My Bar Mitzvah, the Six-Day War, and Meir Kahane—by Peter Eisenstadt

My Bar Mitzvah, the Six-Day War, and Meir Kahane
Peter Eisenstadt

I have been thinking about my Bar Mitzvah recently. It’s the right time of year. My Torah portion, “B’Midbar” the first portion in the Book of Numbers (or, if you prefer, Bamidbar) was last week’s parasha. Its one of the duller portions, mostly about a census Moses and Aaron conducted in the wilderness, in which the number of men in arms, over the age of 20 (minus the Levites) amounted to 603, 550 (which was the exact same number reached in a census the previous year, which seems a bit unlikely.)

Anyway, what I remember most about my Bar Mitzvah is not the Torah portion, but the Haftarah, which is from the Book of Hosea. Somehow, I monoglotted my way through the Hebrew of the Torah and Haftarah. I don’t think I gave a d’var Torah, or at least I have no memory of it. But I remember very clearly that in my excessively Reform congregation, I had to also read the portion in English, which was more difficult for me than whatever botch I made of the Hebrew. Hosea, you might remember, had an unfaithful wife, Gomer, and Hosea goes to great length, in a typical example of biblical misogyny, to compare Israel to a fallen strumpet, who has strayed from the God who always had and always will love her. But God is angry. To wit, Hosea 2: 4–5:

Rebuke your mother, rebuke her—
For she is not My wife
And I am not your husband
And let her put away harlotry from her face
And her adultery from between her breasts.
Else I will strip her naked
And leave her as on the day she was born

This was not easy to read, without blushing, to my assembled cousins, aunts, and uncles. Stripping women naked was a Playboy fantasy, a dark masturbatory thought not to be shared in public, certainly not with all my relatives present. Anyway I survived, and my sex drive suffered no irremediable damage.

But let me speak of another aspect of my Bar Mitzvah. It took place on June 3, 1967, a day on which day Israel was spending one last, incredibly tense day under the 1949 Armistice lines before the beginning of the Six Day War. Two rites of passage at once. Both me and Israel left our childhoods behind on that day, and started down a path to becoming something very different. For those of my generation, without memories of 1948, Israel really was created on the day after my Bar Mitzvah.

Like most American Jews, I was deeply worried before the war, and jubilant afterwards. I remember 2000 or so people crowding into the Community Center in Rochdale Village, where I lived in Queens, a few weeks after the war ended, and sharing in the sense of triumph of the event. As many commentators and historians have noted, it was the Six Day War, far more than 1948, that marked the real watershed in American Jewish attitudes toward Israel, towards placing the Holocaust in a central place in their “Jewish consciousness,” and in general creating a far closer sense of connection between the American Jewish diaspora and Eretz Yisrael.

A few months after my Bar Mitzvah, my parents wanting me and my brothers out of the house, and not knowing too much about it, wanted us to get involved in the local Queens branch of Hashomer Hatzair (which we did, but not before, we insisted, Star Trek was in reruns) and soon I came to a deeper appreciation of the region; both a more profound and informed love of Israel, and the knowledge that this was a conflict with two sides, two legitimacies, and no boogeymen.

Rochdale Village was a very interesting place. At the time of my Bar Mitzvah it was the largest housing cooperative in the world (a title soon to be taken by its sister co-op, Co-op City) a white and predominantly Jewish enclave (though with a population that was 20% African American) in the overwhelmingly African American neighborhood of South Jamaica. And for a while, until 1970, it was touted as one of the most successful examples of integrated housing in America. (And then all the whites left, but this is a different story, which I have written about elsewhere.)

There were three synagogues in Rochdale. Right next to the small Reform congregation was an orthodox shule of about the same size. And just about the time of my Bar Mitzvah, the orthodox shule hired a new rabbi, one Meir Kahane, at the time little known except for a reputation, which preceded him, as many were told of him “ being more rightwing than George Wallace,” which he definitely was. He had founded the Jewish Defense League only a few months before moving

to Rochdale, and at the time, the JDL was not concerned with Soviet Jewry, or expelling Palestinians, but with standing up against blacks. This was a time of rising crime in New York City, and of widespread white fear of black crime. And although demagogues like Kahane exaggerated the threat, the fear was legitimate, and I remember several of my friends, recruited by Kahane into the JDL, telling me, an archetypal unathletic and pusillanimous Jewish intellectual in the making, of the organization’s lure. “Do you want to be able to stand up for yourself when you see a tough black going past you? (Rather than walking quickly in the opposite direction, as I was wont to do.) Then join the JDL.” Ideologically, I found it abhorrent, but I must confess, I understood the appeal of wanting to be a “tough Jew.” And within a few months, Kahane’s shule , surrounded by razor wire, looked more like an auto-parts store in a rough neighborhood than a house of worship. It’s stretching a point, no doubt, but it some ways the future fate of the West Bank was shaped on the playgrounds of Rochdale Village. Southeastern Queens is closer to Hebron than you might think.

The Six War Day, my Bar Mitzvah war, changed much, but it didn’t change everything. And as we approach its 47th anniversary, with the failure of the Kerry peace initiative, and so much that is uncertain, and frightening about the future of Israel and the future of the Middle East, it is perhaps worth returning to the real question posed by my Hosea in the haftarah, how to both love and chastise Israel at the same time, love it despite the unending occupation, and love it despite the plague of Kahanism that still infects it. Hosea, some 2700 years ago, told us how to care for Israel; like a lover, hoping for the best, while demanding that it meet the highest standards of justice:

I will espouse you forever
I will espouse you with righteousness and justice
And with goodness and mercy.