Israel 1979 Part one

As I wrote last week, in the months to come I plan to share some memories of the year that I spent in Israel as a rabbinical school student. Some of these postings will address weighty issues of politics and philosophy. But, some will be much lighter and less serious reminiscences of Israel in the late 70s and very early 80s. These latter postings will, I hope, bring back some memories for those who spent some of those years in Israel and provide a contrast for the Israel of today. I’d love to hear your feedback about these memories if you lived in Israel at the time.

Since we are now in the intermediate days of Sukkot, it would seem appropriate to post some memory regarding the holiday, my first spent in Israel. But, while my story today begins with an experience over Sukkot, it has nothing to do with the holiday itself and fits more clearly into the second category I mentioned above but as I thought about this rather mundane issue, it reminded me once again of the question that I wrestled with during my entire year in Israel.

One of the things that I brought with me to Israel that year was a transistor radio (remember them)? Those who read my posts regularly know that I write a great deal about my love for classic TV but I also have been a regular radio listener through the years. Whether the top 40 station I listened to as a teenager of the more “grown up” stations I gravitated towards later, I always had the radio on and so it was natural to bring a radio with me to Israel.

But, the first days being as hectic as they were, it wasn’t until I took my first bus ride a few days after arriving that I actually heard a radio broadcast. The connection between a bus ride and the radio should be fairly clear to anyone who traveled on the public busses in Israel in the years before smart phones. The bus driver always had a radio on with the volume rather low until just before the “top of the hour” when he would turn up the radio and connect it to the PA system on the bus.

Everyone would grow quiet as they waited to hear the 5 beeps signifying the time and then would listen carefully to the latest hourly news bulletin. It may be a bit of an exaggeration but I remember how people would dramatically “shush” someone who was making too much noise during the news broadcast. It was a ritual that I experienced over and over again during my travels that year and one which reflects the tenuous reality of life in Israel in those days. People would listen to make sure they were aware of any security or economic issue which would clearly affect their lives.

Believe it or not, I actually remember something from that first broadcast that I heard 40 years ago. I don’t remember the news but I do remember the commercial that came on just before the news report. I think I only heard it once but I can remember part of it very clearly.

It was a jingle which contained these words:

Heenay hegeyu hachagim, hamishpacha bitiyulim, hamtzlema k’var muchanah: “The holidays have arrived, the family is taking a vacation, the camera is ready … Haolam mitzalaym bikodak, the world takes pictures with Kodak.

I heard that commercial once and it has stuck in my mind all these years. I was absolutely enthralled. I was glad I understood the Hebrew and realized that I could listen to the equivalent of catchy American commercials in Israel.

So, when I got back to my dorm room after that trip, I turned on the radio for the first time and became a real fan of Kol Yisrael, the Israel Broadcasting authority.

I listened to the Hebrew news and I loved the commercials, mostly for beer, banks and color TVs as I recall. But, I liked the programs too, particularly those on “Reshet Gimel”, the “third network” which played popular music and variety shows. One of my favorites was on from 8-9 a.m., a time I usually could find a few minutes to listen before class. It was called “Rock Etmol”, which is a nice Hebrew pun. The words Rak Etmol mean “only yesterday” and the DJ would play “oldies” from the rock era, a touch of “top 40” thousands of miles from home.

Then, there were the other programs: overnight call-in shows which featured opportunities for lonely people to share their problems with someone and shows which featured hokey contests- such as one which I taped and still have now on cd in which contestants had to read a column of names and numbers from the Tel Aviv telephone book as quickly as they could. Whoever read the most in 30 seconds won a prize. What memories!

And, I would listen to the news in English just to make sure I didn’t miss anything and occasionally would listen to Arabic music whether on the Kol Yisrael Arabic station or from Jordan. Occasionally, I would hear the unmistakeable sound of the chanting of the Quran from someplace far away.

The radio was my companion for some of the lonely times.

But, what I will never forget and still, to this day, listen to on youtube every once in a while was the opening of the broadcast day. The broadcast would start at 6 a.m. each morning with the recitation of the Shema and the V’ahavta (the central declaration of faith from Deuteronomy chapter 6) in the most beautifully pronounced Hebrew. The announcer would then read the first verse of the traditional psalm for each day of the week : Hayom yom…. This is the ___ day of the week on which the Levites would say…

It seemed odd to me that the radio broadcasts would begin with the recitation of a prayer as one of my observations about life in Israel that year which should have been obvious but surprised me was that not everyone in Israel was “religious”, according to my definition. I struggled through the year to figure out what was “Jewish” about some of what I experienced in Israel and the more I listened to the extremely “secular” broadcasts on the radio that followed each day, the more I struggled with that question.

But, two aspects of the radio in Israel that I have mentioned helped me understand it a bit more.

First, Hebrew. To me, the connection between Israel and all that I believed and felt as a Jew often came down to listening to and conversing in the Hebrew language and becoming more proficient in it as the year went along. I found a much deeper connection with Hebrew than I expected and find myself often listening to Israel TV and radio today online to keep that feeling fresh. Those times listening to the radio helped me practice my Hebrew listening skills but also reminded me of where I was and how living in Israel addressed a different part of who I am.

The second was the recitation of the Shema each morning. Even if what I saw in my day to day life out on the streets of Israel didn’t always reflect the faith that was at the core of my connection with Judaism and Jewish identity, the day had started with a clear, and public, statement of connection with our ancient tradition. I am an early riser anyway but I found myself making sure I woke up early enough to hear it. Even though I knew that I would be saying the Shema for myself later in the morning, hearing it publicly made such a strong statement for me and I loved it.

So, those are memories of listening to the radio in Israel. I’d love to hear other’s recollections!

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