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(87 Stories)

Prompted By Dangerous Deeds

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At the Gaza strip (then part of Egypt), 1963. Can you believe the Israeli border guard let me wear his helmet and hold his rifle? Digitized from 8mm video.

At the Gaza strip (then part of Egypt), 1963. Can you believe the Israeli border guard let me wear his helmet and hold his rifle? Digitized from 8mm video.

Every Passover my grandfather had prayed, “Next year in Jerusalem,” and the summer before my bar mitzvah he made good on his promise. Only fifteen years past independence, almost every Jew could then be proud of Israel: proud that, after two millennia, Jews once again had their own nation; proud of the way it had twice defended itself against hostile neighbors; proud of the way it was making the desert bloom, thanks to the nickels we donated in Sunday school to “plant a tree in Israel.” We crisscrossed the country with our private guide, from Galilee in the north to the Negev Desert in the south, from Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean to the Jordan River in the east. This was not actually very far, since Israel’s territory at that time, partitioned out of Palestine, was tiny.

We spotted three girls across the street. When they saw us they giggled, whispered among themselves, and waved shyly.

The threat posed by Israel’s neighbors, just beyond those claustrophobic borders, was palpable. All Israeli citizens, men and women alike, had to serve in the army. We picked up soldiers hitchhiking home for Shabbat or back to their posts. The whole country was on an extended adrenalin high.

Military readiness was especially heightened in Jerusalem. In those days, Jerusalem was divided: The “New City” was in Israel, while the “Old City” was in Jordan, and Jews could not enter. This meant we couldn’t visit such sacred sites as the Wailing Wall, the last remnant of the rebuilt Temple of Solomon. Our hotel, the famous King David, overlooked the Old City, so we could look but not touch.

A family from Des Moines was also staying at the hotel. Their son, Bobby, would celebrate his bar mitzvah a few months after mine. Bobby and I made friends quickly. We compared notes, and both found our “bar mitzvah Hebrew” virtually useless for everyday conversation in Israel. I vowed to speak Hebrew like an Israeli by the time I was fifteen.

Late Saturday afternoon, when my grandfather went back to the room for his nap, Bobby and I decided to explore the streets around the hotel. Jerusalem’s “New City” was older than anything we had seen in the States. It was still Shabbat so the shops were closed and the streets quiet. We spotted three girls, about our age, across the street. When they saw us they giggled, whispered among themselves, and waved shyly. Bobby and I waved back. For some reason we decided they were Yemenite, although probably they were local Arab girls. We walked a block. Still there. They seemed to be following us. We played cat-and-mouse with them, turning corners, ducking into storefronts, weaving in and out of view through the winding streets. It was an exhilarating adventure.

When we returned to the hotel after about two hours, my grandfather was apoplectic, popping nitroglycerin pills for his angina like candy. Bobby’s parents, worried too, were doing their best to calm him. When he saw me he burst into tears, hugged me, and wouldn’t let me go. Later, in our room, Grandpa scolded me angrily and explained the risk we had taken, two American Jewish boys alone on the streets of a divided city in a land wracked by ethnic tension. While Bobby and I wandered, oblivious to the danger, he had imagined every ghastly possibility. I was chastened. “Really furious at myself today,” I wrote in my travel diary. “It was entirely my fault and I’ve certainly learned a lesson. I’m sure glad I got another chance.”

Thirteen years later, I visited Grandpa in the hospital. “Take care of yourself,” he said, in what turned out to be his last words to me in person. I wonder if he was thinking about Bobby and me on the streets of Jerusalem.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Characterizations: funny, moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    A wonderful adventure to treasure with your grandfather, and your new friend, Bobby. Now, about those three girls…

  2. Suzy says:

    Loved this story, John. I can empathize with your grandfather’s terror as well as with your sense of adventure. Sounds like a great trip!

  3. The story’s a nice picture of a moment in American-Israeli relations, but the caption truly amazed me. I wonder what the soldier thought would come of letting a little boy hold his gun and wear part of his uniform. Was he trying to instill some kind of national pride in you? Was he hoping to inspire you to join the army?

    BTW, I envy your stay at the King David. I visited Israel 2 years ago and we stayed at some very ordinary hotels.

  4. Dave Ventre says:

    I had to look up “Yemenite” to learn why it was an important distinction from “Arab girls.” Do you think they were up to no good, or was it just kids being curious kids?

  5. I’m glad you reposted this story John.
    We have a large Israeli family , some of whom live on Kibbutz Dorot very close to the Gaza border, and over the years we’ve stayed with them there. On Oct 7 they were ordered to leave and for weeks were living with relatives or in hotels.

    And as I write this in 2024 two of our young Israeli cousins are in the army fighting in Gaza. A dangerous time indeed.

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    Those sound like the good old days compared to today, John. Glad you and Bobby had your adventure, safely, and learned from it as well. It seems that some of the most dangerous things we do, we don’t realize at the time (or maybe we wouldn’t have done them…). And good to know that you grandfather survived quite a few more years after the anginal-causing worry about you! Thanks for reposting.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks so much, Khati. I would absolutely not want to hear about two kids having that adventure today!

      You might find this interesting: I later learned that Bobby was a year behind us in college, also found his way into Psychology, and for years has directed the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest longitudinal psychological studies ever. I have since shared this story with him and it was pretty much as he remembered it. He too marveled at the risk we took that day.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Looking back on this story now (written during a different time in Israel’s life, as well as yours) it seems so relatively innocent, John. The times are so much more fraught at this moment. I’m sure you would not have wandered away unchaperoned (or perhaps kids are just so much more aware, with their cell phones and social media networks, that they are always connected).

    Of course, this was before 1967, when Old Jerusalem was reclaimed. My brother did a semester abroad from Brandeis that was delayed because of the 6 Day War (his Hebrew teacher once he arrived was Yoni Netanyahu; a much braver, better person than his surviving brother). Rick wrote the most fantastic letters home to us. He goes on a fact-finding mission again in a few days. Very different era!

    Thanks for reposting this pertinent story, John.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks for revisiting, Betsy. “Innocent” is exactly the word for what we were, and also for the times. As the saying goes, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.

      I can imagine Rick’s letters were masterful! May he stay safe on his trip and may the violence end soon.

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