Operation Tamar

By OMER FRIEDLANDER

 

Jerusalem, 1967 

Aba sent us around the neighborhood to cut down sabra, using a knife taped to the handle of a broomstick. We severed the fruit heads, rolled them a few times on the grass to get rid of their thorns, and dropped them into a bucketTamar sat on Eran’s shoulders, her small dancer’s body leaning forward to reach the cactus with the bucket. I handled the broomstick, severing the purplish-orange prickly pear from the body of the cactus. When we were done, Tamar took the fruit to her momso she could make it into jam. Once it was ready, we stored it in the bomb shelter, along with the rest of the emergency supplies. The shelter was in the basement of our building, and we shared it with three other families. Tamar arranged the supplies carefully, as if she were handling explosives. Jars of blueberry and raspberry jam, white bread, dark bread, apples, peaches, and tin cans stacked one on top of the other filled the corner of the room. She wore a turquoise skirt and matching top. Eran grabbed Tamar’s hips from behind, making her jump. 

“Eran! Watch it! I almost dropped this,” she said. 

But she didn’t look angry. Her large eyes were playful. Her mouth was quivering slightly, as she struggled not to smile. I wanted her to look at me the way she looked at my older brother. 

We filled sacks with sand, then lined them at the entrance to the shelter. After a few hours of work, Eran’s shirt stuck to his back. You could see the strength in his arms as he heaved the heavy sacks of sand. Aba coughed from all the dust in the room. Liora walked in with her youngest daughter, Nurit, in tow. She had raised Tamar and Nurit on her own after their father died. 

“Why don’t you take a break?” she asked. 

Aba wiped the sweat off his brow. He shook his head. “Don’t worry about us. The boys need something to dootherwise they’ll waste their whole Pesach break lounging around.” 

The radio was on. Nasser was gathering troops in two defensive lines in Sinai, along the border.  

“Nasser is waiting for Rabin, ai, ai, ai! Let him wait and never move. We’ll be coming for him ai, ai, ai,” Nurit sang. 

“Quiet, Nurit!” Liora shouted. 

“It’s okay,” Eran said. “She’s right: we are coming for Nasser.” 

I need to go make a phone call, Aba said. 

Aba had been impatient over the past few days. He contacted his military unit about seven times a day, but his commanding officer kept on telling him that they didn’t need him yet. On most days, he lay sprawled on the sofa with a cigarette, staring at the phone. I think it made him feel good to be doing something, to be active, even if it was only preparing the shelter. 

“Keep your spirits up, Aba. The nation’s behind you,” Eran said.  

Aba ruffled Eran’s curls with his large, chalky hands. It was obvious the nation was behind himwho else would we be cheering for, the Egyptians? What a suck-up. In two years, Eran would be a soldier. He would be riding a tank, sleeping out in the desert, cooking Loof over an open flame. He couldn’t wait. It was all he ever talked about nowadays.  

“Boys,” Liora said, “could you walk Tamar to ballet class? I don’t want her to be out on her own.” 

We would use any excuse to stop sweeping the shelter floor. I raced outside, past the olive trees and blossoming bougainvillea bush, to sit on the limestone wall outside the apartment building and wait for Tamar. I breathed in the fresh air outside the stuffy shelter. Eran followed more slowly, swinging his shoulders the way Steve McQueen did in The Magnificent SevenHe had suddenly become broad-shouldered. At sixteen, he was only two years older than me, but he looked like a man. In his tight blue jeans and brown boots, he was a cowboy, a kibbutznika tsabar. He had even started shaving the stubble on his chin. My face was as smooth as it had always been. Tamar came out of the house in stockings, a skirt, and a tan-colored top. Her hair was tied up in a bun.  

We escorted Tamar to the studio and stood outside like two bodyguards. After a while, we got bored and went in to watch the dancers. The studio was run by an old Russian teacher, Madame Svetlana. In the studio, my eyes followed Tamar’s every movement. She seemed to float, leaping on the parquet floor as soundlessly as a cat. I could see the tendons in her long neck, the taut muscles of her back, the curve of her legs as she did a plié. I wanted to put my hands on her hips and lift, to stretch her toward the sky the way they did in the Jerusalem Ballet. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to do that. 

Then we were back in school. At the Gymnasia Ivrit Rehavia, the teachers themselves could hardly concentrate. All they talked about was war. Some parents had already removed their children from class and were teaching them at home. At the end of the school day, the three of us would walk back home together. Sometimes we went to watch a Western at Chen, the only cinema that had air conditioning.  

