under the tables, and then we went to the bomb shelter,” Frankel recalls. “We were never really afraid, maybe because we were young and foolish; maybe because the threats weren’t that close, though some missiles did hit nearby. We watched rows and rows of [Israeli] tanks roll by the road north.”

Every Israeli man under 45 was gone within hours, Frankel recalls. That left him and the other visitors to pickup the slack and handle various kibbutz jobs, from kitchen helper to farmhand. Some even took turns at guard duty, patrolling the kibbutz perimeter.

On the first day of the war, Frankel found himself assigned to the dining hall. On the second day, he was running the dishwasher, and on the third day he was trying to fix it.

Frankel’s future wife, Jan, also was on the kibbutz at the time. One of her tasks was to keep the clubhouse clean. That’s because funerals for kibbutzniks killed in action were held there. Frankel remembers seven funerals during the war.

“It was very somber,” he says. “There was not a lot of news in the first few days of war. In Israel, most civilians didn’t have a sense of how bad it was.”

Living in Israel at that time persuaded Frankel and his wife to make aliyah, which he did some time later. He and his wife called Israel home for 23 years, raising their three children.

The family came back to California in 2000. Today

Frankel is executive director of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley.

He has stayed in touch with friends he and his wife made at Kibbutz Mizra 40 years ago. The couple visited the place earlier this year, and he says he can still picture the Israeli tanks rolling by on their way to defend the nation.

Frankel also says he will never forget how Israelis banded together during the crisis.

“Seeing the strength of the country and the ability to support each other in very difficult times had a huge impact,” he notes. “We saw how people had a sense of collective responsibility for each other.”

Naomi Jatovsky

For a brief, frightening part of her life, Naomi Jatovsky lived in a bomb shelter.

Ma’ayan Baruch — the kibbutz she called home that fateful autumn — bumped up against the Lebanese border, and during the Yom Kippur War, that was too close for comfort.

Jatovsky had come to Israel for a yearlong program sponsored by Habonim, an aliyah-oriented youth movement. It was her fourth trip to Israel.

Even without perfect Hebrew, she picked up on a measure of unease among her Israeli friends in the days before the attack.

photo/ap-spartaco bodini Israeli tank passes the remains of a Syrian tank in the Golan Heights on Oct. 9, 1973.

That didn’t lessen her shock when she saw the first wave of Syrian MiGs flying overhead. “I didn’t know what they were, but everyone was pointing to the sky,” she remembers. “The whole kibbutz was running.”

A few days later, she saw that the mountainside north from Kiryat Shmona was ablaze. Not far away, an epic tank battle between a Syrian armada and the vastly outnumbered Israeli corps had begun. Had Israel lost that battle in the Valley of Tears, Syrian tanks would have rolled over the Golan Heights and into northern Israel.

Jatovsky would have been a sitting duck.

“I remember how naive I was,” she says. “I kept thinking everything is fine, they know what to do. The tough Israeli thing. Once the war [progressed], everybody was upset and worried. The people on the kibbutz had army radios, and they knew things were not going well in the Golan. As six days went by it was clear it was not another Six-Day War.”

She and 40 other Habonim participants slept in the bomb shelter for the duration of the war. Frightening as the circumstances may seem today, at the time, the teens made the best of it.

“People had fun, too,” she recalls. “We had our guitar players. We were out of our parents’ homes for the first times in our lives, all committed to being Zionists, which wasn’t a dirty word then.”

They did more than sit around singing. With the Israelis off fighting, Jatovsky volunteered to pitch in however she could, including working with kibbutz children. Because of the proximity to Lebanon, soldiers guarded the kibbutz day and night during the war. Fortunately, it never came under attack.

Jatovsky’s connection to Israel lived on after her Habonim program ended. She eventually moved to Israel, as did her brother who, in 1979, lost his life while on patrol with the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon.

Today she lives in San Francisco and works as a nurse practitioner at UCSF/Mount Zion. Looking back, she feels the Yom Kippur War resulted in a “loss of innocence” for many Israelis.

Says Jatovsky, “Israel never again felt invincible.”

Shoshana Bennett

Shoshana Bennett was in the middle of Yom Kippur prayers in a Jerusalem shul when it became clear something was terribly wrong. It started with low murmuring among the worshippers, which grew into open chaos.

