The Day I Turned Five

It was 50 years ago today in 1967,  and we were living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.  Now, I don’t know if what I am about to tell you is exactly the way it happened, or if it is the mish-mash of stories I heard and photos and family films I have seen,  or if it is my inner child’s skewed memory of an event that shaped my life on the day I turned five.

We were part of a small community of Israeli families in this lovely East African nation that had just achieved its independence in 1963. My father had been sent there by the Israeli government as an Officer of the Israel Defense Forces and a fluent English speaking Electronics Engineer, and was put in charge of helping the nascent Tanzanian Police force design and manufacture their first transistor radios. He taught the Tanzanian police students engineering and electronics, and together they built these first locally made radios.

zvi with tanzanian police

My father,  Zvi Harrel (first row, second from the right )  with his class of graduates of the Tanzanian Police Academy

There were other Israeli families in Dar es Salaam at the time, each sent there to help the new African country with building infrastructure such as roads and construction projects, improving agricultural technology, business development, arms sales and my dad with his radios. Israel was desperately trying to make friends among newly independent nations and many Israeli specialists and advisers spent the 1960’s in Africa. Like us.

On the morning of my birthday, I eagerly waited for my friends to arrive at our home, excited about the presents I would receive and the fun time we would have playing in our sandbox and up in my tree house

As my friends started to arrive, the moms directed the kids towards the front yard and all the dads went inside. I clearly remember the inside that day, as my father had prepared it ‘for the party.’ From the Dar es Salaam police headquarters, he brought home what to me appeared to be humongous, gray machines with lots of black buttons and lights. I remember them being taller than me.

IMG_5391

My five year old self, riding my bike in front of our house in Dar es Salaam

These huge radio transmitters were placed in the living room and as the fathers came in, they put on head phones and huddled quietly around them, listening intently to radio transmissions, waiting for the familiar two-word codes that meant you were needed in a national emergency. Israel was at war and Arab countries were already broadcasting that Egyptian forces had reached Tel Aviv. Israeli radio broadcasts were somber and eerily silent about events on the ground.  I seem to remember the dads were smoking, which doesn’t surprise me because Israelis awaiting orders of whether to hop on a plane and join their military units to fight for the survival of their small country,  always smoke. Its a thing, one of those unwritten rules. You fight for survival, you smoke.

Little did I know, but in the  weeks before my birthday, there had been rising tension and increasing threats by Egypt, Syria and Jordan against little Israel. They had been amassing their armies on the borders, making death threats on the airwaves and the print media, and Egypt blocked the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping,  itself an act of war. Israelis were worried. Very worried. War was looming and the only questions were when would it start and how would we survive.

Israelis had been preparing for an inevitable war with their Arab neighbors.  Israelis living abroad, especially the men, had already packed a small suitcase and were anxiously awaiting the moment they would get the word from their reserve units to return and help defend the homeland. Everyone was on edge. So was my dad. And so were all the Israeli dads in Africa.

I learned later, that my parents decided to go on with preparations for my birthday party despite the tension and uncertainty and invited the whole Israeli community so we could all be together. A great excuse for moms and kids to play and the dads to huddle around the great big radio receivers and listen to the latest news from Israel.

As chance would have it, the war began at dawn on the very day of my fifth birthday, June 5th, 1967. My birthday party became the gathering place, the headquarters for all Israelis in Dar es Salaam as we eagerly awaited news from home.

It turned out that Israel, our little David of a country, defeated Goliath that week and in only six days destroyed the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, soundly defeating them against all odds. Our fathers were not called up to join their units and after a week of fighting, Israelis breathed a sigh of relief.

However, the most amazing, exhilarating and important result of the Six Day War happened on June 7th, 1967, two days after my birthday. Israeli forces pushed the Jordanian army back,  re-entered the Old City of Jerusalem, re-took the Jewish Quarter and once again, the Jewish people were able to touch and to pray at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.  Our eternal capital was again in our hands.