We would also go to the Machnei Yehuda shukEran showed us where to buy chocolatecovered raisins, figs stuffed with almonds, prunes, apricots, and sunflower seeds. There was a large stall with red and black licorice sticks, sour gummy worms, and cola-flavored candy. A man was juggling pomegranates, yelling out the special bargain prices, only today, just for you. There were heaps of colorful spices: the dark green of za’atar, which you could sprinkle on a laffa bread doused in olive oil and spread with labneh. There was the red mountain of paprika and the purple one of sumac; there was yellow turmeric and cumin. It was fun being around Eran when he wasn’t pretending to be such a grown-up. We could let loose a little. We raced each other through the stalls, where there was the strong smell of fish. The vendors would dump the trays of ice and leftover carpion tails of the day. Vegetables dropped from carts were scattered in the alley, buzzing with flies. I hid behind a wagon full of watermelons, next to an old lady weaving dough into challah braids. Eran snuck up behind me and put his hand on my mouth. I played along as if I were his prisoner. I liked the feel of his large hand on my mouth. I felt safe. He smelled like the freshly laundered sheets Ima hung up on the clothesline. We both surprised Tamar, who was crouching behind a stall draped in colorful scarves.  

Yet the possibility of war was hard to ignore. Haim Herzog broadcasted daily on the radio, to boost the nation’s moraleIf I had to choose, tonight, between being an Egyptian pilot attacking Jerusalem or being a citizen of JerusalemI would choose the second option, for reasons of personal safety. I didn’t believe him.  

To get our mind off everything that was happening, Ima gave us bus money to go to Tel Aviv one Friday afternoon. Maybe Ima didn’t believe Herzog either. We went to the beach. For Jerusalem kids, this was a real treat. We saw boys jump off of the wave-breaker boulders and into the water. They disappeared in a splash of foam and emerged spluttering, with dripping, shining skin and hair slicked back. Men on deck chairs smoked nargilah and played cards. The Popsicle Man yelled out: Shoko Banana! Limon! 

The lifeguard surveyed the swimmers from atop his slanted, leaning shack and cried into a megaphone, The boy with the red bathing suit, you’re in too deep. Yes, you! Swim back.” 

“Can we go in?” Tamar asked. 

I looked at Eran. He was the authority on the matter.  

“That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?” 

Tamar ran down the sand. Her thighs were slender, and her hair was wild. Eran took his shirt off in one quick movement. Yalla, Adam! Race you. I sprinted after them, keeping my shirt on. In the water, we splashed each other. Eran grabbed Tamar and dunked her head in the water. My heart skipped a beat, but she resurfaced. She spat out saltwater. She grabbed Eran, hanging on to his neck, and they started wrestling in the water, splashing and shrieking. Quickly, I was pushed to the side. A piece of trash, a plastic bag, floated by me. Tamar’s one-piece bathing suit stuck to her skin, revealing the contours of her small breasts. I caught Eran’s eye and quickly looked away.  

He pretended to be Madame Svetlana. “Now ze cat step, now ze arabesque,” he said. 

Tamar laughed, then attempted to do ze cat step in the water. They both twisted and turned, touching each other right in front of me. Tamar raised her leg up as high as it could go. Eran grabbed it and held it up, as if it were a trophy. Tamar’s bottom lip was swollen, maybe from all the salt. All three of us floated on our backs, squinting our eyes against the glare of the sun. My face was warm, and my eyes were sleepy. We held each other’s hands in the water, the three of us, with Tamar in the middle. For a moment, I was so happy to be holding her hand I hardly cared that I was sharing her with Eran.  

Independence Day was tense. We didn’t leave the neighborhood. Children were running around with plastic hammers emblazoned with blue Stars of Davidbopping each other on the head. The street was mostly subdued, although some revelers were shouting and singing. We had to celebrate despite everything. The crowds pressed against me. There was Tamar, dancing with Eran in the street. She had dark lipstick on, a white dress and sandals. I imagined the dark red smudges as she pressed her lips to his neck, again and again. I had to stop thinking about it. But I couldn’t look away. Eran whispered into her ear. Her lips parted into a smile, and she threw her head back to laugh. Eran was guiding her, his hand on her small waist. He lifted her up, just the way I wanted to. He was strong enough. After he held her up a few seconds, she fell on top of him. They stayed locked together in an embrace. I sat on the curb. People stepped on my foot, bumped into me, cursed me. Someone spilled a drink on my head. It dripped down my chin. Drip, drip, drip. Midnight was approaching. Eran and Tamar were swaying slowly. Countdown: ten, nine, eightEran stroked Tamar’s cheekseven, six, five, fourTamar rested her head on his chestthree, two, onetheir lips met. 

