The police came for my mother in the middle of the night.
It was September 1960, just a few days before Yom Kippur, and not long after our family had arrived in Jerusalem. The police officers came knocking on the door to awaken my parents and take my mother to the police station for an urgent reason: she’s gotten a telephone call from America.
This was the year I would be bar mitzvah and the family had come to live in Israel for six months. My mother’s mother was dying half the world away, in a hospital in New York, and there was no other way for her brothers to contact her. Sixty years ago, you could not make a direct international telephone call to Israel and there were very few telephones in Jerusalem. We did not have one in our rented apartment. So my uncles decided that to try to reach my mother, they’d call the Jerusalem police station. They had to wait patiently while international operators connected first to London, then from there to Rome, then to Cyprus, and from there to Jerusalem. This took many hours, and all that time they had to take turns sitting in the hospital’s telephone booth. If they hung up, the connection would be lost.
When they finally got through to the police, my uncle told them that he was a rabbi in America, and he needed to summon his sister home for their dying mother. So, in the middle of the night, the sympathetic Jerusalem police politely came to get my mother and bring her to the station — in a paddy wagon — to take the unwanted call.
Sixty years ago, that was how my mother was called back for her mother’s death and shiva.
Israel then was very far away and alien to Americans. It was an undeveloped country. But it had long been my father’s dream to make this trip to Israel for my bar mitzvah .
My late father, who was an ordained rabbi although he no longer held a pulpit, was a New York City schoolteacher. For many years he had planned to take a half-year sabbatical and move the family to Israel for the months leading up to my bar mitzvah in January 1961. This was not a trip that could be planned easily. In those days, hardly anyone we knew had gone to Israel, so there were few people to tell my parents what to expect or where to go. So my parents made their plans themselves, and figured things out as they went along.
Although we all were excited, we had no idea how different — and in some ways how difficult — our visit would be.
In the days after we arrived in Jerusalem, my parents spent most of their time finding a place to live and schools for me and my two sisters – one older than me, one younger.
The apartment that they found was in a newer building and they were told the apartment was “luxus” – a luxury apartment – because it had heat and hot water 24 hours a day, not just a few hours in the morning and in the evening. The building was on Pinsker Street, near the southern end of the city. Pinsker was an unpaved mud road, with no trees. We looked across from our balcony to an open field and a valley beyond. On some mornings we could hear the nasal call of the Muslim muezzin from across the valley, summoning the faithful to prayer in the village of Abu Tor, which was in Jordan, an enemy country. (Today, many people know Pinsker Street as a coveted address on a tree-lined street and Abu Tor is an upscale Jerusalem neighborhood.)
As my parents learned their way around, there were many adjustments and strange new things for us kids. One of the things that struck me first was the universal presence of Hebrew. I was yeshiva-educated, so I spoke and understood a lot of Hebrew, but in my limited New Jersey experience, only the educated Orthodox spoke any Hebrew. Now, in Israel, I was encountering Hebrew-speaking shopkeepers, laborers, soldiers, bus drivers, and beggars. I was dumbfounded to meet secular Jews, Christians, and Arabs who all spoke better Hebrew than I. Hebrew signs were everywhere. In America, I had never seen Hebrew lettering in public outside of New York City’s Lower East Side. And there was the novelty of Hebrew Scrabble and even alphabet pasta.
And the foods! There was something called felafel, which street vendors sold with tehina and hummous and a weird bread called pita. We had never heard of these things back in the States.
But some familiar foods and things we found were not to our liking as spoiled American children. The canned tuna fish had bones. There was cream at the top of the bottle of unhomogenized milk. And the toilet paper was the texture of newspaper on one side and wax paper on the other. Years later, with embarrassment, I imagine my mother’s anguish those first few weeks as she tried to cope with her spoiled children whining that we didn’t like this or that because it was not what we were accustomed to.
So when my mother suddenly had to fly back to the States alone for her mother’s shiva, she returned to Israel and used her two suitcase allotment for emergency supplies of toilet paper and tuna fish.
My mother was quite the Jewish homemaker, and she coped and adjusted. But occasional episodes made me aware that it was not easy for her. There were no modern food stores or supermarkets when we arrived – the first modern supermarket in Jerusalem, Supersol, was built during the time we were there. At first, my mother had to shop in the tiny nearby makolet – a cramped hole-in-the-wall food store. I remember her complaining to my father that she couldn’t really shop — she couldn’t examine the foods or packages and try to read the Hebrew labels and figure out what it was. In exasperation, she related how she had tried to buy eggs but they were all stored behind the counter. She asked the shopkeeper if they were good eggs and the old man took one, spit on it, wiped it and proudly exclaimed, “Very clean eggs!” I recall her jubilation the day she first visited the new, gleaming Supersol supermarket.
