On Shabbat, October 6th 1973m at 3pm, was the first time we officially heard about the start of the Yom Kippur war. In this essay I would like to share with you my own personal experience that I lived there and was part of all that went on in Israel during that war. Don’t expect any heroic stories and endeavors. Yet, that experience is certainly something that contributed much to what I am – then and throughout my whole life till today.
A year earlier, at the age of 17, I graduated Ktizney Yam, the naval high school I studied at. I was certified, pending some apprenticeship period, as a Third Engineering Officer. For whatever reason, my father decided for me that I wouldn’t go directly to the Israeli Navy with my cohort. Instead, he planned that first I would study Mechanical Engineering in the Technion and then do my Navy service. He had his ways, regardless of what I wanted to do, and had the connections to make it so.
Towards the end of 1972 and into 1973, prior to starting the Technion, I went through infantry extended basic training. Right after that training, I started my engineering studies. The Technion is like the MIT in the US, and is worldly acclaimed for its teaching and research quality. The first semester went by, offering a sobering and a real eye-opener for me, realizing what lays ahead of me. Summer went by with more studies and reserves service as an infantryman private.
The Very Day of Yom Kippur, 1973
I need to describe first the atmosphere in Israel during Yom Kippur: it is something that one can’t experience elsewhere. Mind you, because of religious excuses, Israel didn’t apply Day Saving Time during the summer. Imagine that you can spread a sleeping bag on an Interstate Highway and sleep in it, during the day. Seriously, the country is dead! No traffic whatsoever, except for an occasional ambulance. As of the noon of Friday, October 5th, the country starts to shut down. First, all public transportation ceases. The airspace and the airports are closed. Radio and single black and white TV channel transmissions follow suit and get off the air. Everyone is at home, getting ready for the High Holiday.
As the sun sets, around 4:30–5pm, people start emerging out of their homes. Families stroll in the middle of the streets towards the nearby synagogue, one of many that are around. Small streams of people in white join to larger streams and into rivers as you get closer to a synagogue. This image is so awesome that it brings one into the spirit of the High Holiday that Yom Kippur is. At that time practically all synagogues were Orthodox. The permanently established synagogues couldn’t host the vast crowd that came to pray. So temporary schuls were created in schools and movie theaters to accommodate the demand.
Here I am, going together with my father to Yom Kippur morning services at our regular synagogue. We lived in Haifa’s downtown neighborhood, and the synagogue was in a relatively short walking distance. Its location was not too far from the central bus station, the train station and the Port of Haifa. Now, Orthodox Yom Kippur services, unlike what most of you are accustomed to, are long, very long. We started at 8am, and with luck we would finish around 2-3pm for a short, one hour or so, break.
We went in, put on our talitol (prayer shawls) and starting davening together with the overcrowded congregation. Around 10am, suddenly and totally out of the ordinary, we started hearing rumbling of diesel engines. It was not just the sound we heard; the ground was also kind of vibrating. This is something that does not happen in Yom Kippur in Israel. Never. I mean, the only car that would travel, could be an ambulance. And it would drive in silence so as not to disturb the sanctity of the day. Maybe only a short honk or two to alert kids that may ride their bicycles in the middle of the street.
It was extremely strange and unusual. We figured that the noise came from the Central Bus Station, that was about 300, maybe 400 yards away. The noise just went lauder, the rumble was more like a roar rather than just a feeling of a noise. All of us at schul, tried to ignore it and continued davening.
We were into Torah service, when some of the younger men just rose from their seats and disappeared. Soon enough, we noticed a stranger entering the sanctuary, with a Tallit over his Khaki shirt. He approached a few young men and whispered something in their ears. In response, they stood and walked out with the stranger. Then, another man with Tallit over his fatigues came in, and 3-4 congregants, in their 30s, leave with him.
An atmosphere of urgency descended over the sanctuary. The cantor and prayer leaders sped up the davening; not skipping parts, just running through the prayer book at warp speed. The service ended more than 2 hours earlier than in previous years.
before 1pm we were back at home.
My father, the Orthodox Rabbi (unlike me, he was a real frum rabbi), turn on the radio.
We had a huge, like a furniture, vacuum tube radio. It took several seconds for it to warm up and produce sounds. Dad started searching and scanning the frequencies and settled on the BBC broadcast. After all, the Israeli radio didn’t transmit, due to the sanctity of Yom Kippur.
The BBC talked about the movement of military forces in Egypt and the likelihood of hostilities erupting in our region. Then we could connect the dots: the diesels’ noise, the younger men vanishing during the service, and the BBC report.
We were a few of the lucky families that had a phone at home. Those days, one could wait for several years until one became eligible for a phone line. Getting a bit anxious, I called a few of my friends that also had a phone at home. I only could speak with their parents, as none of them were at home. Thay all were mobilized.
At 2pm sharp, the silence is broken. The whirring up-and-down siren alerting an air-raid went off. It did not alert that enemy airplanes were coming to attack the Homefront. It aimed to notify the whole country that a war has started.
