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A Time Capsule from Israel: A Young Jew's Letters from the 1970s

A Time Capsule from Israel: A Young Jew's Letters from the 1970s

Battered blue mailbox against green pine trees

A cache of my handwritten letters, dating from 1973 to 1986, arrived in my Connecticut mailbox last week. The original addressee, Shelly Schreter, had offered to return them as a way of enabling me “to hold a kind of mirror up to yourself, as you were then, and perhaps remind you of things long forgotten.”

Shelly and I had been part of a movement of young progressive Zionists who dreamed of changing Israel from within. I was living in Jerusalem, having made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) following my graduation from UCLA. I worked as a foreign correspondent for the Jewish Student Press Service; Shelly was in London.

These excerpts offer a glimpse into the heart of a searching young Jew. 

January 27, 1973

Dear Shelly,

It’s Shabbat, 12:00 in the afternoon – got up 2 minutes ago. Put a record on – Beatles’ Let it Be. Jerusalem is quiet, cold. It snowed for 24 hours. Everyone threw snowballs and made Goldamen [Prime Minister Golda Meir].

I feel more alienated from homo-Israelicus with each day. My life feels like a stereo with only one speaker working. I once loved Israel more than anything in the world.

I’m in a cynical mood. I’ll let Judy [my future wife] write a few words before the words on this page begin kicking one another.

May 12, 1973:

Dear Shelly,

I participated in a discussion on why olim (new immigrants to Israel) and sabras [Israeli-born Jews] don’t get along. I pointed out that an oleh must go through a period of rejecting his former life to become a post-Jew, a new species.

I was not willing to reject my former life and mentality for what modern Israel has to offer in exchange.

The founders of Israel who rejected the old life at age 20 are now beginning to accept the past’s positive aspects – but not before having educated a whole generation to hate religion, to hate Yiddish, and to deny the galut’s [Diaspora’s] rightful place in the development of our people.

May 12, 1973:

Dear Shelly,

We just got a tape from Micha. He sounded depressed, defeated. He’s working as a currency exchange broker – the perfect galut job, he admits. I can’t understand why he insists on remaining in Oslo. I just wrote him suggesting he give Israel a try, even if for only a few years. I told him that we’ve been deeply enriched by our long-term experience in the Jewish state.

Judy and I took what we thought would be a leave of absence from Israel in June 1973 to pursue graduate studies in the U.S. We got married in Vancouver, BC, that August and then moved to Los Angeles. The Yom Kippur War broke out just six weeks later.

October 19, 1973:

Dear Shelly,

The Arab offensive on Yom Kippur was a nightmare – every report of an Arab success a stab in the heart. So many casualties. We wonder how many of them we know.

I’m doing the craziest thing, taking an M.A. program in Jewish education at Hebrew Union College. It’s because I want more Jewish knowledge. Be assured, the Jewish people has not lost a journalist. I have a lot to say, and I’m dying to write. It’s really the only thing that satisfies me.

December 5, 1973

Dear Shelly,

All we hear in the news these days is the “energy crisis.” Soon LA will be experiencing periodic blackouts, and there’s talk of gas rationing. We are feeling the beginning of an anti-Jewish backlash, but doubt that the extremists will pull off anything strong. Many Americans feel that the “slimy” Arabs and damn Russians have caught us with our pants down. However, instead of decreasing our dependence on oil, we are pushing for offshore and Alaskan drilling operations.

July 13, 1975:

Dear Shelly,

I joined a group called Yozma (initiative), which is dedicated to recognizing Palestinian national rights, opposing annexation of the occupied territories, and the right of Diaspora Jews to dissent from the Israeli government line.

This weekend Yozma is holding a debate about recognizing the PLO as the Palestinian leadership.

I just can’t bring myself to stay in the group. So many progressive groups are either critical of or hostile to Israel, and so few supportive, that I feel like a traitor when emphasizing Israel’s shortcomings. Why must we spend so much of our energy engaged in self-criticism?

It really annoyed me that the International Women’s Conference passed a resolution condemning Zionism. Who is left to intelligently defend Israel?

In 1976, I moved with my wife and son to New York and joined the staff of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) as editor of Reform Judaism magazine. Shelly and Micha live in Israel today.

Shelly’s act of friendship enabled me to revisit who I was at the time I made the most consequential personal decisions of my life. The time capsule that landed in my mailbox also revealed how little had changed in the political sphere, and it strengthened my resolve to follow the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either" (Pirke Avot 2:21).

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s editor-at-large. He is former editor of Reform Judaism magazine (1976-2014) and founding editor of Davka magazine (1970-1976), a West Coast Jewish quarterly. He holds an M.A. and honorary doctorate in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His books include Jagendorf’s Foundry: A Memoir of the Romanian Holocaust (HarperCollins, 1991) and Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperCollins, 1998) with Arthur Hertzberg.

Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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