It was out of place from the start. The bright red envelope with my home address in Jerusalem written in neat handwriting was literally and figuratively sticking out from my mailbox at the entrance to my building the other day. I had no idea what it was, but it was obviously not a bill so I had no reason to suspect anything unpleasant.
That was until I opened it. Inside was a photocopied sheet with one sentence spelled out in individual letters in the style of a ransom note, or at least a ransom note in the movies.
“Your life is about to change,” it declared, one Hebrew letter at a time.
For no logical reason, except that rationality disappears under these circumstances, I immediately looked around to see if I was being watched. Even after I recovered enough to remember to check the postmark and see that it had been mailed in Tel Aviv the previous afternoon, I couldn’t escape the feeling that someone might be watching me.
I entered my apartment with a sense of trepidation while trying to figure out whether it was the sort of letter one takes to the police. I fought the urge to scan it and seek advice via Facebook, mainly because I realized that in an instant my parents and family would learn about it – and discovering the note in its virtual form is not much easier than holding a suddenly ominous- looking red envelope in your hand.
And then it hit me. The message might not be a threat. It might be a promise. It was all a matter of mood and interpretation. There was no reason to conclude that my life was meant to suddenly change for the worse. It could also change for the better. Or, of course, it might not change at all, which would also not be a bad thing.
Discussion with a friend later revealed that I had not been a victim of anything other than a hugely ambiguous, old-fashioned marketing campaign. It was a teaser.
My fears had turned it into a taunt.
Why had it been so disturbing? The answer is, apart from radio ads in which the instantly recognizable voice of Erella from Mifal Hapayis, the national lottery, informs winners of their sudden good fortune, most of the media in Israel at the moment seem to be more than usually full of depressing stories of innocent victims of crime or criminal negligence.
Some of the cases have bordered on the bizarre. Take the young woman whose boyfriend paid for a romantic Valentine’s Day weekend in a northern lodge where, minutes after he got down on his knees and proposed, she was shot in the chest by something other than Cupid’s arrow. It was a stray bullet fired by a nearby hunter. Fortunately, she was not badly injured and, in the words of the Hebrew phrase, she’ll be over it by the time she gets married.
But luck should have nothing to do with it.
Many of the recent incidents have been far more tragic.
The whole country felt the pain of the Gross family who buried their two young daughters last month while their two sons struggled for their lives in hospital, overcome by fumes from a pesticide treatment in their apartment in the capital. The previous day, on January 21, a gas explosion destroyed an apartment building in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, the blast so strong that I heard the boom in the middle of the night, miles away. A young couple and their toddler son died in the explosion, and another woman, the only child of Holocaust survivors, later died of her injuries. A gas technician had twice been called to the building the evening it blew up but had found nothing wrong.
On February 17, a blast ripped through a building in Acre’s Old City, taking the lives of five: one couple and the parents and eight-year-old son of another family, whose only survivor was their 11-year-old daughter.
The explosion was originally attributed to a gas leak, but residents and victims’ relatives believe it was criminally motivated and someone had tried to blow up a cellular antenna on the roof. If it turns out that five people lost their lives because someone was concerned about possible health risks from the antenna, the irony couldn’t be greater, or more pathetic. But the incident could also be the result of a fight over property values devoid of moral values.
This week my heart also felt a stabbing pain on behalf of the residents of a new home run by AKIM – The National Association for the Habilitation of the Intellectually Disabled. Someone with an air pistol shot at the window of their residence in the upmarket Tel Aviv neighborhood of Tzahala on February 17. The assailant is presumed to be a neighbor concerned that the value of his property will go down because of the sheltered accommodation. The residents are intellectually disabled but not idiots – their sense of security has not only been violated, but so has their sense of self-worth.
Personally, I wouldn’t want a neighbor armed with a gun, a grudge and no morals, no matter how posh the neighborhood. (Residents of a similar home close to my building, in a far-from-exclusive part of Jerusalem, suffered from initial suspicion which they quickly overcame, and most of us now enjoy having one building whose residents don’t have wild parties or drive up noisily at night and whose psychiatric condition is known, monitored and under control – which is more than you can say of most city dwellers.) And then there have been the recent wave of gangland killings, each one threatening innocent bystanders, such as those enjoying the sunshine on the Tel Aviv beachfront on February 15. Taking an extreme view, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira this week told the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee: “We are in a period when there is an atmosphere of terror, people are afraid to leave their homes.”
Since most Israelis know what terrorism is like, and even during the intifada we continued to go out and enjoy ourselves – davka, to annoy our enemies – I think Shapira was exaggerating, and as Asst.-Ch. Meni Yitzhaki, the head of the Police Investigations and Intelligence branch, pointed out: “My children and I don’t cancel plans and are not afraid to go around anywhere at any hour,” adding that some streets are crowded even at 2 a.m.
If anything, I am more concerned about the criminal negligence – and, yes, Israel’s infamously bad drivers – than gangland killings, but I remember former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau once telling me he missed the days when serious crimes were so rare here that every murder was a national trauma and the whole country knew the names of the victims.
The police have declared war on the crime families. If in the past there was a feeling that perhaps nobody cared if criminals knocked each other off – good riddance to them – people are now more aware that such violence inevitably spills over and affects the proverbial man on the street and his family who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We don’t necessarily need more anti-crime legislation but the stricter enforcement of existing laws. The courts now need to make sure that sentences reflect the severity of the crimes and carefully consider the value of plea bargains in such serious cases.
As for me, I decided the meaning of the message in the red envelope is that we each have the power to take our lives in our hands in the positive sense. I reused the envelope and chucked the once-threatening letter in the recycling bin.
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.