If you’re going to volunteer for a war — make sure it’s a six day one. On Monday June 5 1967 my 20-year-old self was trying to pursuade one of the Zionist Federation staff in Piccadilly Circus that I qualified for a seat on the Marks and Spencer chartered Boeing 707 that was going to take volunteers to Israel. “Sorry, but we’re only taking medics and nurses.” he said.
“I was at Barts Medical School and my dad’s a doctor — we live with the practice — I’m as close to a doctor as you can get,” I said — forgetting to mention I’d been a dental student for only a year and had left because I didn’t like teeth. “OK…you’ re in,” he said.
On hearing the news that I was going off to war my mother leapt into action — she took me to a portrait photographer in Shepherds Bush — clearly she wasn’t optimistic about ever seeing me again.
I flew to Israel — courtesy of M&S — on Thursday June 8, on the same plane as Topol and the late Israeli film actress Daliah Lavi. By the time I arrived Israel had already “won” the war — although the battle for the Golan Heights was yet to come.
At Lod airport I was directed along with my fellow volunteers towards a truck and ended up at Erez, a kibbutz very close to the Gaza Strip. On the way there I struck up a friendship with Robin, a former copper from Newcastle.When the truck pulled up at the entrance to the kibbutz we were greeted by a red bearded giant of a man, an Uzi over one shoulder, bandoliers of ammunition across his chest and a pistol at his side. I can’t remember if he also had a grenade clenched between his teeth.
“You see this guy Robin, this is an Israeli — the new Jew! Strong, tough — a warrior!”
The warrior greeted us:
“Shalom!” he said. “I’m Sean Armstrong from Dublin.” He’d been working on the kibbutz when the war broke out.
I thought of that historic week as my El Al flight descended into Ben Gurion airport at the end of May, on my first visit to Israel in over 10 years.
A close relative — my fiftieth cousin 24 times removed, Big Bruce Rosengard from Boston — had invited me to his daughter Heather’s wedding to an Israeli. Until 10 years ago I never even knew I had any relatives in America, but serendipitously one day I discovered I’d was related to 300 Rosengards residing in Boston. Bruce was a leading heart transplant surgeon and I’d kept in touch just in case I ever needed a heart transplant. As family I could get one wholesale
I got up to exit the plane. “Peter here’s my card — call me if you need anything” said Aaron (“I move diamonds around the world”) Pincus, the Israeli guy in the seat next to me.
I got to the David Intercontinental hotel in Tel Aviv just before midnight only to discover that I’d left my new Apple Mac laptop on the plane.
I rang Aaron. “Hi Aaron, I don’t know if you remember me, but…”
“Leave it to me, Peter.” Five minutes later, my phone rang.
It was El Al. “Mr Rosengard? We have your laptop—it’s on its way to your hotel.”
Amazing! If I’d flown BA that day I’d still have been sleeping on the floor at Terminal 5 at Heathrow waiting for my cancelled flight to take off with a very small chance my luggage might possibly arrive to join me in the future. (“Somebody pulled the plug out,’’ I read the CEO of BA finally explained).
After breakfast the next morning, I got into conversation with a young American rabbi in the lobby. He told me he’d been flown in to conduct the wedding service. Who knew there was a rabbi shortage in Israel?
He explained that the bride and groom were at Princeton and had asked him, as their college rabbi, to officiate.
That evening the spectacular outdoor wedding was held on a moshav twenty minutes from Jaffa (think the opening wedding scene from The Godfather only with very tall American Rosengards instead of the Mafia).
Around midnight,with the dancing in full swing, I ran into the rabbi again. “I think you might need this,” he said, reaching into his jacket and pulling out my passport. “You dropped it in the lobby this morning.”
“Rabbi, now I’m convinced. There is a God.”