The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

Saving Tel Aviv

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 18, 2014

[“The Book I’ve Been Avoiding Writing” (a.k.a. “Three Years of Writing and 40+ Years of Thinking About The Lion’s Gate“) is a mini-series about the writing of my new book, The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for tuning in as it runs Mondays and Fridays over the next few weeks.]

Okay, here I am with the idea to do a book about the Six Day War of 1967. But that’s all I’ve got.

Marine captain Lou Lenart on Okinawa, 1945.

What comes next? How does a writer start a project?

The first thing I did was phone David Mamet.

NOTE TO READERS: Don’t try this at home. I am friendly with Dave. Otherwise I would never have dared impose on him.

“Dave, do you know anyone in Israel who is connected in military circles?”

“Come to my house this Friday for Shabbat dinner. I’ll introduce you to a guy you’re gonna fall in love with.”

So when Friday came, my friend Kate and I took a bottle of wine and went to Dave’s. Standing in the kitchen as we entered, chatting with Dave’s wife Rebecca, was the gentleman in the photo on the right, taken on Okinawa in 1945:

“Steve, I want you to meet Lou Lenart. Steve, you were a Marine. Lou was a Marine. What else needs to be said?”

SECOND NOTE TO READERS: This is when you know the gods are smiling on you.

Lou and I wound up talking for hours, that night and in the succeeding days at his apartment in Santa Monica. Lou had been a USMC captain in World War II. He flew F4U Corsairs in the battle for Okinawa and against the home islands of Japan.

After the war, in 1948, Lou evaded the FBI (which was trying to prevent any American citizen from bringing aid to the infant state of Israel) and fought as a combat pilot in the Jewish state’s War of Independence.

“Lou led the first fighter mission in Israel Air Force history,” Dave said. “He saved Tel Aviv when the Egyptian army was advancing up the coast road, seventeen miles away.”

“Don’t worry about a thing,” Lou said to me. “I will plug you in with anybody you need to talk to.”

Lou got on the phone to Israel. He introduced me to the two key people—Ran Ronen and Danny Grossman, both IAF aviators—without whose contributions The Lion’s Gate could never have been written.

Lou began telling me stories. We sat in his living room and he took me back to May 14, 1948, the date when the state of Israel was born. “That same day, the armies of five Arab nations—Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon—crossed the border intending to drive the Jews into the sea.”

A Czech-built Messerschmitt-109 of the Israel Air Force, 1948.

For two weeks the Israelis fought a desperate holding action against the invaders. But the Arab armies kept advancing. Israel at that time, Lou told me, had no pilots except himself and a few WWII veteran/volunteers from the U.S., Australia, South Africa—with a handful of homegrown Israelis, none of whom had flown in combat.  The Egyptians had fifty brand-new Spitfires, a gift from the British. The Israelis had no fighter planes at all except four Messerschmitt 109s, cobbled together from mismatched surplus parts—and as of May 28 these planes had only arrived in Israel hours earlier, in pieces, from Czechoslovakia.

Lou and his pilots are frantic to get into these planes.

Finally the mechanics bolt the Messerschmitts together. The Egyptian Army is twenty miles away, advancing up the coast road. It’s three thirty in the afternoon of Friday, May 29.

Suddenly, onto the base races a jeep carrying Shimon Avidan, the commander of the Jewish troops who are holding off the Egyptians at a half-demolished bridge south of the city.

“Lou, we need your planes now.”

I tell Avidan we can’t fly till tomorrow. “We haven’t tried the bombs or test-fired the guns—we don’t even know if these pieces of shit will fly!”

“Lou, you don’t understand,” Avidan says. “If the Egyptian Army crosses that bridge, they’ll be in Tel Aviv tonight and that’s the end of Israel.”

There’s a phrase in Hebrew, Lou says: En Brera. “No alternative.”

We take off. Four planes. Where’s the bridge? I have no clue. As I’m circling, my number two, Modi Alon, pulls alongside, pointing south.

We fly for only a couple of minutes and suddenly we see ’em. The Egyptian column is miles long, choking the road, jammed up at the dry riverbed with the blocked bridge in the middle.

There is no making light of this moment. Behind us is Israel, the Jewish people hanging on by a thread. Ahead of us is the enemy, advancing to destroy everything we love.

The attack goes awry instantly. Guns jam. Bomb releases balk. Six thousand Egyptian guns are firing at Lou’s four planes. Lou manages to put one 150-pound bomb into the center of the enemy formation. Other than that, the planes inflict minimal damage.

But the shock to the Egyptians is overwhelming. To be attacked from the air by four Me-109s with the Star of David on the side! For all the Egyptians know, we’re just the first of hundreds.

That night the Israeli infantry hits the enemy from the flank. The Egyptians are thrown into disorder. They turn east and pull out.

Tel Aviv is saved, and so is the nation.

Today, Lou says, that bridge is called Ad Halom: “Thus far and no farther.”  (Literally “up to here.”)

Lou was 92 when I met him. He’s still around. Just got married, in fact. His wife Rachel is fifty-five. When they got married, Lou moved from Santa Monica to Ra’anana in Israel.

