The traffic noise on Arlozorov Street, in the heart of Tel Aviv, seemed unusually loud that October evening. Leaning over the railing of my friend Shoshana’s balcony, I watched with concern as a flood of cars and trucks rushed past below. It was Yom Kippur Eve, 1973. We had expected the street to be deserted since virtually everything in the country was closed. But with rising alarm, we realized that the drivers were almost all men, and many were dressed in army fatigues. They were clearly reservists in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), on their way to an unknown battlefront. Even before we heard the announcement on the radio several hours later, we knew that war was imminent, and we were tense and anxious.
By the next morning, Shoshana and I had learned the awful news: Egypt and Syria had launched surprise attacks on their Israeli borders. The vast majority of casualties during the Yom Kippur War, as it came to be known, occurred during that first 24 hours. Hundreds of young Israeli soldiers at their border posts, guarding established ceasefire lines, were caught completely off guard. Many of them were burned alive, shelled at close range and trapped inside their tanks.
When Shoshana and I arrived the following day at the community mental health center in Jaffa where we worked, we found the atmosphere radically changed from the busy, purposeful pace we had always known. Virtually every able-bodied man in the country had been called to active duty. All of the center’s male staff—psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers—had disappeared. The only man left was Hassan, the elderly Arab gardener who lovingly tended the colorful flowers in the courtyard of the 150-year-old stone, fortresslike building.
A nationwide blackout had immediately been declared, so we spent those first hours attempting to cover the center’s huge arched windows with sheets of heavy brown paper. Israel’s public transportation system had disappeared overnight: bus and truck drivers had driven their vehicles to the battlefronts in the Sinai and Golan Heights, only a few hours away. Husbands had driven their family cars to get there. Without public or private transportation, most female staff at the center were unable to report to work. In the early 1970s, few Israeli women knew how to drive; as an American, I had both my driver’s license and my own car, and therefore became the center’s designated driver. I discovered to my dismay that evening that the blackout included both streetlights and traffic signals. Police officers were stationed on street corners with buckets of blue paint, stopping each passing car to paint over the headlights. I clutched the steering wheel of my Mini Minor and peered ahead into the darkness, blundering my way through unfamiliar neighborhoods, inwardly relieved to focus on something other than the reports from the front.
The Ministry of Health had designated the center a backup field hospital, and crates of cots and blankets arrived a few days later. To our great relief, they weren’t needed, as no injured soldiers were transported there. But the remaining center staffers were now on-call 24 hours a day, and we quickly set up a rotation schedule for overnight shifts. We all kept our transistor radios on our pillows, tuned to the official Israeli news station, and awoke each hour to listen to the latest bulletins from the battlefield. Because the distance from Tel Aviv to Damascus is only 132 miles, we also listened with great sadness to the Syrian radio station as it broadcast the strained voices of captured Israeli soldiers forced to read prepared scripts denouncing Israel.
Few mental health clients showed up for their appointments during the three weeks of the war. Shoshana and I and the rest of the staff sat in the courtyard where, occasionally, someone’s husband or boyfriend, home from the fighting on a brief pass, would stop by. They would try to reassure us—and themselves—about the war’s outcome, telling us about the pontoon bridges that Israeli soldiers built over the Suez Canal, pushing back the Egyptian troops who’d crossed into Israel. We all hoped that the first rain of the season would hold off for a few weeks, and, in fact, the weather stayed warm and beautiful, with a cloudless sky and a huge bright moon in the evenings. The streets of Tel Aviv seemed eerily quiet and deserted, despite the fierce combat just a few hours away.
Although now it seems incredible, I don’t remember feeling in physical danger or fearing for my personal safety during that unsettling time. Fighting was confined to the battlefield, and as far as we knew, there was no immediate threat to Israel’s cities. Rocket attacks and suicide bombers were still years in the future. But as I recently watched Valley of Tears—an Israeli TV drama series about the Yom Kippur War’s initial days—one particular episode opened my eyes. It depicts a fierce tank battle in the Golan, in which the Israeli tanks are vastly outnumbered by the Syrians. An Israeli tank commander frantically implores his soldiers to think of their mothers, their families, if they don’t succeed in holding back the enemy and Syrian tanks invade Jerusalem and even Tel Aviv. With a shock, I realized that during the war, I had never contemplated the possibility that Tel Aviv could be in danger. How on earth was it possible that my friends and I never talked about that? Perhaps, being in our 20s, our sense of invulnerability protected us from the thought. Or maybe we were too afraid to contemplate such a thing, much less utter the words out loud, even though everyone I knew had a boyfriend or a son or a husband, a brother or a father or a nephew, involved in the fighting. In 1973, Israel’s population was only about three million, and almost every family was represented in that war.
