Letters from the home front

By
August 1, 2006 13:24
Letters from the home front

bomb shelter 298 AJ. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

 
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Not quite the envisaged visit The Sabbath day is dawning here. I cannot sleep because of the loud airplane movements in the skies over this area. I am writing from Haifa, Israel, where I have been for the past two weeks, since July 7. I have had the dubious privilege of experiencing the newest war against Israel. I am sitting (in bomb shelters) in the city that has been in the eye of the storm of rocket attacks by the Hizbullah terrorists. I will still stay through a third week, returning to Cincinnati on July 28, as we say here 'God willing.' I had planned all year to take my vacation this month in Haifa, my home city, to help my parents' transition to an assisted living apartment on Mount Carmel. Obviously this move is postponed because all offices and institutions are closed because of the war. Also while I am here, Rachel, my mother-in-law who lives alone, had to undergo a series of operations. Now she is being moved from hospital to hospital as beds and staff are needed as the war wounded arrive. My original vision for this Haifa visit was that I would balance my responsibilities as a daughter with some reflection and meditation time by taking frequent walks on the beach of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, see a few concerts and drink coffee in outdoor cafes. Obviously, the Hizbullah rockets and resulting war conditions have changed everything. When the Internet connection went down in my father's apartment, we were unable to repair it. Only food, pharmacy and emergency places are open. Stores and business and everything else are closed or canceled. I am not in the best shape for communication, nor for much else. I have not yet found the words or feelings to describe the now tedious and nerve-racking air raid sirens and scramble into bomb shelters. How can you imagine the constant hustling of my blind mother and elderly father into our bomb shelter facilities, waiting for the rockets to crash with loud booms? Yesterday a rocket fell within four blocks of the hospital where Rachel is, and the whole area was blocked. I was turned away, only to sit a good part of the afternoon with my own folks in our bomb shelter. We are under voluntary 'house arrest,' since we are given full instructions when not to venture out. There is a ghost town around us because many people, particularly those with children, have left. I am not frightened, though the situation is frightening and very, very serious. Many friends and acquaintances call and offer to open their homes to us, even when they have other families of their own crowding in. I spoke on the phone with a Holocaust survivor who lives in Cincinnati and is here in Haifa visiting her sister. She spoke about how we cannot shake off the feelings of being hated and hunted down wherever we seek refuge, and the dreaded sounds of the air raid sirens. We shared our deep-seated anxiety about how to describe the conditions here when we return to Cincinnati because - in spite of the awful feeling of helplessness and violation and profound fear - we feel that the government here is protecting us, looking out for each and every one of us, and that is an achievement, a victory, a true sense of security. Racelle R. Weiman Haifa (Cincinnati) Staying put The in-home 'security room' might well be termed a fool's paradise. With walls of reinforced poured concrete, it is reputed safe for all but a direct hit, and what are the odds of that, anyway? As we say around here, at any given time on the coastal road north of Nahariya, it's more likely you'll get killed or maimed in a highway accident than by a Katyusha. Perhaps the equation's shifted nowadays, with traffic sparse after so many local residents departed beyond the rockets' recently extended range. As for us, we've chosen to stay put, declining the kind invitations of colleagues, friends and total strangers who offer home hospitality. All sorts of considerations went into this, too numerous and personal to detail here, and we repeatedly reconsider our options and the logistics involved. The other safe place, an underground shelter, isn't deemed preferable by most of our neighbors, many with far more experience than we've accrued in our two decades here. In essence, we're a security room community. A description of the accommodations may prove enlightening to the uninitiated. Our younger daughter's bedroom, outfitted with a bunk bed/trundle set-up sleeping three, now resembles a jail cell for nonviolent offenders in a holding pattern awaiting trial while hoping that the movers and shakers will somehow arrange their release. Just a few paces away, for those with the urge and nerve, are the other rooms that contain all the amenities of home: better lighting, air conditioning, Internet connection, cold drinks, hot food, clean clothing, a selection of books and CDs (though no video: we're a TV-free family) and, of course, lavatory facilities. All