Book Review: Experiencing War

Book Review: Experiencing War

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman’s book, The 28th of Iyar accomplishes something amazing. For most people, experiencing war is something simply not on their radar. If in their lifetime there is a war, it is on distant shores. Though only a small child at the time, I have vague memories of the Vietnam War – I remember the news broadcasts with casualty figures in the top corner on the side. That’s pretty much all they were – numbers. In America, it was life as normal. Nothing was missing from the stores, there were never any air raid sirens, and from what I could see of later conflicts, we were never really exposed to the agonies of war unless it was, against most odds, something that happened within our small world, our city, our state.

What The 28th of Iyar does is share something that is, in many ways, unique to Israel. Rabbi Feldman took himself and his family off to Israel for his Sabbatical year and as it was coming to the end, winding down, they found themselves in the build up to a war. What is so very common to Israelis in general is so very foreign to most others.

There is rhetoric and threats, mobilizations and troops massing on the borders. He writes, day by day, and the tension he and all of Israel comes through. What I loved about the book is that it is as much an image of Israel in the 1960s as it is an image of what we are like today.

One day, Rabbi Feldman would write of how people were nervous, feeling isolated and alone. And then the next day, they’ve come to terms with the “new” situation, conquered it and are optimistic. The mood swings of a nation are documented in this amazing diary written in real time and shared now, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war.

Because we know of Israel’s astounding victory, we see history through the lens of hindsight, of knowing that we not only survived our enemies’ onslaught, but beat them back beyond our wildest dreams. We almost take for granted that Jerusalem would be ours because we’ve held it for fifty years. But there were 19 years in which Jerusalem was a dream; when the borders of our country were so narrow that it was inevitable that fighting would take place over our cities and in our streets.

Today, Israel’s modern technological edge over our enemies, our amazing history of innovation and military brilliance, taint our memories. Rabbi Feldman brings it all back to a time when the we weren’t really sure there would be a war and if there was, we certainly were not certain of how it would end.

Day by day you read how the Feldman family watches as others leave. And as they do, it seems as if their greatest problem is not deciding whether or not they should leave, but how to explain it to westerners who were running for the airport and Israelis that couldn’t understand why they hadn’t left as well.

As you read about Israeli leaders assuring the population that war is not inevitable and diplomatic efforts are continuing and have a high chance of success, you know that all efforts will fail; that war is coming. How could Moshe Dayan have assured the Israeli public just two days before the war started, that the conflict was not inevitable.

And then it starts. Again, we know the outcome. We know the Feldman’s will survive. But at the beginning of the book, Rabbi Feldman introduced us to some of his students at Bar Ilan and so you find yourself praying for them and dreading the part where you will read that they died.

And then suddenly, the war is all but over and somehow, against all odds, the unimaginable is happening. Rabbi Feldman is going to Jerusalem, to the Western Wall and we go with him. We feel the excitement from 50 years ago as if we are standing there. We’ve stood there hundreds of times and yet each time, we’ve taken it for granted. It is nothing like the first time he stands there and your eyes fill with tears at the site you can see so clearly. Except it’s wrong because we see the wide open plaza, the Israeli flag flying there, the rebuilt Jewish Quarter. Rabbi Feldman takes you back. The Western Wall is a wide alley, in the distance you can still hear gunfire.

Even for those of us who thought we knew, Rabbi Feldman’s book is an enlightening journey back in time. He writes of a religious pilot who flies missions on Shabbat, but once he lands the plane, he walks back to the hanger rather than take the bus that comes to pick up the pilots.

One of the things I loved about the book was how Rabbi Feldman portrayed Israel and Israelis and what he could not know then, a mere 19 years after Israel was created, was that the snippets of characteristics he wrote about then are still so very true today. “One thing is certain,” Rabbi Feldman writes, “Rarely in our history have so many Jews prayed so ardently. Will anyone laugh when I say that this our secret weapon?”

Today, we know this to be true. And another. He writes about a small synagogue in Bnei Brak on the corner of Rabbi Akiva Street and Rashi Street that operates nearly 24 hours a day. As soon as one minyan (prayer quorum) finishes, another is already forming. This is in 1967. In 1994, my husband would pray there regularly and to this day, each day, it continues.

One of many poignant passages takes place days before the war when the Rabbi is asked by one of his students “what will be?” He answers as so many Israelis answer, even today with “yihyeh tov” – it will be good. And then, when pushed he first answers that he is not a prophet and their guess is as good as his. And then he writes yet another paragraph that could be spoken today, as it was then, and it would be every bit as true.

Anyone who says the situation is not serious is just fooling himself. But one fact you must remember. Israel’s history is not a natural one, but a supernatural one. By all the rational standards of history, there should be no Jewish people, there should be no Torah, there should be no Israel….By all the laws of nature and history a nation surrounded on all sides and outnumbered on all sides and hated on all sides should succumb and should be destroyed. But we are not subject to normal and ordinary rules. So maybe on that ground we can perhaps worry a little less.”

There were many “take-away” messages from this book but I loved that paragraph simply because it transcends time. And as the war continues, two days before Jerusalem is recaptures (an outcome we know about but Rabbi Feldman can’t even imagine when he writes this section), is another passage about the agony of war, “It is only in a society where human life means nothing that war can be grand and cleansing.” That society was not Israel in 1948 and it was not that society in 1967, nor is it that society in 2017.

I have experienced several wars during the years I have lived in Israel. What I can say about most of them is that they came as a surprise. To the last minute, we believe it will be averted, that the Arabs wouldn’t dare. But we’ve learned too many times that they will dare, that the world will not step in to protect us. The Six Day War was a turning point in history because we forever put into the minds and eyes of the world the image of our soldiers standing there, triumphant, gazing up at the ancient walls of Jerusalem.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, I can think of no greater book to read than one that takes you there, day by day, moment by moment. And as you read, you will recognize in the infant that Israel was, the special and unique country is has become.


  1. It is unimaginable what goes on in ISRAEL during War TIMES or any times. We in America are just beginning to understand what Jews go through. Yet we know we are praying for ISRAEL. This land was given by GOD, and according to it’s History, it will continue to be blessed by ELOHIM. SHALOM.

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