A shrill siren sounded. Everyone stopped whatever they were doing. Tamar and Eran parted quickly. Parents were calling their children back inside. Bodies rushed this way and thatI lost sight of Tamar and Eran. I was shoved to the side of the road and cut my hand on a piece of glass from a shattered bottle. Blood flowed freely from my palm, all the way down to my elbow. Out of the night, Ima ran toward me, breasts bobbing up and down.  

Ima, whatwhat are you doing? Why are you wearing pajamas?” 

“Go inside. Now. You’re bleeding! Can’t you hear the siren? Where’s Eran? There’s an emergency. Aba was called up.” 

They called in all the reservists. Aba was rushing from bedroom to living room, rummaging through closets for his old uniform. Eran was packing spare underwear and socks for Aba. Ima was bandaging my hand. 

“I want to go with you,” Eran said. 

“Have you lost your mind? Meshugah! You’re not old enough!” Ima said.  

“We need all the men we can get, Ima.” 

“Yes, all the men. Not all the boys.” 

“Ow!”  

“Hold still.” Roughly, she looped the bandage over my arm, again and again. 

“I’m not a boy!” Eran’s face had turned a shade of purple.  

Aba grabbed him by the shoulders. “Listen, Eran: You need to be here, with Ima and Adam. 

“Who’s going to take you? You don’t have any training. You think they’ll give you a gun?” Ima said. 

“I’ll be fine. I can take care of myself.” 

“You think it’s going to be like in those cowboy movies you watch?” 

“This isn’t a joke, Eran. Don’t do anything stupid, Aba said. 

Ima finished bandaging my arm. She was trying to make sandwiches, but her hands were shaking.  

“Time for me to go,” Aba said. 

“But wait! The sandwiches.” 

“Forget about it. I have to go.” 

Aba pulled me into his arms. His embrace was strong and warm. He smelled slightly sour. The prickly hair on his face tickled my cheek. Ima shoved the half-made sandwiches into the rucksack. Aba hoisted it up on his shoulders, kissed Ima once on the forehead, then on each cheek, finally on the lips, and headed out the door. We stood outside and watched him walk away, hunched under the burden of his rucksack.  

Everyone called it the waiting period. Everyone was waiting for war, but I was waiting for Tamar. After the kiss, things changed between the three of us. Of course, during a time like this, the country comes first. That’s what Ima said. Tamar, Eran, and I started volunteering. Eran kept going on and on about what we can do to help the war effort. He said he was wasting his time. He wanted to fight, not be left behind with the women and children. We boarded the windows with masking tape and dug trenches in the ground. We painted the car lights with black paint, to make it more difficult for Egyptian bomber planes. Liora, Tamar, and Nurit made big pots of vegetable and meat stew and handed out bowls to every soldier in uniform. We distributed the newspapers, Maariv and Yediot Acharonot, which appeared in a shortened two-page version, since the print operators had all been drafted. The Civil Guard wandered around at night, yelling at everyone to turn off all the lights. The rabbinical council went around making public gardens and playgrounds into kosher burial sites, thinking the graveyards would not be big enough to contain the dead.  

Tzipora Rupin was one of the few people on our street who owned a television set. Every night, we gathered at her home to watch the Egyptian news channel, which showed military parades and long speeches in Arabic. Jordan signed a defense pact with Egypt. King Hussein and Nasser shook hands. We need to get those bastards, Eran would say. On our channel, Moshe Dayan, looking like a pirate with his eye patch, was talking to the troops. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol stuttered when he addressed the nation. Our neighbors the Frenkels sat around with their transistor radio, listening to every scrap of news. I kept on hearing the word Suez. Everyone was on edge, ready to snap at any moment. Ima kept arranging and rearranging Aba’s sock drawer, even though it wasn’t messy. She always hovered by the phone. Sometimes she picked it up even when it didn’t ring. We had not heard anything from Aba. When I talked to her, I felt like I was walking on a tightrope and any slight disturbance, any bad news, false step, wrong word, and it would snapWhen the alarm sounded, no one was surprised. 

