Cutting this week’s His Lens/My Pen monthly post short in honor of a man I interviewed for This Jewish Life. I just read that Harold Berry has died.. That makes three now who shared a cherished moment of their lives with me, and are no longer of this earth. Mr. Berry welcomed me into his home, recalled experiencing a “molten moment” in Israel’s history. As one might imagine, the moment he describes has many conflicting interpretations and ongoing ramifications for all parties involved. I set that aside for now to recall a moving conversation with a wonderful man. May Harold Berry’s memory be for a blessing always.
On the Knife-Edge of History The Story of Harold Berry
From the time I was six years old, my Hebrew teachers continually impressed upon my classmates and me how great Israelis were. By the time we were teenagers, we had grown weary of their claims of greatness. “If they’re so great,” my friends and I would mutter to one another at the back of the classroom, “why do they need our help so much?” Our sarcasm was rooted in adolescent cynicism and perhaps faint resentment at the large amounts of time our fathers spent in helping the Jewish homeland become a state.
Over the years, however, my teachers’ refrain took root in my psyche. Coupled with the fact that my mother, father and grand- parents raised me on the Zionist dream, I became unabashedly committed to the idea of the restoration of the Jewish people in Israel. The dream didn’t become reality until I was in my early twenties, coincidentally the age my son was when he and I jour- neyed to Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War.
Our trip was a two-week whirlwind sponsored by our local Federation. By the end of those 14 days, we knew just how great the Israelis were. On the go from sunrise to sunset, we saw Israeli flags everywhere. We saw the carnage in the wake of the battle, the total ruination that drove home what the Israelis had actually done when confronted by a crisis of survival. I will never forget the spirit of life and relief that permeated the air. The state was suffused not with the glory of might but the glory of life-affirming survival. Everywhere we went, from the Sinai to El Arish, from the West Bank to the Galilee in the north, Israelis were gathering up captured tanks, loading them on flat railroad cars. It was a flash of history that many do not see. Unbeknownst to us, there was an event of even deeper historical significance yet to come.
Although we couldn’t wait to wash away the grit of the road when we arrived in Jerusalem in late afternoon, I felt it was only right to go to the Wall first. We joined the throngs of people making their way to the plaza where the last remnant of the outer wall of the Second Temple still stood. Mind you, there wasn’t this nice sanitized plaza and neat little checkpoint booths you see today. Instead of modern lighting, bare bulbs had been strung up catch-as-catch-can, nothing permanent or secure-looking about any of it. We tried to get close enough to touch the Wall, but it was impossible. We were just two hungry and tired specks in a mob of sweating, pushing people. We were so worn out that all we could do was turn around and head in the general direction of our hotel.
Then I caught the phrase “Tishah B’Av” in the blur of a pass- ing Israeli’s Hebrew and understood why there were so many people shoving to be close to the Wall. Tishah B’Av acknowledges the destruction of the First and Second Temples. As it happened, my son and I were present when, for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, the Wall was under Jewish sovereignty on the eve of this mournful holiday. We, sons and grandsons of passionate Zionists, were present on the very twilight when the Jews’ holiest site was once again in Jewish hands.
On the way to our hotel, ready for a good shower and some dinner, I glanced into the doorway of a barbershop in the Arab quarter of the Old City. An Israeli soldier was slouched in a battered wooden chair, getting a shave. What an element of trust there had to be for an Israeli soldier to have laid his rifle by his dusty boots and exposed his throat to the blade of an Arab barber! It was the kind of moment when something cataclysmic could have happened and didn’t. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that knife and the scene framing it in the dusky alcove in the Old City epitomized the entire span of events of the next 40 years, as if in the aftermath of the Six Day War, all of Israel’s fate was on the knife edge of that blade.
To be in Israel at the time my son and I were there was to be in a country at a fluid time in its history. At that point, the Arabs were in complete shock over all that had happened. The Israelis’ victory had not only stunned the Arabs but the Jews as well.
Who the hell had expected the Israelis to win? Despite what our teachers had told us year after year, despite all the prayers and Bunyanesque rhetoric of ten-foot-tall Israelis, they were might- ily outnumbered and outgunned. Yet in a desperate move of self-preservation, they had charged the door and the door had come right down. I think the Israelis were as astounded as the Arabs when the door collapsed. It was as if in those early days the Israelis were saying, “Well, what do we do now?”
Right after the war, the situation was liquid, like molten steel before it hardens. You would have hoped something could have been reshaped. The tragedy was the Arab reaction. I always had the feeling the Israelis would have gladly given back something had someone reached out in peace. There is historical precedent for the exchange of populations after war. The Arabs’ reaction was, “No recognition. No peace.” So the situation hardened, and Israel has since been faced with this decades-long occupation. People think life goes on. Well, it does, but not always as well as it could have. Once you lose an opportunity, that mol ten moment, it is gone for good. Such possibilities don’t come around too often. And today, nearly four decades later, what Israel is left to work with is steel.
I often think back on that evening when my son and I were two mere specks in a crowd we later learned was 30,000 strong. It occurred to me the next morning that I had been present at something as historic as witnessing the signing of the Treaty of
Versailles, as defining as being upon the grassy knoll on Novem- ber 22, 1963. And because I was there, my zayde was there and so was my bubbe and my parents and all the teachers whose arrogance I now realize was an unfulfilled hope, that one day the world would see them as they saw themselves—victorious, independent and 10 feet tall.