of the above are only available at your own risk, though, as overt warnings are approximate and usually absent. You'd think we'd be experts at identifying these by now, but with the peculiar acoustics of the humid Medi-terranean air it's hard to distinguish between outgoing fire and incoming, except for the whistling of the nearest ones and the dreaded, sharp crack of detonation. The more distant sounds evoke a sickly sense of guilty relief, knowing that everything overflying us will inevitably come down somewhere else. What is usually suppressed is the knowledge that it could just as easily be us next time - or the next. To be honest, uppermost in my day-to-day awareness are hopes that the electricity won't fail because so much of my sense of well-being depends on the appliances' functioning. Past midnight or just before dawn, when for a few minutes I venture outside to walk the dog, I cherish the cool air and feel grateful for the scraps of normalcy we manage to preserve in the interim. So says a humble resident of the 'confrontation line' writing from the confines of her homely domain, yearning for a safe, sane future ASAP. Deborah S. Jacobs Western Galilee A bubble in the storm Friends from Nahariya and Kiryat Shmona tell me that their towns are deserted. Of course, people who have not managed to get away stay indoors all the time, so perhaps the only way to guess how many are still there is to count the population in shelters. This makes it somehow em-barrassing to write from a place that is geographically in the target area but in fact feels perfectly safe. There is a constant background noise of our artillery and their hits. About three times a day, the siren sounds and families with small children go down to the shelters - one or two families sleep there. Two families whose children were especially frightened were forced to travel away. Yet the shop, dining hall, clothes store and Golden Age club are open as usual, and now we have been given permission to open the swimming pool for a few hours a day, too. The children's holiday activities have been severely limited, and we have to find alternatives for them. Many of us tend to stay in our houses, but there's no great ten-sion. It just doesn't compare with the disruption and fear that trouble our neighbors in the northern towns and makes the disturbance to our lives on the kibbutz seem petty. The other day, I went to sit at the bedside of a friend from the kibbutz who was lying in hospital, seriously ill. A shower of rockets fell on Safed, a little while before the man who took over from me arrived. As I left, ambulances came howling into the hospital. Next day the hospital itself was hit, but by then my friend was beyond caring: We buried him two days later near the olive trees, and I miss him. It makes me think that ordinary life - and death - carry on at the same time as the war, like two parallel universes. We have one foot in each of them, and the trick is to keep one's balance. That's easy enough to say when you don't feel threatened personally. Bom and trak - those sounds represent my attempts to decide which noise is our artillery and which is incoming rockets. The boms go on all the time in the background; the traks are sometimes louder, but rarely enough to rattle the door. Once in a while, the remotely controlled siren wails (ah, that was a trak). The first time it went off, I went obediently to the shelter but, finding it festooned with spiders' webs, I went back home. Besides, it's incredible how narrow-minded my neighbors are (that was another trak: a window even rattled) about my smoking, and this in a time of emergency (again! Safed must be having a hard time). Kfar Hanasi seems to bear a charmed life. In the first day or two, the hits were pretty scattered, and two or three were not so very far away; but since then the Hizbullah have got their act together (trak, trak) in both direction and range. They aren't interested in the small beer: they want to hit bigger and denser population centers than us (trak, trak). It makes me feel a fraud, sitting here writing with a cool evening breeze coming through the window and a fresh cup of coffee at my elbow (trak, trak, trak - surely that was nearer than Safed - trak, trak, trak, trak. This really is happening as I write). You just have to get on with life the best you can. George Ney Kibbutz Kfar Hanasi Never-ending story Yesterday, shortly after returning from a few hours of working at the clinic (almost no staff or patients, everyone is hiding), two rockets exploded into the sea not more than 150 meters from my beachfront truck. I watched them plunge into the water just off the beach and explode into smoke and geyser. I wasn't scared, strangely calm even. No other soul was about in the vicinity. Alone with destiny, as it were. I'm still staying away from the sensationalism of the TV news, although the rockets I saw were quite real and even sensational, as are the warning sirens and the deserted streets. In such a complex situation it's difficult to 'blame' some individual source for the conflict. It seems to be both