On the first day down in the shelter, we huddled around the Frenkels’ transistor radio. Herzog’s voice filled the small room: Operation Moked is a success. Al Arish airport has become a ruin. One hundred and twenty Egyptian planes have been destroyed. In the early hours of the morning, 185 fighter planes, under the command of Mordechai Hod, targeted Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian airports. In total, 350 airplanes have been destroyed in the first round of bombings. The fighter planes lifted off from Israeli airspace in absolute radio silence, preserving the secrecy of the mission. 

Nurit sat on Liora’s lap. Tamar dusted off one of the mattresses. Her eyes were swollen and red. The shelter was crowded. There was an adjoining room with a toilet. Mattresses lined the floor. In the corner of the room were the boxes of food and supplies we had stocked up: a pile of tin cans, loaves of bread, jam jars, dusty bottles of water. I thought of when we were arranging the shelter and Eran had grabbed Tamar from behind and she had jumped and nearly broken a jam jar. He wouldn’t do that now. We couldn’t find a comfortable sleeping position for everyone. After switching around and trying many different positions, we gave up. My legs were in Liora’s face. Ima was facing the wall. Nurit was wailing. 

I heard the siren signaling a national emergency, the sound of bombshells above our heads. I imagined Jerusalem burning, men in uniform rushing, planes whizzing overhead. I was scared for Aba. He didn’t even have time to take the sandwiches that Ima had made for him. Would he starve? Did the army feed their soldiers? Would it even matter? He could be shot in the stomach tomorrow, and no packed sandwiches or extra fatty lining to pad it out would help. I had to stop thinking about it, because thinking things made them true. 

Tzipora Rupin was arguing with Eran: “I survived the Nazis! I was in London during the Blitz. You think these Arabs scare me? This is nothing! Let me go back up; I can’t be here. I forgot my sewing needles.” 

A bombshell exploded somewhere outside, sending a tremor through the shelter. 

“It would be a shame to survive the Nazis only to die now. So, stay here and stop complaining,” Eran hissed. 

“Complaining? Who’s complaining?” 

“I shouldn’t even be here,” Eran said. “I should be out there, fighting.” 

“Stop talking nonsense,” Ima said. “You’re not going anywhere.” 

“I told you this would happen,” said Mr. Frenkel to no one in particular. “You remember what Nasser said. ‘If you want a war, Rabin, then, ahlan wasahalan, we’ll give you a war.”  

“We’re doomed! We’re all going to die,” Mrs. Frenkel said. 

“Stop it,” Liora said.  

At night, we heard a transmission in English from the Jordanians: We will drown all the Jews in the sea. We will cut out their tongues. We will burn their children.  

“Bastards,” Eran said. 

Tamar switched it off. 

“Wait,” Eran said. “We need to hear this. It could be important.” 

“No.” 

“Turn it back on, Tamar.” 

I will not. Don’t tell me what to do.” 

Fine.” He looked tense, ready to spring up at any moment. I felt his restlessness. He looked just like Aba did when he was waiting for the phone call to join the reservists. 

It wasn’t only the children who were scared. Liora looked terrified. Her dark hair hung over her pale face. I covered my ears, but I could still hear the voice in my head. We will drown all the Jews. I couldn’t stop hearing that voice in my head. I hoped no one would notice how scared I was. I tried to practice my tough face, the one Eran had had on ever since we stepped into the bunker. I didn’t want to die. Please, please, not drowning. 

On the second day, I woke up to the sound of the radio, Keshet broadcasting: Red SheetRed Sheet, Red Sheet 

“What does it mean, Ima?” I asked. 

“It means they’re sending the ground troops in,” said Mr. Frenkel. 

“Five countries against our teeny, tiny one. Only a miracle can” Mrs. Frenkel said. 

“More than five against one,” Mr. Frenkel said. “They’re getting help from pilots from all over. From Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.” 

“Mr. Frenkel, why don’t you keep that information to yourself? You’re scaring Nurit,” Liora said. 

“She doesn’t understand a thing,” said Mr. Frenkel. 

“Well, maybe she should be scared. We should all be scared,” Mrs. Frenkel said. 

“Enough,” Eran said. His voice was low. His command shut everyone up.  

Mrs. Frenkel looked down at her wrinkled hands. Tamar spread jam on a slice of bread for Nurit. I ate straight from a tin can of corn with my hands. Ima was so worried she didn’t say anything about my manners. I pretended we were out camping. Whenever I was out camping, I didn’t care what I was eating. No one died when they were out camping. 

Suddenly, Tamar grabbed my hand. I squeezed her palm, sending a secret message. I love you, I said with my hand. She let go. I wondered if it was because my hand was sticky or because she got my message but didn’t love me back. 

