A picture and Its lasting meaning

Photo by David Rubinger

By Saul Golubcow

I was in college when Israel’s Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967. Like many of my Jewish friends, I watched with awe and pride Israel’s stunning victory. That feeling will never be lost. To this day, many of my baby boomer generation exchange recollections on what we were doing on that date.

But while I cleave to my own stamped memory, I wonder, when several more years pass, how my three very young grandsons will incorporate the Six Day War into their Jewish mindset. If I speak to them when they are older and another June 5 approaches, what might I tell them that transports the significance of the Six Day War from one of Saba’s very personal remembrances to a perspective that shares ground with their Jewish generation?

At the start, I would show them David Rubinger’s iconic photo of the three Israeli paratroopers on June 7, 1967, at the Kotel, the Western Wall, after the bloody battle to retake for the Jewish nation our most exalted site. I would suggest that while the picture captures one moment of one war, it projects for all generations the historical soul of the Jewish people, reflects our emotional tie to Israel, and implores us to comprehend the preciousness and vulnerability of what we have.

I would ask my grandsons to focus on the posture and faces of the paratroopers and consider what the paratroopers had accomplished. While the 1948 War of Independence won for Israel the right to continue its existence, it did so incompletely. It left the Jewish nation, whether one was religious or secular, bereft of the Kotel, still cut off after 1,900 years from its spiritual soul.

With the restoration of the Jewish state complete, the soldiers stand to the side of the Kotel looking upward. But toward what? In their minds’ eyes, might they be viewing millennia of distressed statelessness and, allowing comprehension to seep in, absorbing “Next Year in Jerusalem” as no longer a hollow refrain? And for us, in their gaze, we are with them as the soul of the Jewish people shines through, not through overt exultation, not through wild glee, not through arms raised high in victory, not through calls for vengeance but through reverent thanksgiving.

When I saw the picture for the first time, and I followed the upward cast of the paratroopers’ eyes, I sensed a “miracle had taken place.” That is, with or without mystical or theological involvement, the unexpected had been extraordinarily realized.

What may have been at the heart of the “miracle?” Unlike these paratroopers, I had not fought in any battles, yet thousands of miles away I felt a bond with them and thought how war weary they must be. I looked at their eyes and was drawn to a fervency of hope that wanted to believe in a miraculous end of war and suffering for Israel, for all of the Jewish people.

Yet if I had been able to peer into their very eyes, I’m sure I also would have entered into a corner of their vision in which the trauma of the losses the 55th Brigade incurred in capturing Jerusalem shadowed the “miracle” of their success. They must have been picturing fallen comrades and anticipating the funerals to come and the rehabilitations that would for years scar Israel’s citizenry physically and psychologically. I would have been there with them quietly noting how with dignity the Jewish spirit has constantly handled hope and pain at the same time.

I would ask my grandsons to take one final look at the picture. There stand the victors in a possible moment of cinematic glory, yet a sense of fragility is also in the frame. One paratrooper holds a helmet in his hands, while another drapes an arm around his comrade’s shoulder. We observe a quiet, momentary reprieve. The Kotel is now in their possession, but it is also now for them, for us to defend. Their guard, our guard cannot be lowered for long, as the Yom Kippur War just six years later so keenly demonstrated.

I imagine my grandsons will have questions and their own thoughts. We will discuss, and I will leave the picture with them.

Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.

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