“Suddenly the sirens started,” the Bodega Bay psychologist recalls. “I remember it was a beautiful, clear, sunny day. No clouds, yet the sky was suddenly dangerous. The juxtaposition of the beauty, and the possible danger, I couldn’t make sense of it.”

Then 19, she had come to Jerusalem to complete her third year of college abroad. Though regional tensions had been building for weeks, Bennett remembers the war as coming out of the blue.

Shoshana Bennett (left) visiting her cousins in Tel Aviv in 1973 photo/courtesy shoshana bennett

In the first moments of confusion, she followed the crowd to a bomb shelter. Bennett kept asking what was happening, but no one could give her a clear answer. Soon enough, everyone understood Israel had been attacked.

Over the course of the first week, Bennett heard reports of devastating losses. Classes were canceled. Wanting to pitch in, she showed up at Hadassah Hospital to volunteer.

Recalls Bennett: “I heard a voice say, ‘Does anyone speak English as their first language?’ My arm shot up.”

She became the assistant to a Russian-born trauma surgeon who spoke English better than Hebrew. Though she had no nursing training whatsoever, for three weeks she rarely left the surgeon’s side, assisting him as he treated wounded soldiers from the Egyptian and Syrian fronts.

Though not on an actual battlefield, she was close. “I was in places I shouldn’t have been,” she says. “Mainly I was at the hospital. I was literally covered with blood.”

The experience changed her life, she says, filling her with “a sense of purpose like I had never felt before. I was truly needed. If I really thought about where I was and what I was doing, I probably would have lost it. When one is in an emergency situation, every cell of the mind and body is so focused on the task at hand you don’t have time to deal with anything.”

Being close to the action, Bennett reeled from the horror and high price of war. She saw how drastically the national mood changed from the glory days of 1967.

“The feeling of pride and success, the war absolutely demolished,” she notes. “The morale was so different when we got those first horrible, crushing blows. The casualty rate was so high. There was tremendous fear and sadness at what was happening.”

As a shaky cease-fire took effect some 23 days into the fighting, Bennett remembers feeling a sense of relief but not of rejoicing. She doesn’t think a single family in Israel was untouched in some way by the war’s casualties. “So the relief,” she says, “was tempered with the huge grief.”

Bennett has been back to Israel several times over the years, and came close to making aliyah at one time. She says her heart is still with Israel, a kinship made stronger by being there during the war.

“I’m glad the war was won,” she says, “but that sense of invincibility I never felt again in my subsequent visits.”

Larry Shapiro

Larry Shapiro figured the Kotel in Jerusalem’s Old City would be the perfect place to be on Erev Yom Kippur. He’d been in and out of Israel doing ulpan for close to a year, his Hebrew had gotten good, and he was in love with the country.

But that night at the Western Wall, he and an Israeli friend both felt something wasn’t right. There was a tension in the air.

The next day, after Yom Kippur services, he hung out on the balcony of his Jerusalem apartment. That’s when the sirens went off.

Larry Shapiro by the Suez Canal after the cease-fire went into effect photo/courtesy larry shapiro

“I never saw so much happen so fast,” says the Redwood City resident, who was 33 at the time. “I could see all over Jerusalem [people] running in the streets in army uniforms.”

He ducked into a crowded bomb shelter but soon emerged, determined to do something. Shapiro rounded up as many American acquaintances as he could find and took them to Berman’s Bakery, which he knew would need replacement workers.

“We took over Berman’s, making bread for soldiers,” Shapiro, 73, recalls. “We worked 14-hour shifts.”

A few days into the war, Shapiro, a former stringer with New York–based TV news networks, got lucky. He connected with an NBC news crew and signed on to cover the war. He had a rented Volvo station wagon and a young man’s sense of adventure.

What could go wrong?

The crew pingponged from the Sinai Desert to the Golan Heights, covering both fronts of the war. “I was everywhere I wasn’t supposed to be,” he says. “I was given exposure to so many moments during the war. I was somewhat arrogant, had long hair and a beard, but was smiling because I was where I needed to be.”

He has his share of war stories. Shapiro remembers exploring an abandoned Egyptian tank about 10 miles from the Suez Canal, and an Israeli officer “kicked my ass because we were told don’t go near the Egyptian tanks. The officer grabbed me, slapped me, threw me down, and said ‘Do you think I’m out here having fun?’ And then the tank blew up.”

He still has in his closet a 105 mm tank shell, bayonet and machete he lifted from that tank.