In 1960, Jerusalem was a divided city, with the armistice line from the 1948 War of Independence cutting between the ancient walled Old City and the Jewish “New City.” There were streets that ended abruptly at a tall cinderblock wall. On the other side was either Jordanian territory or no-man’s-land, and the wall was not so much a border as a barrier against the sniper fire that still sometimes broke out. The Old City was inaccessible. The only way from the New City of Jerusalem to the Old City was through a crossing called the Mandelbaum Gate, which was used primarily by diplomats. A favorite activity for Jewish tourists like my parents was to go to the tops of tall buildings and strain to get a bare glimpse of the Old City and the Dome of the Rock. Guides would point out that the Western Wall was just in front of that mosque, if only you could see it. One of the best views of the walls of the Old City was from the King David Hotel, where you could see the magnificent Tower of David clearly. Today, superhighways zip across and through the old no-man’s land.
Another great view was from Mount Zion, which is just outside the southern wall of the Old City. We often went to the synagogue at the Tomb of King David on Shabbat. This was a very special place, as it was the closest we could get to the site of the Western Wall. To get to Mount Zion, we would walk past the Montefiore Windmill, down into a valley near the slums of Yemin Moshe (now one of the city’s premier luxury neighborhoods), then across the valley to Mount Zion through a military-style trench that skirted within feet of no-man’s-land and was lined with stacked oil drums on one side to block sniper fire. As it climbed up out of the valley onto Mount Zion, the path to the Tomb of David turned so close to the Jordanian side that one day I saw a soldier in a red checkered keffiyeh with a rifle no more than 20 feet away. He was a Jordanian legionnaire patrolling on the other side of the hostile border. It was another scary reminder of the city’s delicate position.
The entire New City was much smaller and more provincial than it is today. When my sisters and I walked to school, we walked through the stately Rechavia neighborhood and past Beit Hanasi — the president’s house. It was not an imposing building, and frequently its doors were open. More than once, we children just walked up, talked to the friendly soldiers who were stationed there, and even walked into the vestibule. On many Shabbat mornings, the president, Itzhak Ben Zvi, held an open house. Once my father took me there, waited to speak to Mr. Ben Zvi, and introduced me. I recall he told the president that we had come to Israel for my bar mitzvah in Israel’s bar mitzvah year, and the president was impressed. Sixty years ago, that was an unusual thing to do.
My parents used many of their days to travel around and see how Jerusalem was growing. They went to the outer edges of the city to see the gleaming new Hadassah Hospital, which was almost finished. It would replace the old Hadassah Hospital complex on Mount Scopus, which was trapped on the Jordanian side of the 1948 armistice line. Today both the old complex and the new are well within the city of Jerusalem.
Before Jerusalem grew into the modern city we know today, it was like a small town. There was only one traffic light in Jerusalem — at the intersection of Jaffa Street and King George.
If you took the bus out to the then-new campus of the Hebrew University you were at the outskirts of the city. From there, it was a long terrifying trip – I think about three hours — to Tel Aviv, via a narrow road that skirted steep ravines. This was the old Burma Road, secretly carved out of the mountainsides to break the siege of Jerusalem in 1948. And Tel Aviv was unrecognizable compared to today. There were few cars — but orange groves everywhere. The famous Jaffa oranges were the size of grapefruits and had thick green peels when they were ripe for picking. On trips to Rehovot and Ashkelon we picked and peeled and ate some of those oranges, succulent and fresh. Today, most of those Jaffa orange groves have been paved over, covered by Tel Aviv’s urban sprawl.
Our family took a trip to Eilat during the Chanukah vacation. There we found a cold, windy, forsaken rocky beach and a tiny blue-collar town off in the distance. It was the end of the world. No resort, no hotels, not at all the internationally recognized resort destination that it is today. Another trip took us north on a rickety local bus to the Galil; the other passengers were Arabs and kibbutz workers. The old woman sitting next to me was holding a live chicken on her lap. It was on that trip that my father saw the newspaper that the man ahead of him was reading, with side-by-side pictures of Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. It was the day after the presidential election in 1960. My father leaned forward and asked “who won?” The man responded with a shrug, “an American.”
That moment sums up for me how remote America was to Israelis in 1960. It still would be a while before Israel took its place on the world stage, before the country achieved economic and political maturity, before telephones and television, instant internet connections, high tech and even highways. It was just 60 years ago but today it is hard for us – many of us frequent
visitors to proud modern Israel – to comprehend how very different, how rough and how isolated Israel was as a young nation.
I’m glad I knew Israel then.
Barry A. Wadler is an attorney who grew up in Teaneck and now lives in Fort Lee.