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Yom Kippur War: An American remembers being 17 in a kibbutz bunker

Yom Kippur War: 40 years ago, an American teen kibbutz volunteer in Israel dived into a bunker as the three-week war erupted around her. Dizzy with fear but thrilled, in a voyeuristic way, to be at the center of world events, she didn't know that war would become a dominant theme of her future.

By Correspondent / October 5, 2013

Yom Kippur War 40th anniversary: Metal placards in the shape of Israeli soldiers form a memorial of the battle of Tel Saki, one of the first of the 1973 Israeli Yom Kippur War, in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, on the border with Syria.

Ariel Schalit/AP

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Pittsburgh

In search of adventure and barely 17 years old, in the summer of 1973 I washed up on a kibbutz in Israel’s northern Galilee. I knew precisely what I was fleeing: a dreary Midwestern upbringing, my parents’ messy divorce, a fear of being sucked into their existence. What I sought instead was unclear.

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Lynda Schuster is a former staff reporter in Latin America and the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal and in South Africa for The Christian Science Monitor. She wrote “A Burning Hunger: One Family’s Struggle Against Apartheid,” and she is now at work on a book about the scandalous heiress and Pittsburgh philanthropist, Mary Schenley. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and daughter, Noa.

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The geography of the place was awe-inspiring. Beyond the kibbutz’s eastern boundary, the terrain snaked steeply down to the now not-so-mighty Jordan River, then up to the Golan Heights, snaggle-toothed against the heat-hazed sky. Mount Hermon, of biblical renown, loomed moodily to the north. Damascus was just over the horizon.

The work was more prosaic. Up at 4:30 every morning under a bejeweled tiara of a sky, I and my fellow apple pickers stumbled through the cool-hot air to the dining hall to swallow tea and stale bread spread with strawberry jam. The birds were just rousing themselves when we crowded onto a tractor-pulled cart, our orchard transportation. All morning we clambered up and down ladders to get at the farthest reaches of the trees in the brain-boiling heat, squinty-eyed from the stinging perspiration.

We were a random sprinkling of pre-and post- college students and backpackers, mixed in among a British group from Manchester. The Brits seemed relentlessly uninterested in doing any work. One of them, after spraying his room with shaving cream, was found wandering naked and babbling on the sizzling tarmac of a nearby airstrip. He was packed off to a local loony bin, then shipped home to England.

Simcha, my Hebrew teacher, said the place was a magnet for misfits. I suppose that included me, although I preferred to tell people that nice Jewish girls don’t run away from home to join the circus, they join a kibbutz. 

I felt almost immediately at home there. Perhaps it was the sense of being at a perpetual overnight camp: the rows of squat little bungalows and rooms; the communal dining hall; the swimming pool; laundry; clinic. A self-contained miniature hamlet where, in the waning half-light of sunset, the sad-sweet singsong of the muezzin’s call to evening prayer wafted across from a mosque in the Arab village on a nearby hill.

On Oct. 6, Yom Kippur, I awoke to a khamsin. Simcha said there was always one on the holiday, just to add to the misery of fasting-to-atone-for-all-our sins. The suffocatingly hot wind that blew in from the Arabian desert shot the temperature to over 100 degrees F and left a sandy veneer on everything. My teeth were crunchy with grit. Khamsin means 50 in Arabic: the number of days that the wind supposedly blows. It drives people to madness. During the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey ruled this part of the world, a man wouldn’t be held responsible for killing his wife during a khamsin.

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