Glued to our radios, we followed the events in real-time; the war occupied our thoughts and affected all aspects of our daily lives. We anxiously awaited the U.S. government’s decision to supply additional weapons and tanks to Israel, and I remember the elation when the delivery finally arrived. Although our collective fate depended heavily on the political decisions of my home country, I guess I so closely identified as an Israeli that the irony of the situation never occurred to me. I’d lived in Israel for three years. I felt integrated into Israeli society—I spoke fluent Hebrew, all my friends were Israeli, and I immersed myself in Israeli culture.
It wasn’t until very recently, as I watched that graphic, intense TV series, that I realized how little I had grasped what was happening.
In the weeks and months following the end of active fighting, many of the troops remained mobilized, but some of the men began to come home. The psychiatrist who headed the center returned to his office from the field hospital in the Sinai where he had spent the war, his attention now focused on a new set of patients: soldiers with PTSD. At the time, the recommended treatment for PTSD was hypnosis, and he was a renowned hypnotherapist. For training purposes, the center’s professional staff was permitted to listen afterwards to the recordings of the soldiers’ hypnosis sessions. Shoshana and I would talk with the soldiers as they waited to be seen, trying to put them at ease. One of the youngest soldiers, probably no more than 18 or 19 years old, shy and sweet, suffered from a very severe stutter that made it almost impossible for him to carry on a conversation. After several of his sessions, we listened to the tape in amazement as the doctor’s voice guided him back, under hypnosis, to the time before the tank battle. When he re-lived the events immediately prior to it, he spoke clearly and without any stutter at all. It was an incredibly dramatic and moving demonstration to me of the war’s human impact.
One scene of Valley of Tears brought back a painful memory. The scene depicts a young female soldier at a field headquarters entering the names of the dead and injured on a big blackboard. An officer makes it clear that they have a duty to notify the fallen soldiers’ families quickly, in a dignified manner. During the second week of the war, the center received a request for volunteers to visit the families of soldiers from our local community who had been listed as “missing in action.” Mistakenly thinking that I could handle this responsibility, I volunteered. I had no information to convey, just the family’s name and address, and my task was simply to inform them that their son was listed as MIA. I knocked on the door and introduced myself to the soldier’s parents. They gently informed me that they already knew from his comrades that their 18-year-old son had been killed and the details surrounding his death. I immediately burst into tears, and every Hebrew word and phrase I had ever learned totally deserted me. The parents consoled me, rather than the other way around. Ashamed and humiliated, I had revealed myself as an outsider.
In the following weeks and months, I began to acknowledge an upsetting fact: that no matter how much I had self-identified as an Israeli, I was still an American. Almost everyone I knew in Israel, male and female, had served in the army, and I had not. The lack of that crucial, formative experience set me apart from my Israeli friends since it was something that I would never fully understand.
The end of active fighting brought a tremendous sense of relief, yet there was no rejoicing, no sense of national pride and solidarity. It was a dramatic contrast to the exuberant mood that I’d experienced during my first visit to Israel six years earlier, the incredible joy that followed the Six-Day War in 1967. Instead, the end of the 1973 war brought a perceptible and pervasive sense of loss, anger and humiliation. No one could believe that the IDF—the most revered and beloved institution in the country—had been so shockingly unprepared. Although they had indeed repulsed the Egyptian and Syrian attacks, four times more soldiers were killed in 1973 than in 1967, and almost 12,000 others were seriously injured or disabled.
Seven months after the war, in April 1974, I left Israel and returned to the U.S. I had to face the fact that I was not as thoroughly Israeli as I’d believed. And, while I loved the life that I had created for myself in Tel Aviv, seeing the impact of the war on the families around me, and sensing how they drew together more closely, made me realize how much I missed my own family. The idea of being so far from them—maybe forever—was daunting. How could I decide who needed me more, Israel or my family? I’m not sure that I have ever really made peace with my decision.
On the verge of becoming an Israeli, I discovered I was still an American. I only wish I could have found a way to be both.
Judith Teich’s personal essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Washington Jewish Week, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Christian Science Monitor.
Living in Tel Aviv from 1970 to 1974, Judith helped found Israel’s first community mental health center. She began her career as a psychiatric social worker in New York hospitals, becoming a national health policy analyst and retiring from the federal government after 27 years researching behavioral health services. She lives in the Washington, DC area.
Top photo: Jaffa courtyard, 1972