Later in the war, Shapiro connected with a crew from the NBC Sacramento affiliate KCRA. With them he crossed the Suez Canal on pontoon bridges. They also crossed the border into Syria and pushed east toward Damascus. He saw many Arab prisoners and many dead.

When it was all over, he returned the Volvo to the rental agency, the car a mess of dings, broken windows, none of the original tires and no front seat.

The searing experience of the war caused him to clam up about it for decades. Shapiro had taken hundreds of extraordinary photos during those weeks but kept them locked in a closet for decades. Until now.

Today Shapiro is in the aviation industry and a professional pilot. He also writes a column for In Flight USA, an aviation monthly. Talking about the Yom Kippur War remains difficult for him, but his love of Israel surges when he does.

“Day by day I never saw such power and spirit,” he remembers. “There was not even a question of who was going to prevail. I never saw resources gathered so quickly. Israel fights for its life, so when it comes to intelligence and being ready, they don’t know how to lose.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir tours the Southern Command during Yom Kippur War.  photo/idf archive

A timeline of the Yom Kippur War

Oct. 6, 1973 — Egypt and Syria launch a coordinated attack on Israeli positions along the Suez Canal and in the Golan Heights.

Oct. 8, 1973 — Israel launches its first counterattack against Egypt, which is unsuccessful. The Soviet Union supplies additional arms to Syria and Egypt.

Oct. 9, 1973 — Against orders, reserve Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon launches a counterattack against Egyptian forces in the Suez Canal area. Sharon’s actions lead to moves for his dismissal.

Oct. 9, 1973 — U.S. Jewish leader Max Fisher urges President Richard Nixon, in a meeting at the White House, to “please send the Israelis what they need.” That night, Nixon tells Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, “All your aircraft and tank losses will be replaced.”

Oct. 10, 1973 — Washington authorizes an airlift of military supplies to Israel after the Soviet Union sends additional arms to Egypt. Israel successfully attacks Egyptian troops that had moved out of range of their protective surface-to-air-missile umbrella. Israel has recaptured most of the territory in the southern Golan.

Oct. 11, 1973 — Israel attacks Syria from its positions on the Golan Heights. The Soviet Union’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, tells Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that Soviet airborne forces are on the alert to defend Damascus. Kissinger warns Dobrynin that if the Soviet Union sends troops to the Middle East, the United States would, as well.

Oct. 12-13, 1973 — The United States sends additional arms shipments to Israel.

Oct. 14, 1973 — In one of the largest tank-to-tank battles ever fought, Israel is estimated to have lost 10 tanks, the Egyptians anywhere from 250 to 300. Iraq and Jordan send troops to the Golan, in response to appeals from Syria.

Oct. 16, 1973 — The first Israeli troops cross the Suez Canal. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat asks the Soviet Union to convene the United Nations and seek a cease-fire.

Oct. 17, 1973 — Ten Arab member-nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries announce they will cut oil production until Israel withdraws from Arab territory captured during the 1967 Six-Day War and the rights of the Palestinian people are “restored.” The embargo is not completely lifted until March 1974.

Oct. 20, 1973 — Israeli forces reach within 10 miles of Damascus.

Oct. 21, 1973 — Israeli forces, led by reserve Maj. Gen. Avraham Adan, encircle the Egyptian Third Army. Forces led by Sharon take up positions less than 40 miles from Cairo.

Oct. 22, 1973 — Israel overtakes all Syrian positions on Mount Hermon. The United Nations adopts Security Council Resolution 338, which calls for an immediate cease-fire, the implementation of Security Resolution 242, which calls for an exchange of land for peace, and negotiations between the “parties concerned” aimed at establishing a “just and durable peace.”

Oct. 23, 1973 — Fighting continues despite the cease-fire. The U.N. Security Council passes Resolution 339, which restates the group’s call for an immediate cease-fire and for the dispatch of U.N. observers to the area.

Oct. 24, 1973 — A second cease-fire is put into effect, but fighting continues between Egypt and Israel. As a result, the Soviet Union threatens to send troops to support the Egyptians. The United States puts its nuclear forces on a higher alert. The Soviet Union withdraws its threat the following day.

Oct. 28, 1973 — Israeli and Egyptian military leaders meet to implement the cease-fire at Kilometer 101 marker in the Sinai. It is the first meeting between military representatives of the two countries in 25 years. —  jta

on the cover

Israelis hoist the flag near the Suez Canal after recapturing the Sinai, October 1973 photo/larry shapiro

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.