Today, May 24th, 2017, is a day of great joy in Israel, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary (according to the Hebrew calendar) of the re-unification of our capital. Thousands of Israeli Jews are celebrating in Jerusalem at this very moment and my heart is with them. I will leave it at that, as this is very complicated. But wow, it has been 50 years.

I felt the need to put pen to paper since I am emotionally very attached to the events of the Six Day War, as if I had played a part in that history. And I guess I did. After all, we share the same birthday.

Harrel photo 1967

The Harrel family in 1967, Zvi, Pola, Anat and baby Micah.

And He Doesn’t Even Know

A few months ago, I received a Facebook message that moved me to tears. A student of mine from 20 years back, 6th grade, tough neighborhood in Salinas, California, so long ago, a different life. She said she was glad she had finally found me because she wanted me to know what a difference I had made in her life, how I had influenced the life she lives today. Turns out that due to my planting the seed and encouraging her to play basketball, learn about history and other cultures, look forward towards college, she not only became the first in her family to graduate high school, she also graduated from college and then, hold on to your hats, law school! But wait, it gets better. She decided to forgo a prestigious for-profit law career to work in the public sector helping low income residents of public housing projects. I cried. A lot. My heart grew 3 sizes that day.

And that got me thinking. Who are the people that influenced and touched MY life in such a way that they made a real difference, affecting life-changing decisions ? Especially those people that don’t even know they made a difference.  The thought of someone being out there, having inspired and changed my life and them not knowing about it  has been gnawing at me ever since. Who?

And then, it happened. Bang! The Universe worked its mystery once again.

First, let me take you back to the best time of my youth, my army service in the Israeli Defense Forces.  Although I had been born in Israel, I spent my childhood years abroad. I graduated from the American School in Lima, Peru, and unlike the rest of my classmates who went straight to college, I decided to fulfill my duty as an Israeli and complete my military service. I had always had an intense love for Israel, its history, its people, and the land.

So in 1980, I left my family back in Peru and headed to Israel to enlist in the IDF as a Lone Soldier (one without close family in Israel). Let me tell you, it was scary, but beyond that, it was exciting and a powerful experience. I became one of the first female Basic Training Instructors for male recruits, carried an M-16 and even got to parachute a few times. Yeah, it was quite amazing.

But the best part of this experience was what Israelis carry with them throughout their lives, the deep, enduring bonds, friendships and connections they make in the military. Serving in the Israeli Army cemented my bond with this land. Forever.

My best friend and fellow basic training instructor, Adeena


Yours truly, Sergeant Anat 1981

And being an impressionable young woman, one with a weakness for men in uniform (till today, may I add), one of the figures I most admired and remembered from my time as a Basic Training Instructor was the base Chief Sergeant Major, Shimon Deri.  He was so proper, so fit, his boots always so spit shining perfect and so gorgeous! Take a look at the photos I took of him as we participated in the 1981 IDF Physical Fitness Competition. Do you blame me for being taken with him?

Sergeant Major Shimon Deri at our tent camp on the beach next to Wingate Physical Education and Sports Center


Yes, we played soccer on the beach

I think not.

I remember him clearly, how nervous I got around him, how he was the butt of many a joke because he was our commander after all, but we also deeply respected him. And the girls, well, we swooned.

I fulfilled my military service and in 1983 left Israel for the United States in order to study. The plan was to return to Israel after getting my degree, but life happened and I ended up staying in the US for a long time.

Over the years, I would reminisce about my military service days, my deep longing to be in Israel, the friends I left behind. I would pull out my photo album and cry as I looked over the pictures of the happiest time of my life.

And there was Shimon Deri, always front and center with his big smile. He was my father figure from Israel.

