The air was heavy and hot. A thick, drowsy calm engulfed us. Scarcely a sound broke the monotony of the languid Sabbath afternoon. My husband and I were resting in our small apartment facing an empty courtyard. The rows of sleepy blocks of flats behind us formed a jagged square. They too seemed to be wrapped in the hypnotic languor of the day.
It was the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn and sacred day of the Hebrew calendar. We lived in a frontier town—Eilat—on the edge of the great Negev desert in southern Israel. The streets were virtually deserted. Even our wild and woolly town, which hardly ever paused to mark religious solemnities, was gripped by the spirit of the lonely annual fast day.
Menahem and I normally spent the day at home, punctuated by visits to friends with whom we prayed and read from the Bible. We observed the ancient fast out of a sense of identification with our people and their spiritual yearnings.
In a few hours the sun would set with a lavish display of desert beauty. Fantastic splashes of color and shadow would paint the skies and the hills of Edom overlooking the Red Sea shore. With the dark it would be so much cooler. We would complete our reading of the Book of Jonah. This tale of the ancient Jewish prophet appealed very much to us. In our own way, we too had experienced that same fear, that same urge to flight, and the strange moves of God leading us into unfamiliar territory.
In the evening, the synagogues would again be thronged with worshippers—and the curious and once-a-year visitors. The ancient shofar (ram’s horn) would be sounded—one shrill, piercing blast to announce the completion of the day’s long ritual. It was said to be a reminder to God of the covenant that He had made with Abraham at Isaac’s binding.
My husband stirred from his reveries on the low wooden cot we used as a sofa for afternoon naps. The shrill wailing of the town’s warning siren had shattered the unearthly calm of the holy day.
“It couldn’t be an air raid drill; they’d never choose a day like this for a drill,” I thought.
“Maybe it’s an electrical fault in the system. That has happened before, you know,” my husband ventured.
“What a time for an electrical failure!”
The siren’s long, anguished screeching continued.
People began to gather in the courtyard—perplexed, worried parents and children, worshippers hurrying home from the nearby synagogues.
Someone suggested, “Let’s turn on the radio!”
The more devout protested, “On the Day of Atonement there’s no broadcasting. It’s forbidden to turn on the radio.”
Indeed, the Israel Broadcasting Authority had ceased operating from the afternoon preceding the fast day—as almost every other activity involving Jews also stopped.
The siren continued to wail. Someone brought out a transistor radio and turned it on. We were surprised to hear patriotic Israeli music being played.
“Something is up,” someone commented nervously. “They wouldn’t have music like this playing on Yom Kippur. There must be some important news coming.”
The anxious discussion was interrupted by the bellowing of a loudspeaker truck passing slowly through the town’s streets: “Citizens of Eilat. This is a genuine alarm. This is not a drill. Go to the shelter nearest you at once. I repeat, this is a genuine alarm. This is not a drill. Go to the nearest shelter at once.”
My husband and I acted as wardens for the shelter in the courtyard behind our flat. It was a large underground bunker that had been built in the wake of terrorist activity against the town. Menahem ran for the keys and we both donned our protective helmets. We opened the large metal door and let people in. The newscast began as we huddled around a small transistor radio.
“The Israel Defense Forces announce that at 1:50 P.M. Syrian and Egyptian forces mounted simultaneous attacks against our forces in the Golan Heights and along the Suez Canal …”
For the fourth time in modern Israel’s 25-year history, a life-and-death struggle for survival was again to be waged. For us, it was our second experience of war since immigrating to Israel from the United States early in 1963.
What had brought us here to take part in the movement of Jewish return to the ancestral homeland?
Haya and Menahem Benhayim were the first American Messianic Jewish couple to make aliyah to Israel.