“Sometimes I’m invited to speak to young pilots in the Israel Air Force. You might think that these hotshot kids would be bored or impatient listening to an old-timer like me. But it’s the opposite. They can’t hear enough.

“The event always takes place on an air base, in the pilots’ briefing room. These kids are in their flight overalls; they’ve been training all day. I look out at their faces, these young men, so smart, so dedicated. They will burst their hearts for Israel just like I would and I did. I have to fight back tears every time.

“What do I give to them? I give them my neshama. My soul. I share with them what I saw and who I knew and what we did.

“And that’s what I’m gonna give to you, Steve. You’re part of my family now. What you’re doing is so important. I will help you in any way I can.”

I dedicated The Lion’s Gate to Lou.

Posted in The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

17 Responses to “Saving Tel Aviv”

  1. April 18, 2014 at 6:14 am

    Steve, it seems like too big a leap to go from the last post to this one. You barely had a foothold on your Jewish identity at the end of the last post.

    I would like to know more about what Israel and its survival means, and meant, to you before reading about the details of heroes and battles.

    I realize that tomes could be written on the subject of Jewish identity alone, but would appreciate a little bit of a bridge here.

    Thanks.

  2. Gary emineth
    April 18, 2014 at 6:19 am

    Steve… As always you are amazing…God’s hand was on you from the beginning you just didn’t know it! You must tell this along with other amazing stories of Yahweh’s hand in redeeming His people

  3. Mary Doyle
    April 18, 2014 at 6:41 am

    Simply WOW! See you back here on Monday…

  4. Saudade
    April 18, 2014 at 7:07 am

    I want this book !

  5. April 18, 2014 at 7:22 am

    This backstory preview alone brought tears to my eyes. Really looking forward to this book.

    Thanks for your examples of fighting Resistance, Steve. We’re all the better for it.

  6. April 18, 2014 at 7:35 am

    Touched to tears!! Sounds like a battle right out of the Old Testament and on Good Friday, being a Christian, your blog is such an encouragement. (Btw, if Lou said you are in the family, there is only One God! :)

    I was reading Isaiah this a.m. 48:16-54:17…”No weapon formed against you will succeed…this is the heritage of the Lord’s servants, and their righteousness comes from Me.” So looking forward to every Monday and Friday. Inspiring.

    Shalom and Ahavah to you and dear Lou!

    Carolyn Mance

  7. April 18, 2014 at 7:36 am

    A couple notes: another translation for “En Brera” is “no choice.” I prefer the concept of choice to alternative. Also, your meeting with Lou is called “hashgacha protis” in Jewish thought – Divine Providence. No such thing as a coincidence.

    That said, this was a stirring post, on several levels. First, your own discovery – understated, but very much thematic: of all the people you knew, you called David Mamet. And of all the times to begin the parallel discoveries – your heritage, Israel’s history, the neshama within each -revealed through your narrative – the journey and discovery began on Shabbat – itself the covenant between God and the Jewish people.

    Thank you for introducing us to an “unsung hero,” Lou Lenert. I learned about Mickey Marcus as a kid. Inspiring to hear of another “soul warrior.”

    Thanks for the inspiration, Steve!

  8. BING
    April 18, 2014 at 8:00 am

    Steve you blow my mind, love your writings. I have watched video’s of this 6 day war. Many miracles happened during that war. I am watching again Israel being threatned daily, she has many enemies. I pray daily for her safey. I also want the book.

    Thanks Steve

  9. April 18, 2014 at 8:37 am

    I never thought I’d get so caught up in a war story, Steven — and I’ve written one! My husband is as eager to read your latest as I am, and when our daughter comes home from college for the summer she will probably get as immersed in it as we are.

    So just at this one address you’ll have three people who understand the world in a way they couldn’t have without you. And the ripples will keep on spreading…

  10. Arthur Shapiro
    April 18, 2014 at 8:40 am

    This is an amazing story. I can hardly wait for Monday, much less the book itself. All I can say is, wow.

  11. April 18, 2014 at 9:03 am

    What a great introduction to this story. I’m standing by for more….

  12. Sharon
    April 18, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    Dear Steve,
    Riveting scene! Miles of Pharaoh’s armies coming up the road, then put into disarray. It’s Moses and the Children of Israel’s Red Sea escapade in reverse!

    One question though: How good of a “friend” is this Kate? Some of us girls have our hopes up ; )

    I recently wrote up an idea, testing my juice “do I like this well enough to live it the next 2 or more years?” I turned on TV to check news on the missing Malaysia flight 370 (I do tonglen). I don’t like TV but it’s included here, and I wanted to stay offline, writing.

    Within minutes, an ad for a documentary to air that night regarding the very “idea” I’d been working. I watched the show later and knew I was on track.

    Ideas are easy; few have staying power and when I pray for a sign and get one I must obey. Serendipities prove we’re attuned to the cosmos.

    Then, a few days later you announced “The Lion’s Gate.” Here I was worried my idea was too mainstream (though the specific situation is rare) and maybe there are already too many pertinent books. Resistance! I mean, how many existing books & movies, songs, documentaries, related to my Big Idea, or to Kennedy, Lincoln, the Beatles, religion, war, The Six Day War?

