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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Interview with Tammar Stein: Author of The Six-Day Hero

Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, a new historical novel sensitively and accurately portrays the precarious experience of ordinary Israelis living through 1967. This fast-paced, delightful read is a great way for all ages to learn about the Six-Day War.

Though much has been written for adults, The Six-Day Hero by acclaimed novelist Tammar Stein is the only book about the events of 1967 written for children. It tells the story of Motti, a 12-year-old Jewish boy living in West Jerusalem who idolizes his big brother, a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces. Motti dreams of being a hero like him one day. As tensions rise and the war draws near, Motti realizes not all heroes wear uniforms. Stein joins Near East Report to discuss her novel.

Q: What has been the reaction to your book?

A: I’ve received amazing feedback from readers—eight- to-13-year-olds as well as parents and grandparents who tell me that reading the book helped them absorb the texture and emotion of the period. Even adults who have read definitive accounts, like Michael Oren’s Six Days of War or Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers, share that they hadn’t fully grasped the effect of the war on Israel’s citizens. Reading the day-to-day experiences of a boy trying to live an ordinary life in extraordinary times illuminates how Israelis struggled with suspense, despair and fierce hope.

Q: Your book is described as a “wonderfully told, impeccably researched tale” by Hadassah magazine. How did you get the details right?

A: At first I thought it was a simple story. The war lasted six days. Israel won. Not much left to say. But as I started interviewing Israelis who had lived through it, I realized there was so much more to say.

In addition to researching academic and primary sources, I spoke with many Israeli soldiers and civilians to understand the range of emotions preceding, during and after the war. Because of the national draft, everyone of a certain age was personally touched, either as an activated soldier or as a relative of one. In fact, my own father was an 18-year-old Israeli soldier in the Six-Day War.

Leading up to the war, I learned that Israelis really thought they were going to be annihilated. Israeli newspapers were using words like: Holocaust and catastrophic and existential threat. I also heard how Israel’s economy nearly fell apart due to the widespread activation, and I picked up wonderful anecdotes like how high school students stepped up to deliver the mail. There was such spirit, in some places the mail was delivered twice a day!

Then afterwards, to win so completely, to unify Jerusalem for the first time in 2000 years…I heard that it felt like a bigger miracle than Hanukkah and Purim put together. Some Holocaust survivors said that they finally forgave God—they saw He hadn’t abandoned them after all. 

Q: The Six-Day War took place before you were born. How did you become interested in writing about it?

A: My mother’s rabbi shared with her that he had nothing to assign fifth graders about modern Israeli history. My mom followed this up with career advice to me: “You should write something.”

I kept thinking about this. Nothing about Israel for fifth graders? Really? I spent part of my childhood in Israel, and I relished the idea of sharing Israeli life and culture with my readers—like how neighbors look after each other and the deep desire for peace. The world is so quick to criticize Israel, but it’s essential that children are taught about the many positives of this extraordinary little nation.

In fact, American Jewish educators have already reached out to me in gratitude for the book. Many are struggling with how to teach about Israel—how to contextualize how Israel came to face the challenges it faces today. Israel is so strong now, it is hard to impart to students that in 1967 Israel was surrounded by overwhelming armies and Jerusalemites were shelled relentlessly by Jordan. Through reading Motti’s story, the reader learns that Israel didn’t want war, it repeatedly tried to avert it, and the war itself was very difficult.

Q: How did you make a book about war appropriate for children?

A: I have two children myself, and of course they hear about Israel in the headlines. In general, children are aware of conflict in the world, but they lack the context to understand it. By focusing on the war from the perspective of 12-year-old Motti, I could shape the language and dialogue of the book to be light-hearted, humorous and optimistic. I am hopeful that my book will help children appreciate and understand this key moment in Israel’s history through a friendly, relatable character.

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