“Listen, Adam, can you believe we’ve been debating for weeks about how to tell you?” Tamar said. I know you saw us kiss. I’m sorry you had to find out like that. 

“Don’t talk about this now,” Eran said. 

“He needs to know.” 

As if I didn’t know with you two snuggling right in front of me. I couldn’t hide the hurt in my eyes. Eran tried to reach for me, but I shrugged him off. “Get off of me,” I said. 

“Adam, nu, I didn’t want you to find out like this,” Eran said. I’m sorry. He stared at Tamar. 

Tamar crossed her arms. “Oh, so now it’s my fault?”  

“This isn’t the time, Tamar.” 

“When is the time? We could be dead tomorrow.” 

Eran laughed. “Stop being so dramatic.” 

“Don’t treat me like a child. You don’t know everything.” 

Ima looked at me with pity. The Frenkels exchanged glances: young love. Tzipora Rupin snored loudly. I felt as if the walls were closing in on meI needed to get out. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t be stuck with these people a moment longer. Tamar was looking at the ground. Eran was staring at the wall, his jaw clenched. I hated him. I wanted to scream. Let the Egyptians storm the shelter, line us up against the wall and start blowing our brains out. They could start with Eran. Maybe they wouldn’t have any guns, just long knives. They would save the children and elderly for last. They would stab me, right in front of Tamar. Only then, with the knife sticking out of me and blood pouring down my chest, would she realize. She would confess her love for me. But, really, I did not want any of that to happen. I wanted to stay alive. 

On the third day, Lebanon joined the war. The bombing over Jerusalem was worse than ever. The constant sound of shells overhead. In other news, Tamar and Eran kissed in front of everyone this morning. Adam to Adam: What’s the situation with Operation Tamar? Over. Adam to Adam: There have been heavy casualties. Over. Adam to Adam: Any chance of winning the war? Over. Adam to Adam: Not likely. Over and out.  

We received a report through the radio: The battle for Ammunition Hill had been the bloodiest yet. Hearing this affected Eran more than anyone else. He clenched and unclenched his hand and stared hard at the ground. I tried to distract him by inventing a game involving peach pitsThe goal was to flick the peach pit through two empty cans, which formed a goalpost. Eran started playing with Nurit, who was then occupied for the afternoon. The sound of her fingers flicking the peach pitthwack, thwack, thwackfilled the small room.  

When Nurit beat Eran at the game, he took one of the empty cartons that we had used to store the bread and put it on his head, pretending to be asleep or dead. She giggled, knocked on the carton and asked if anybody was home. I could tell he had let Nurit win at the peach pit game. It reminded me of when we were kids and we would take off our shirts, tie them on our heads and run around the living room dueling with sticks we had found in the garden. When we used to playhe would let me win, too. I would stab him, and he would fall to the ground, jerk around on the floor, and then lie still. He would wait for Ima to walk in and screamshe did every timebefore he jumped up and raised his stick in a challenge. He would scream: Just kidding, ImaI’m alive! 

That night, when everyone else was asleep, I heard Ima and Liora whispering to one another. I was tossing and turning on the hard mattress. I could feel every groove on the uneven floor. I heard them whispering. I lay absolutely still.  

“I won’t let them take my children. It would be better to just get bombed. At least it would be quick,” Liora said. 

“I have something. If we lose the war,” Ima said. 

“What do you mean you have something?” 

“I have a way out. For the children. For us.” 

“What is it?” 

“Rat poison.” 

I got really scared then. I prayed in my head, again and again, even though I had never prayed before. It was a worth a chance. Whoever was out there, please, don’t let things get so bad that Ima will poison everybody. I shivered and wept silently. 

It was our fourth day underground. felt like the war would never end. I just wanted things to go back to normal. We had no way of knowing how long it would take, except Mr. Frenkel seemed to know everything. He had connections, Ima said. He was our authority on the war, the interpreter of the news we heard on the radio. He would not reveal his sources; he simply knew.  

Despite this, Tzipora Rupin kept arguing with him: “Aren’t the alarm sirens different from the all-clear sirens? Otherwise, how are we to know when it’s safe? The alarm has to go up and down. And the all-clear has to be one clear sound. I can’t even tell the difference.” 

“Well, maybe your ears aren’t what they used to be,” Mr. Frenkel muttered.  

“What? What did you say?” Tzipora shrieked. 