    There is only one you, and only one me, and everyone has a voice.

    You are a prophet—a truth teller. Shabbat shalom.

    Love, Sharon

  13. Kent Faver
    April 18, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Beautiful – and tank you David Y.B. Providence (pro or pre-video) is one of my favorite words!

  14. Judie Amsel
    April 19, 2014 at 11:06 am

    I received an advanced copy of THE LION’S GATE via Goodreads two days ago and am halfway finished with it. I’d have finished devouring it already except I had other obligations, like sleeping and looking for maps to help me visualize locations. ( I assume the official copy will include maps.) I remember The Six Day War and the fear for Israel because we were hearing Nassar’s lies from the media. I’ve read quite a bit about the war over the years but never like this. The format is remarkable and the book is amazing. It has been a genuine ” you are there” experience. I hope to finish it and get my review posted by the beginning of next week.

  15. Judie Amsel
    April 19, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Just got to page 211and found a map of the Sinai campaign. Yes!

  16. Judie Amsel
    April 21, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    While I usually do not read war or action stories, my adrenaline was kicking in on overdrive as I sped through THE LION’S GATE. I knew many of the details before I had even opened the book, but it was so real and fresh that I felt I was actually there: in the airplanes, helicopters, jeeps, tanks, and trudging along in IDF boots.
    I remember following the Six Day war as it happened, beginning with Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran and the UN leaving the Sinai. I was living in Ohio and all the media reports were talking about all the damage being inflicted on the Israeli military and Israeli cities and civilians. It was frightening. Soon after the end of the war, the real story got out: Against amazing odds, Israel had destroyed the Egyptian air force within a few hours and had captured all of the Sinai, The West Bank, and Golan Heights. Afterwards, I followed media reports and read books about the war. None of them matched the story revealed in Steven Pressfield’s THE LION’S GATE.
    Formatted as a chronological oral history, Pressfield presents key segments of the war. He interviewed sixty three military personnel who fought in the Sinai, Jerusalem, and the Golan and lets them tell what they experienced at that critical time. We are there as the plans of attack for Sinai, Jerusalem, and Golan are drawn and redrawn. Through their words, they tell us what was going on in the minds of the Israeli military personnel directly involved. They relate how the IDF operates: Orders from the top are frequently ignored or altered because of the situation on the ground. While there were orders to not attack civilians or religious sites, they had to decide what should be done when they were attacked by civilians or from mosques or schools? We learn what Israel and Jerusalem mean to the Jews and why.
    IDF members also tell of their experiences with some of the Arab civilians they encounter during the battle and of a meeting with an 80-year-old Jewish grandmother who had to flee her home in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem in 1948.
    THE LION’S GATE tells of the frustration of the military personnel waiting for Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Levi Eshkol to decide to take action. Russia was shipping arms and personnel to Egypt. Eshkol was waiting for the US to intervene. Meanwhile, the Egyptian forces were getting stronger and better prepared which would result in more casualties for the Israelis.
    Despite assurances from Israel that areas under Jordanian control would be left alone if he stayed out of the battle, we are told why King Hussein got involved, which resulted in the his loss of The West Bank.
    Moshe Dayan had died long before the book was written, but he left his own writings and his daughter and wife were interviewed. He was very prescient: He warned that if Israel won, the world would change its characterization of Israel from being David to being Goliath and “demand from us retrenchment and retreat.” He warned that if the actions of religious extremists were allowed to grow, the results would be catastrophic. Born in Israel, he also spoke of how to allow the Arabs to maintain their pride and what they will do to save face.
    The books brought out many interesting points, some of which were new to me:
    In the 1956 War, which was partly a cause of the Six Day War, under Ariel Sharon, Israel captured more Egyptian territory than France and England had planned;
    Egypt’s lies kept the UN from calling a cease fire and the Russians from sending more aid;
    In 1967, Israel’s population was 2.7 million people, many of them recent immigrants who had been evicted from their homes in the Middle East and North Africa. They lacked the skills necessary to defend their new home; many did not yet speak Hebrew. Israel was surrounded by 122 million Arabs;
    Sharon believed “As long as the Arabs preserve a gleam of hope that they will succeed in getting rid of us, nothing in the world can cause them to relinquish this hope because they are not a rabble but a living people….Only when the extremist groups…lose their influence and only then will their influence be transferred to more moderate groups…[who will be able to] offer suggestions for compromise….so that both people can live together in peace, like good neighbours.”
    “Hebrew is notoriously deficient in profanity;”
    While in exile, Jews yearned to return to Israel. The national anthem, Hatikva, speaks of The Hope. Even today, some preferred to deal with the dream rather than the reality;
    THE LION’S GATE brought out all the involvement of a well-presented documentary.
    This book was an advanced copy from Goodreads.

  17. Jerry
    April 27, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    Another amazing piece of the saga. Thanks again. Can’t wait to get my copy which is pre-ordered from iTunes. Amazing insights.