The 28th of Iyar: The dramatic day-by-day journal of an American family in Israel during the Six Day War, by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman (50th Anniversary Edition, Feldheim Publishers 2017)
Reviewed by Rebecca Klempner
In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, Feldheim has re-released Rabbi Emanuel Feldman’s memoir, The 28th of Iyar. Decades after its initial publication, the book remains transfixing, and even gains new relevance.
The 28th of Iyah covers May 18 through June 29, 1967. As it begins, Rabbi Feldman (Tales Out of Shul, The Shul without a Clock), his wife Estelle, and their children are on sabbatical from his position at Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta. While Rabbi Feldman serves as a guest lecturer at Bar Ilan University, the family enjoys nearly a year of quotidian Israeli life in Bnei Brak.
At the beginning of May, Egyptian President Nassar sends his troops to the Sinai, demanding that the UN pull out its peace-keepers. Something tells Rabbi Feldman that drama lies ahead. He writes in his journal, “Wouldn’t it be nice (nice is the wrong word, it just occurred to me) simply to record – and to record simply – just what is happening each day: thoughts, fears, apprehensions, worries, rumors, reflections, speculation, conversations, theories (p. 14).”
He proceeds to chronicle the building crisis. While most books about the period emphasize Nassar’s nationalism, his strategic embargo on the Straits of Tiran, the behind-the-scenes debates between Israeli leaders who disagree about how and when to act, and scenes of battle, these are relegated to the background as Rabbi Feldman focuses on the feelings and experiences of laypeople. We witness men called out of Shabbos services in order to report to their army units; women vacillating between fear and pride as their husbands and sons head to war; foreign residents, like the Feldmans, who must decide whether to remain in Israel or head home; and children – some terrified, some excited – listening to artillery fire outdoors from inside their safe rooms.
At first, Rabbi Feldman’s tone is one of cool curiosity – and, perhaps, denial. A few days later, as he heads to campus, he spots his own students boarding busses destined for army bases. Dina, one of the few students remaining in his class, demands to know, “What will be?”
He tells her, “I do not know what will be. 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.” He urges his students to trust that no matter how dire the news sounds, Hashem has the power to rescue them.
Rabbi Feldman and Estelle decide to remain in Israel till their already-scheduled departure of June 13th. In the interim, they seek out ways to help friends and neighbors – as well as alleviate their guilt for not fighting this worthy war themselves. Rabbi Feldman settles unpaid bills, encourages his students, and volunteers to deliver the mail, as most postal vehicles have been commandeered for the war effort. When the situation worsens, Rabbi Feldman seeks solace in writing. “By now it has become an obsession with me,” he writes, “…Is this for myself, so that in later years I can read it, and remember? Is it for posterity, so that if we are all blown up, someone may find this and know how it really was…Or am I writing this because it helps me keep my sanity (p. 107)?”
By the end of Rabbi Feldman’s journal, his quavering heart is stilled by awesome miracles and unbridled joy.
Certain details evoked particularly strong feelings in me: A father making kiddush for both his family and the officer who has arrived to bring him to the army base; Rabbi Feldman’s brother, Aharon (currently Rosh Yeshiva Ner Israel), trying to convince his brother to return to the U.S. even though he will remain behind; Shoah survivors suffering PTSD who refuse to enter shelters; and Estelle’s scramble to stock up on essentials before the war hits. We join the men gathered daily outside Itchkovitch – the “minyan factory” where 1000 people pray daily in back-to-back services – who offer their opinions of every rumor and scrap of news. This spotlight on individuals and their struggles brings suspense to Feldman’s writing, even though we know how the story will end.
Many of Rabbi Feldman’s observations are made more poignant by current events. Fifty years have passed, and yet enemies still defame and threaten Israel. Our current lack of unity starkly contrasts with the achdus displayed during the war, as does the waning enthusiasm for the State seen in average Israelis.
The book also provides context for the development of the baal teshuvah movement. Those who became observant during the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s frequently cite the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War as influences on their decisions to attach to yiddishkeit. Seeing the events of the spring of 1967 through Rabbi Feldman’s eyes makes the reader understand why.