Radio: The Suez Canal has been taken by Division Seven. The Fifty-Fifth Paratroopers Brigade and Division Sixteen Jerusalem Brigade have landed in Sharm El-Sheikh. The Navy has conquered the Straits of Tiran. 

“A death trap for the Egyptian tanks,” said Mr. Frenkel. “What do you think, Eran?” 

“They have nowhere to go now. We have Sinai,” Eran said with authority. 

“You think they would advertise the bad news? Or how many of us are already dead? It’s a war. They can say whatever they want,” Mrs. Frenkel said. 

“Don’t talk about things you don’t understand, honey,” Mr. Frenkel said. 

The day stretched endlessly. Eran kept tapping his foottap, tap, tapand knocking his head against the wallthud, thud, thud. Poor Nurit was bored out of her mind. She had been crying for so long without pause that she sounded like the all-clear siren. We all needed a distraction, but there was none. We all listened to the drone of Herzog’s voice on the radio, addressing the nation and trying to keep everyone calm, and to the sound of mortars exploding overhead. That was what our world had shrunk to. Every time a mortar exploded, it took a few minutes for my feet to stop twitching and my hands to stop shaking. I sat on my hands, hoping that no one had seen. 

Eran had assumed the role of disgruntled leader of our small group of hideaways. Mr. Frenkel played the role of his special advisor. Tamar was Eran’s lover. She stroked his hair and hung on his neck. She kissed his earlobe and tickled his neck. I could see that this show of affection was too much for him. Eran got more and more annoyed. He tried to keep her at arm’s length, I could see his irritation and embarrassment in front of everyone. Tamar proposed a game. She called it Guess the Jam. Eran would close his eyes. Tamar would dip her finger into a jar and put it in his mouth, and he would have to guess the flavor. It was easy, mostly because there were only three different kinds of jam.  

When she tried to put her jam-covered finger in his mouth, Eran snapped. Okay, stop! This isn’t the time, Tamar. What’s wrong with you?” 

“Stop what?” 

“You know what.” 

“You’re just upset because you’re not out there. 

Yeah, I am. Everyone is out there fighting, while I’m in here hiding.” 

You have to hide away with me, poor thing.” 

“You’re becoming unbearable.” 

“Well, why don’t you go out there if I’m so unbearable?” 

“Maybe I will.” 

Tamar sulked for the rest of the day. The problem was that there was nowhere to hide. She fed Nurit so that Liora could rest for a few hours. Then she stared at the wall and listened to the news, like we all did. The shelter was kept dark for most of the time. The radio was our only way of measuring time. The evening broadcast told us it was night. Nighttime was worse, somehow. It was not that during the day we could see anything importantjust the same walls and the same peoplebut the night made everything scarier.  

Herzog was on every hour. 8:00 p.m. Tamar and Eran had not spoken since the fight. 9:00 p.m. Tamar moved her mattress next to mine. Our bodies were almost touching. 10:00 p.m. Eran went to sleep. 11 p.m. Mr. Frenkel turned the radio volume down to a murmur, a crackle. One by one, everyone drifted off to sleep. I had learned everyone’s breathing patterns by now, each with their own distinctive snore.  

The only one who was still awake was Tamar. I couldn’t hear her cloggedup breathing, that slow escape of air through her chafed lips. Tamar’s body was so warm next to mine. I felt as if I were sleeping next to a landmine. At any moment, I may roll over, my arm might graze hers, and I would blow us all to bits. We didn’t say a thing to each other. My heartbeat was so loud I was afraid it would wake Eran up. Tamar turned to face me. Her lips were so close to mine. It was dark, but I could make out her long lashes blinking slowly at me. Unlike her warm body, her hands were very cold. She slid them beneath my shirt, warming them under my armpits. She pressed against me, but we did not kiss. Her face was wet with tears. She was shaking. We held each other for a long time until, finally, she turned away. For a moment, I was so happy that I was no longer afraid. I fell asleep. 

On the fifth day, I woke up to the sound of Ima screaming. “Eran! Eran! Where’s my boy?” 

He was gone. My brother had joined the fighting, like he wanted to all along. I couldn’t believe it. He could have said something at least, given me a note, a secret signal. How could he just leave me here? 

Tamar was sobbing. “I told him to go! He left because of me!” 

Liora was trying to calm her down. “Of course not. Of course not, metuka.” She had Tamar in her arms. 

“How could he do this to me? How? How? Ima said. “Turn on the radio! I want to know what’s going on! 