We kept the radio on and we tried to tune in to one of the few Israel Broadcast Authority stations. It was not silent, as it would be during Yom Kippur; a single tone hum was audible. At 3pm, the familiar six beeps sounded, announcing the broadcasting of a news flash. It was short: the broadcaster said that both the armies of Egypt and Syria started in a combined attack on Israel and the IDF is engaged on heavy battles, and are holding back and in control of the situation.
Well, and I’m waiting for to be called. I already know that my friends and I still was waiting. Saying that I was really, really, unhappy would be an understatement.
All my friends from the naval school, that I couldn’t continue with them to regular service in the Navy are now at sea and actually fighting.
All my cohorts from the Technion, my friends from our military training and previous reserves service, have been recruited.
I couldn’t bear the thought that I am here doing nothing. I said to myself and my parents: “no, I cannot stay at home, doing nothing at this time.”
Getting Involved in the War Effort
First thing on Sunday morning I left home, heading to a major Ordinance Depot base a little bit out of Haifa. There were no buses to speak because most of the buses and the drivers were already recruited. Haifa seemed to be almost a ghost town. However, hitchhiking was not a problem. Everybody who was driving a car and saw somebody even standing on the side of a road would stop and ask: “where do you need to go?” and would take you there even at the cost of a detour from one’s destination.
I got to this huge Ordinance Depot, that among many other things fix cars, trucks, tanks, overalls engines, and so forth. The guard at the gate stopped me, asking for my gate pass and clearances. I told him: “look, I’m a mechanic and just graduated as a naval engineering officer. Here are my credentials.” I told him what I know to do, and asked to see one of the officers in charge of the shift. I repeated my story to the officer that came out to see me, and added: “look, I know that you will need some hands that know what to do, and I am here to volunteer and start working right now.”
An hour or so later, found myself in this workshop that was an open hangar. There were several stands for jeep and truck engines, each connected to a generator that simulated a load. Once an engine was on the stand, the accessories (e.g., components of the fuel and electrical systems) were assembled, and the engine was started and run. After the burn-in protocol that took several hours, final adjustments and tuning are made, using one’s taction, hearing and vision senses. And off it goes to be sent to the front lines.
For the next 2 weeks I worked there between 12 to 14 hours a day, attending to two stands: one on my right and the other on my left. One engine was running while I put the other engine on the stand and preparing it to be started and got it running. During the warn-up period of this engine, I attended to the other engine, fixing and adjusting all that was needed. All the team there was working relentlessly in staggered tandem fashion to maximize our throughput. We tried our best (and then some) to resurrect every engine that came under our hands. Sometimes you could see the damage of the fighting on what you were doing.
I started working each day at 7am and came back home after 7 or 8pm. TV was broadcasting whatever the IDF censorship released. On the third day, they announced that the IDF launched counterattacks in both the Golan Heights and Sinai frontiers. I figured that if we are already in the phase of a counterattack, the situation can’t be that bad. A day later, we heard that the Navy was engaged in a few battles and was successful, sinking several Egyptian warships. With these reports they were trying to create a somewhat more optimistic image of the situation, that was, unfortunately at that point in time, a little bit out of realistic view of the situation.
And interestingly, no one was mentioning casualties. There was no talk about casualties. And no talk about the outcome of the counterattacks, just that the battles to hold back the enemies continue.
Our home was in downtown Haifa, in the German Colony, not too far from Rambam, the major hospital in the north part of Israel. We constantly heard helicopters: helicopters coming in to land at the hospital, and more were coming in, again and again at high frequency. The feeling, consequently, was that the situation was not so good. I was so busy and focused in working these daily 12 hours (and then some) that this kind of thoughts were pushed away and back into my subconsciousness.
It was only more than a week after the war started, on Sunday the 14th of October, that Moshe Dayan, who was then the Minister of Defense, talked on the TV news, about the situation in the fronts. He talked about the gravity of the war and that it is going to take much longer to reach victory. He added that in the last day the families of about 650 fallen soldiers were notified about their loss. “We will prevail,” Dayan said, “but it is very dire situation, our forces fight bitter battles. This war is heavy in bloodshed, heavy in its length.” and that is by the way I looking we didn’t know it that at the time.
Now I need to pause for a second and explain why I wasn’t recruited, the reason will also add perspective to the rest of my story.
I am a son of what we call in Hebrew Mishapakha Shakula, a bereaved family. My father already lost two sons in Israel’s war and military service; the IDF was determined to save our family from more bereavement.
My father didn’t take this news item too well. He already had two heart attacks, and the aggravation and sorrow didn’t bode well with his heart. We had to take him to the hospital. I had a car, but still didn’t have my driver’s license. That small detail wasn’t going to stop me. We only could take him to an older, geriatric, small hospital that was assigned to the entire population of Haifa. All other hospitals in Haifa solely dedicated to treat the wounded soldiers that came from the front. Dad stayed there overnight with Mom watching him. I needed to sleep, in preparation for yet another 12-hours workday ahead of me.