Spring forward 13 years, to November 4, 1995, to the day Yitzhak Rabin, one of my heroes, was assassinated in Tel Aviv. I was devastated and decided to watch the funeral live on CNN, from my home in Salinas, California. I stayed up all night as the funeral started at 3 a.m. Pacific Time and cried throughout. I was overwhelmed with grief, I felt such a deep sense of loss. I wanted so much to be there, but alas, here I was, sitting alone on the rug in front of my TV in Salinas, in the middle of the night.

Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral on November 6, 1995

And then, oh my god, I suddenly recognized him. Shimon Deri! There he was for a fleeting moment, in uniform, on the screen, leading the Honor Guard at the Rabin funeral!! I immediately recognized him, jumped up screaming… there he was, representing ME at the funeral, someone I knew was THAT close to Rabin, right there next to him!

There he is, facing the camera in the back, wearing a black beret


Shimon Deri, with his back to the screen  in the right side corner, black beret, walking past the Honor Guard

Apparently, my favorite IDF Chief Sergeant Major had stayed in the army, rose among the ranks and was now in a position to lead the Honor Guard at this State Funeral.  I was overjoyed to see him. And yes, it made me cry even more.  What more, seeing him there, at the very place I wanted to be, bonded me with Shimon and with Israel and with Rabin and with my people even more. And he didn’t even know.

It took me a full 28 years to finally come home to Israel. I moved back 6 years ago and my heart is finally at peace. Now I tear up because of the joy I feel at having returned. Yes, I know, I’m a basket case.

Today, I am a tour guide in Israel. I often take my tourists to the very place where Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv. I tell Rabin’s story, my personal connection to the story, how this tragic event affected my people and my country and how we have yet to recover.

And Shimon? He was still in my album. Until a couple of weeks ago, when the Universe spoke to me once again.

Every Independence Day since I moved back to Israel, I have either participated in or attended our kibbutz celebration out on the grass, with songs and speeches and dancing and fireworks. Just lovely. This year, my knee was aching, I was a bit tired and decided that this time I would watch the national festivities on TV.

Final practice for the flag bearing parade, opening Independence Day celebrations (Times of Israel)

Every year at this time, as Israel transitions from the somber remembrance of Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror to the joyous celebration of our Independence, we hold the main, national ceremony on top of Mt. Herzl,  next to the grave of Theodore Herzl, the visionary who foresaw the creation of this country. This year I felt the need  to see the flag-bearing parade, the beautifully executed marching formations, to see some pomp and circumstance which is typically lacking and downplayed in our military. So a few minutes before the opening of the ceremony, I parked myself in front of the television set.

And, at precisely 7:45 p.m., the announcer came on:

” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the opening of our Independence Day celebrations in Jerusalem. And this year, in his debut as the new flag-bearing ceremony director, please welcome Lieutenant Colonel Shimon Deri.”

I, of course, jumped out of my skin. ” What?!? OMG, OMG!” And there he was, in full dress uniform, so polished and straight and proper and so gallant, my Shimon, marching towards the VIP box.

Shimon Deri in his new role

I cannot express to you my joy and surprise at how the Universe brought me here, to this very moment, to see Shimon Deri in his debut, right there on national television.

Tears streaming down my face, I immediately picked up the phone and dialed.

Me: Adeena!! (my best friend from the Shimon days, pictured above) What are you doing RIGHT NOW?

Adeena: Cooking (figures… I’m going out of my mind with joy and excitement and she’s cooking)

Me: Turn on your TV! Do you know who is the new director of the flag ceremony at Mt. Herzl???

Adeena: Shimon Deri? (smart cookie she is, this Adeena)

So there you have it. How I ended up sitting on my couch in Israel, in front of the TV to witness as one of the anchors of my life, one of my inspirations, debuted right there on national television in one of the most respected and beloved roles in our military… how, how does that happen?

Looking good

And he did great! It was a superb parade, precise, elegant and very professionally done. Just like the Shimon I remember.  Congratulations, sir. Proud to have served under you. And thank you for all you meant to me. Thank you.

And, he doesn’t even know.