Herzog: Our central and northern forces joined in a pincer movement on the plateau but fell mainly on empty territory as the Syrian forces retreated. At 8:30 a.m., the Syrians had begun blowing up their own shelters, burning documents and retreating. Our units, led by Elad Peled, climbed the Golan from the south, only to find the positions mostly empty. Abandoned equipment was seized, including tanks in perfect working condition. In the Banias village, Golani Brigade troops found several Syrian soldiers chained to their own positions. 

“See? It’s all good news. They’re running away, the bastards.” The way Mr. Frenkel said bastards reminded me of Eran. 

struggled to keep my face blank, under control. Eran would have wanted me to be calm in a situation like this, not lose my cool. I needed to be Steve McQueen. Like the Syrians abandoning their post, I wanted to flee that shelter and to run after my brother. I wanted to pile up all the evidence from last night, her cold hands on my body, the warmth of her body, her wet face, and burn it. Had he seen us hugging and fled during the night, after we fell asleep? Tamar wouldn’t look at me all day. I was afraid that, at any moment now, I would be exposed. Come back, Eran. Come back. I’m not angry about TamarI just want to see you. 

“Where do you think Eran is?” Ima asked. Is he with Aba? He doesn’t even have a weapon. What happens if they catch him? Where did he go?  

Mr. Frenkel answered: “He would try to join up with the Jerusalem squadron. He’ll probably be in the Old City somewhere, tofes kav. Maybe on a rooftop, to get a good viewpoint. If they catch him He did not finish the sentence. 

“Where is he?” Ima asked. Adam! Adam, did he tell you anything before he left? How about you, Tamar?  

I shook my head. 

“No games, Adam. Tell me! Tell me!” She grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me toward her. Her grip was strong. I could feel my shirt tear. My neck burned from where the fabric was rubbing against the skin.  

“Ima, Ima, you’re hurting me. Stop it.” 

She pulled me into her arms and started sobbing. I freed myself from her embrace and sat in the far corner. She looked at me, hurt, begging me to come hug her, to comfort her. Her face was swollen, and her eyes were puffy. She kept cupping a hand to her ear, as if she could hear Eran.  

Suddenly, she got to her feet. “Okay, let me out! I have to find my boy, Eran sheli.” 

Tamar also got to her feet. So did Mr. Frenkel, who was blocking the exit with his body. Between a skinny dancer and a frail old man, I wasn’t sure who would win. I got to my feet, too, and went to stand alongside Mr. Frenkel. Tamar looked very small, standing in front of us. Her eyes were wild; she stared at Mr. Frenkel, then at me, then back at him. The four of us faced each other. 

“No one’s going anywhere,” I said in a voice that I hoped sounded like Eran’s. Tamar slumped to the ground, sobbing. 

No one slept that night. I stood guard, leaning against the door. Mr. Frenkel lay beside me. Tamar didn’t try anything again, but she kept looking at the door as if at any moment Eran would come back. At one point, during the night, Ima was convinced she had heard his voice. She thought he was pounding at the door, crying for us to let him in. She begged us to open it, just for a second, to see. No one else heard the voice, and we thought it was too dangerous, so we left it shut. After that, Ima refused to eat or drink. I tried to look for the rat poison, but I couldn’t find it. I was scared she would poison herself. Eventually, she fell asleep. 

On the morning of the sixth day, Mr. Frenkel turned up the volume on the radio. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s voiceA week ago, the fateful campaign began. The existence of the State of Israel hung in the balance 

“What is he saying?” Tzipora Rupin shrieked. “What hung in the balance?” 

the hopes of generations and the vision that was realized in our own time. During the course of the fighting, the enemy forces were decisively defeated. Many fled for their lives or were captured. For the first time since the establishment of the state 

A clear, uninterrupted siren sounded. The all-clear. The Prime Minister’s voice again: The Jerusalem squadron and the paratroopers have entered the Old City, on the way to Hebron and Bethlehem. An Israeli flag flutters over the Dome of the Rock. After many years, the trumpet of a shofar can be heard at the Western Kotel wall. We have the Kotel! We have the Kotel! 

Ima had to be shaken awake. Mrs. Frenkel helped her to her feet. She leaned against Mrs. Frenkel’s body. Liora had Nurit in her arms. Everyone got up on their feet, except for Tzipora Rupin. 

“Come on, Tziporawe can go now,” Liora said. 

“No, no, go without me. I’ll stay here. Do you believe that guy?” 

“Our Prime Minister? Yes, I do,” said Mr. Frenkel. 