The severity of the situation dawned on me. The Six Day War was still very fresh in my memory, it was only 6 years ago. Then we all felt that it was a serious, imminent, existential threat to our nation. Six days later the threat turned into a decisive victory, yet at a dear cost of 780 fallen. Here we are eight days into the war, feeling the same existential threat to our lives, already suffering similar, or probably more, casualties than we had during the Six Day War. And we are nowhere close to see the end of this.
I’m trying to keep my story to what I remember that I knew and felt then. The first counter attack that was announced on the 8th of October was a huge failure, costing lots of casualties. But on that Sunday the 14th, Israel already started to turn things around. In the Golan Heights, Israel was already into the Syrian areas and in Sinai the troops were ready to cross the Suez Canal to the Egyptian side.
At the end of that week and the Sukkot Holidays, the situation at the Ordinance Depot calmed down. They thanked me for my 12-days service, and sent me off with gratitude. Then I asked myself: “Okay, what do I do now?”
What’s Next? Filling in for Missing Staff at Ktziney Yam
I called my High School that I graduated from a year ago, Ktziney Yam. They all returned from the Sukkot Holiday vacation. It is a boarding school so the students need to be supervised around the clock. All the male teachers, instructors and counselors were recruited and most of them were in the frontier, fighting. The General Manager, Captain (Ret.) Ze’ev Almog, a former Israeli Navy sub driver, was on the other side of the telephone line. “Thank God, and blessed are you! thank you for calling! Please come as soon as you can, we are in dire need for any help we can get.” I reported to his office a few hours later that very same morning.
I was already a student in the Technion, graduated my first semester there. So, I must know a great deal about this, that and the other, enough to qualify me to teach.
In the mornings I taught Math, Physics, drafting, seamanship in the boathouse, and machinery in the workshops. In the afternoon I mentored the class in their homework and extracurricular activities, and in the evening, I was their counselor. I actually moved in and was there 24/7 to attend to all the needs of these young teenage students. Think of it: these were 13, 14, 15 years old kids that gathered in this school from all across Israel.
Teaching seamanship, standing on the boat far left, holding the mizzen mast yards.
So many of them had family members recruited
and in the frontiers. And you don’t know
if they have regular and continuous contacts with their parents or they don’t.
I don’t know what were the qualifications that allowed me to do this. I really don’t know. I was just an eighteen years old kid. I guess that the gravity of the time and events gave me the strength and instincts to do things right. And I am certain that I also made many mistakes, hopefully not causing too much damage.
Menashe, My Cousin
A day or two days after I started there, I got a call from my parents: “Come home, now.” Upon my arrival, Dad, my sister and I left home to be with my aunt and uncle, both holocaust survivors. Their son, Menashe, fell in battle in the West side of the Suez Canal. Menashe was named after my brother that fell in the Independence war. We were already experienced how to handle this situation and that’s why they asked us to be there. An IDF officer, accompanied by an MD or a psychologist, are the ones that announce this kind of news. Never by a letter or a telegram.
Menashe, my cousin, was a real Tzaddik, a righteous soul. He was very religious, ultra-orthodox and so sweet and kind. He wouldn’t impose his beliefs on others, and accepted everyone for what one was.
Just a few days ago, prior to Yom Kippur, his wife, my niece, sent me an article written by Menashe’s friend. He shared his memories of Menasha and the last days of his life. He told that after a fierce battle in the Chinese Farm, Menashe pulled everyone to dance because it was Simḥat Torah. A few days later, already across the Suez Canal, while attending to a wounded fellow soldier, he was shot and died immediately.
The Hebrew letters that make up the name Menashe are also the same, rearranged, that make to word Neshama, Soul. This Neshama is no longer with us. His wife did cling, and still does, with utter devotion to faith, in a way beyond anything I can understand. And yet, in hindsight, I understand how it helped her. When she received the news, she said, quoting from Job (1:21):
Adonai has given, and Adonai has taken away; blessed be the name of Adonai.
אֲדוֹנָי נָתַן וַאֲדוֹנָי לָקָח יְהִי שֵׁם אֲדוֹנָי מְבֹרָךְ׃
And then she sat down.
At that time, she already had a one-year-old son, and was pregnant with a baby girl that was born about a month later. Let us now move forward 12 years.
Now we all ascend to Jerusalem to celebrate a combined Bar and Bat Mitzvah of my grandnephew and grandniece. My aunt already passed away, succumbing to cancer, probably caused by her sorrow for losing her son. Almost at the very beginning of the sad and sweet celebration, my uncle just collapsed and fell. His heart stopped beating.
In some miraculous way, the paramedics were there in 2 minutes or so, and were able to restore his heartbeat. They left to the hospital and we all followed. Sitting outside of his room we prayed and recited Tehilim (Psalms). Eventually, he recovered and lived on for additional 4 years after that event.
Is there a lesson to learn from the story? I’m not sure. Maybe the only insight I can offer is that so many times events happen to us outside of our control. These events that happen to you create what you are and change you. Such circumstances bring strengths and capabilities that you could not believe that you would have and change your life. Basically, the only thing we can do is to react to whatever happens to us.
That’s one of the lessons I learned from that Yom Kippur. We only can decide what we do and how we react to whatever happens to us.