October 6th marks the 46th anniversary of the beginning of the Yom Kippur War (October 6th – 25th, 1973), prompting me to delve into the archives of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. The excursion became a lesson in how historical memory — at least mine — forms.
I quickly noticed the duration of the war almost exactly matches the dates of the 1973 baseball postseason, October 6th – 21st, in which the Oakland Athletics beat the Baltimore Orioles and then the New York Mets to win the championship. In many of the D & C editions surveyed, blaring headlines of war in the Mideast were set next to photos of the baseball playoff games.
As seen in On Yogi Berra and Dale Berra and the 1973 World Series and Willie Mays and my father, the summer of 1973 — when nine — was the first season in which I remember baseball. That summer and fall I followed the Miracle Mets, watching every playoff game. The newspaper pictures are as vivid to me now as then.
Rusty Staub’s catch as he crashed the wall in the 11th inning against the Reds. Willie Mays pleading with Augie Donatelli that his call against Harrelson was wrong. I was playing in a chess match at the downtown YMCA when Bud and Pete tussled in the infield. My heart sank watching the A’s celebrate.
Yet, reading the headlines and seeing pictures of war trigger no recollections. My parents followed the war via tv news, but I draw a blank. Apparently, my sports memory began at nine but not my political memory. By 1974, however, I can recall with clarity the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation.
My father was Jewish, but we never attended synagogue. Perhaps had we been more involved in the Jewish community, my political memories might have crystalized. I canvassed several of my Jewish friends who were 9 or 10 during the war. Most, like me, have no recollections.¹
Jonathan Marmorstein’s vivid memory did stem from his synagogue:
I do have a vivid memory. We were at Temple Beth El for services and I was in the kids service downstairs. They abruptly ended it and brought us to the main place where my parents were and she said something terrible happened to our people in Israel. Then Rabbi Karp told us about the bombing and he talked about it and the service continued. What a day.
Harold Pollack also has memories:
I do remember sitting by the radio with my parents, who were very worried. We were always very secular, but Israel’s survival was very meaningful to us, and seemed very specifically under threat. A vastly different experience from anything our children’s generation directly witnessed.
I am not surprised that Harold’s historical memory formed at an early age. Harold eventually went to Princeton and is now a professor at the University of Chicago. In the 1970’s, he was a young conservative who converted to liberalism during the Reagan era.
Two or three years later I discovered the history I missed.
I learned to the degree the war was about oil and the geopolitical rivalry between the United States, backing Israel, and the Soviet Union, backing Egypt and Syria. The war was also the closest the world came to the deployment of nuclear weapons since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Ultimately, the US and USSR did not want their proxies to win total victory; a stalemate and negotiated peace was in their best interests. Had Israel crushed Egypt and Syria, the USSR may have been drawn into the conflict, perhaps drawing in the Americans. Had Israel’s existence been seriously threatened, it may have used some or all of its nuclear arsenal that probably numbered in the low teens. One nuclear strike could have triggered an exchange between the USSR and the US. From there, all bets would be off.
In college when we studied the war in a course on diplomacy, I wondered had I been older and Israel called for volunteers, would I have gone? (According to a 1998 D & C article on the 50th anniversary of the founding of Israel, a Rochester woman, Ellen Geffen, did go to Israel to help that October 1973.)
I also spoke with Matthew Bashore, Brighton Memorial Librarian, President of Historic Brighton and about my age. Although Matt enjoyed reading about settlers and Indians in school, his historical memory apparatus had not quite begun by the Yom Kippur War. As Matt says, around 9 or 10 he first “knew what was going on in the world.” Like me, Watergate marked the beginning of political memory. Matt was miffed that the afternoon Watergate hearings interrupted his cartoon watching. He avidly followed the 1976 campaigns of Ford and Carter, participating in a mock school election (Carter won). By 1980, Matt was a political junkie for life.
1. Reader Ben Sandel, Brighton High School ’82, adds a memory:
I have similar recollections of baseball and the war. The Orioles were practically the home team, as the parent club of the Red Wings at that time, but my parents and aunts and uncles were more concerned about the war.
My most significant connection with Israeli history has an amusing element. In 2008, I was a Visiting Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s satellite campus, the American University of Kosovo. In February, Kosovo officially declared its independence and sovereignty.
That May was also the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. The new republic of Kosovo sought recognition from various countries, including Israel with which Kosovars identify as two peoples with precarious existences. Furthermore, during and after the 1998-99 war, Israel sent humanitarian aid to Kosovo. As such, in May 2008, the Kosovo government arranged a banquet to celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday.
Unfortunately, the banquet would be missing one element: Jews. Virtually no Jews live in Kosovo. Supposedly one elderly couple ran a bakery but it was unclear if the couple still lived. On the American military base, Camp Bondsteel, no doubt some Jews are temporarily stationed. To address the situation, the Kosovo government asked the President of AUK, Chrisopher Hall, to recruit Jewish faculty members for the banquet.
By chance, 3 of the 5 visiting professors were Jewish. So, John, Merle and myself got a free taxi ride and complimentary tickets to attend the banquet of lamb meat and copious servings of grappa. While we kept our appearance low-key, we were proud to represent RIT/AUK and American Jews at the 60th birthday bash for Israel in Pristina, Kosovo. (See From Tirana with love. And a dash of Pristina. )