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.

Ariel Schalit/AP
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.

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.

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.

I was already knee-wobbly faint from lack of food and drink; the heat was a vise-grip that made it difficult to breathe. I sat in a chair in my room in front of a uselessly whirring little fan, then flopped on the bed because it looked more comfortable, then changed to another chair because it might be cooler. Finally I gave up and slowly trudged to the main building.

The kibbutz was echo-quiet; no one worked on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. The little paths that criss-crossed the settlement, usually filled with people walking or riding bicycles or pushing carts with children in them, were deserted. Even the day-and-night radio chatter that wafted out from buildings with the hourly beeping time signal for news was silent. The Voice of Israel had gone dead for the day.

There was air conditioning blasting in the recreation room. In the distance, the Golan’s usually craggy profile was barely visible behind the quivering mask of heat. Michael, my newly minted boyfriend from the British group, shuffled in. Black curls and emerald, cat-slitted eyes, topped off with an antic sense of humor.

Michael said: “I was wondering where you got to.”

I said: “I’m trying not to think about food.”

He reached across me to grab an outdated copy of Time -- but never quite got there. The air around us was suddenly exploding. “Bloody hell!” he said. “What was that?”

More ear-drum-shredding detonations in rapid succession shook the ground. Through the picture window, we saw smoke billowing from the Golan Heights. Someone shouted at us to run to the bomb shelters. I had no idea where to go. We followed a kibbutz member to a clearing, then down leaf-strewn steps to a door. He tugged on it. Locked. 

Michael and I took off at an adrenaline-infused sprint for Simcha’s house, dog-cringing at each explosion. She was standing in her garden with some neighbors.

I said: “What’s happened?”

She said: “We’re under attack. The Syrians crossed the border and are bombing the Golan. The Egyptians crossed into Sinai.”

“How do you know?”

“The Voice of Israel came back on the air. The chief rabbis were on the radio, saying that we’re at war and that it’s OK to break your fast now and not wait until sunset.”

“What should we do?”

“I suggest you return to your buildings.”

We followed her advice, but no one in authority was around. Michael retrieved a radio from his room; we heard the urgent codes being broadcast on the Army channel that called up men to reserve duty. The attacks had taken the country completely by surprise. The kibbutz as well: the place suddenly came alive with men half-dressed in their military uniforms, guns slung over their shoulders, gear falling out of hastily packed duffel bags, rushing to get to their units.

One of the women in charge of the kitchen was dishing out pieces of chicken left over from the previous night, before the fast began. Gnawing on a drumstick, I jogged back to Simcha’s, Michael in tow. She was nowhere to be found. Michael and I felt our way in the gathering dark to the edge of the hill beyond her house. I made out a few other people standing there. They were watching pinpricks of light, tiny jewels in a miles-long necklace, twisting across the Golan Heights toward us. Tanks. Someone in the blackness asked: “Theirs or ours?”

“I dunno,” came the reply. “But we’d better get to the bomb shelters.”

That night, lying on my back on a wooden bunk in a shelter deep underground, I watched the sleeve on my shirt fluttering, as if in a strong wind, from the concussion of the artillery above. I watched for hours, fascinated, unable to sleep for the noise and the excitement. This is how it would be for the duration of the three-week war.

Nights we hunkered outside the shelters until it was time to sleep, listening to the static-swooshed reports of the BBC from London. The kibbutz was spotlit by a glaring harvest moon that made mockery of the blackout. Turn it down a couple of notches, Michael shouted. The radio announcer’s clipped English informed us that Jordan might send troops to fight alongside its Arab brethren. That would put us in even graver danger. I sat rapt, spellbound by the kibbutz members assigned to babysit us -- veterans all of Israel’s wars -- as they debated every angle of such a possibility long into the shimmery night. And went to bed in the bunker dreaming of geopolitics.

Days, we popped up above ground for air, meerkats-from-our-burrows, during lulls in the fighting. Pairs of Israeli Mirage jets shrieked low over the Galilee and into the Golan, so low they made you want to hit the ground for cover. I learned to brace for the earthquake as they dropped their load of bombs, then count the seconds until they screeched back overhead to base. And pray if they didn’t.

We were allowed back to our rooms after a few days to shower. A battery of long-snooted Howitzers had taken up residence on the football pitch below. Sneaking down to get a peek at them, I was brushing out my damp hair when the commanding officer suddenly shouted “aish!”  (fire) -- and was just about thrown to the ground from the explosions. Someone yelled at me to get back to the shelter; the Syrians were going to answer the guns any minute now. Whatever relief the shower’s cascading water and soap had provided was undone in an instant. I galloped back to the bunker, dizzy with fear but thrilled, in a voyeuristic way, to be at the center of world events.

Of course, I understood, in an abstract way, that people on both sides were dying. Especially when a couple of grief-etched officials led away a girl from our group. Her brother, who had moved to the country years ago, was killed in the early hours of the fighting.

Little did I know then that this was a portent of my adult life to come. War would dominate my existence, both as a reporter and as a wife. I would lose one husband, a fellow journalist, to it and almost lose another, a diplomat.

Even if I had known, it’s doubtful that I would have cared. Because to my hungry, solipsistic, immortal 17-year-old self, this was what I had been seeking.

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