“I’m staying too,” I said. 

“Stop playing games, Adam!” Mrs. Frenkel said. “Come help your mother.” 

“But what if Eran comes back here?” I asked. 

You live two floors up, Adam!” 

It was true that we lived just upstairs, but maybe he fell and hit his head and forgot everything, maybe he wouldn’t know where we lived and would just remember to come to the bunker, maybe his only memory was of Tamar and me hugging. What if Tzipora was right and this was all an Egyptian ploy? She hadn’t survived the Nazis by being naïve, had she? What if we had actually lost the war and they were luring us out of our shelters so they could pick us off one by one? It was safer here.  

“Adam, it’s all over. It’s over. We won. Come on, Tamar said. 

“But how can you be sure?” I asked. 

“I won’t come out,” Tzipora Rupin said, until the Prime Minister himself comes down to this bunker and tells me to.”  

“You might be here for a while,” Mr. Frenkel said.  

He unlocked the heavy bolt door, and it swung open. For a few moments, no one went out. We were all too scared still. Light filtered in, illuminating the dust motes hovering over the old mattresses. Nurit started singing, Jerusalem of gold, and of bronze and of light, and I remember that only a few weeks ago she had sung, Nasser is waiting for Rabin.  

Tamar took my hand roughly. “Come on! We’ve got to go find Eran.” 

He had only been gone for a day. Even less than a day. What could happen in a day? He was probably wandering around somewhere, parading with the soldiers in the streets of the Old City, or looking up at the Temple Wall, touching the white limestone with his lips, slipping a prayer note inside a crack.  

When we stepped outside, the sun was harsh. I blinked rapidly as my eyes adjusted to the glare. Everyone was coming out of their shelters. dense smog hovered over everything. The air was thick with smoke and gunpowder, a rusty, metallic smell. The cacti and the olive trees were coated in white ash. The blossoms of the bougainvillea were scattered into the rubble. There were a few new potholes in the street, and the house next door was missing a roof. Many of the houses were riddled with bullet holes. The limestone wall was intact, except it was blackened. A group of soldiers from the Jerusalem Brigade walked by, and cheers erupted in the street. Tamar rushed up to them. 

“Have you seen someone who looks like him,” she pointed at me, “except he’s bigger? He just joined the fighting yesterday. He’s wearing jeans, not a uniform.” 

“Sorry. I haven’t seen anyone like that,” one soldier said. 

Tamar rushed to another group of soldiers. She kept pointing at me. “He looks like him! He’s his brother! 

The soldiers looked at the ground, shrugged, and walked on, accompanied by the sounds of celebration. I couldn’t believe Tamar thought I actually looked like Eran. That meant she could probably like me, in a year or two, once I grew bigger. I felt a new swagger in my step and a burst of confidence. I walked like Eran, like Steve McQueen. To Tamar, I was just like Eran. Maybe even better, who knows? I had a thought which I tried to push away, but it kept resurfacing: What if he was dead? Would she prefer me? Or would she still love him? 

Tamar went to another group, then another. She was barely coherent. Every time she asked, the soldiers shook their heads. Tamar was becoming hysterical. She started grabbing soldiers, pulling at their uniforms, hitting them in the chest as she sobbed. I saw Aba walking toward me. His right arm was bandaged; there was blood on his shoulder and chest. I started running toward him. When I reached him, I was careful not to hug him too tight, because of his wound.  

“Have you seen Eran?” Tamar asked. 

Aba shook his head. “What do you mean? He’s not with you?” 

I saw the wounded limping past or being carried on stretchers or leaning on the arms of their fellow soldiers, and I tried to look at each one of them as they went by. They were not celebrating like the others. Some had lost an eye or a limb; others looked like they could not recognize a thing. So many were wounded. Suddenly, I saw his familiar, loping movement, his distinctive walk, his Steve McQueen swagger, heading toward me. I saw my brother and, for a moment, I was disappointed.  

 

[Purchase Issue 19 here.] 

 

Omer Friedlander grew up in Tel Aviv. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Cambridge and an MFA from Boston University, where he was the Saul Bellow Fellow in Fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Ilanot ReviewThe Mays AnthologyParis Lit Up, and other publications. His writing has been supported by the Bread Loaf Work-Study Scholarship, Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Fellowship, Tin House Summer and Winter Workshops, Eckerd College Writers’ Conference Standiford Fellowship, and others. He was awarded first place in competition for the Shmuel Traum Prize in literary translation.

Operation Tamar

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