a larger and a smaller prob-lem than some specific agent, be it philosophy, religion, nationality, fanaticism or old false idols like money and power. The story has been going on as long as humans have trod the earth - probably even long before humanity, according to the primitive law of the jungle and basic survival. As a Jew, I don't think we have known a sustained period of peace without persecution, fear, injustice and martyrdom throughout our 5,000-plus year history. So much for historical perspective, as right at this moment I again hear the sirens blowing their warning brief seconds before the booming of rockets exploding round about. Difficult to philosophize under these conditions... It's Friday morning in the Holy Land, erev Shabbat. Apparently the sun continues to rise and another week draws to a close, despite human crazies. Thank God for the 'higher order' that truly sustains creation. Shabbat itself is a weekly opportunity to remember and regain perspective. That I am alive to write this is no longer something to be taken for granted. Actually, I never take it for granted, and most mornings upon opening my eyes I say the child's prayer of thanks for 'returning my soul in compassion and faith.' I'm on a weekend visit to friends on their moshav near Netanya. No rockets falling here, but everyone is glued to the television for updates on the 'war.' My occasional comments for moderate perspective are met with incredulity by those with children. They are in fear for their families and our country. I'm afraid that once again humans fall into the primitive psychological trap of the 'enemy out there.' Our side, their side... Under attack, we Jews become Israel. Israeli Arabs get really confused as to whom they support - Israeli Jews, expatriate Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, Christians? And once the heat of battle subsides, we all return to our usual, familiar rat race. Seems like an endless historical cycle with only destiny changing the names of the participants. Somehow this perspective does not lead to despair. May God watch over us all, be it on the Mediterranean beach of Israel or the Bolivian jungles or the sway in Orlando or the concrete canyons of New York City. David Eshkol Haifa Receiving the evacuees As I sit glued to the TV screens and on the phone checking up on friends and family, I thought that you caring people would like to know that we in the Sharon area are 'next in line' for the Hizbullah Iranian-made rockets. How ironic to be in Netanya at the receiving end of evacuees from northern Israel's terrifying and traumatic missile attacks. Having spent part of my childhood in air raid shelters during WW II and particularly during the missile attacks (V1 and V2) on southern England, I know exactly what they are going through. When we evacuated ourselves to Blackpool, a seaside town in the north of England (out of missile range), doors were slammed in our faces, as it was high season and we needed cheap long-term accommodation. There was absolutely no compassion. Because of our experience, I was always annoyed that the Israeli public or authorities showed minimum interest in the suffering and needs of the citizens of Sderot and Kiryat Shmona, for example. Thank God we are united at this moment in time. The outpouring of concern and welcome for the thousands of our displaced people is heartwarming. Zelda Harris Netanya Funeral under fire I just got back from a funeral. One of the soldiers killed in the battle for Maroun al-Ras from the Egoz unit. He was a young man from Kiryat Shmona, a really special kid named Liran Sa'adya. Only a month ago he'd been given the Outstanding Officer award. His commanding officers and friends talked about his volunteerism, his modesty, his care and concern for others. Although it sounds like a cliche said at almost every funeral, Liran truly was special. For obvious reasons, the time of his funeral was not announced as has been the case for every other fallen soldier. Instead, it somehow went out by word of mouth, people calling each other to find out when. When I got to the neighborhood center this morning, the word was that the funeral was set for 5 p.m., tentatively. The army wanted to make it later, evidently after sundown; the family didn't. We all thought the same thing: 'We're going to be there and we're sure many others would be, too, but what if ...' Then, starting after 3 p.m., there was a fairly heavy barrage of Katyushas which kept up intermittently until almost 4 p.m. One house was directly hit. (The family was there but unhurt. Unfortunately, they're experienced in this - their house had been hit once before.) I called somebody in the know, and was told that the funeral was postponed to 6 p.m. because of the situation. Long before that time, the cemetery's parking lot was filled, and people were directed to park along the road leading up to the cemetery, which is about 3 km. north of town. The line of parked cars on both sides of the road reached back to the first intersection into town. Despite the danger of gathering outside in large numbers, there were hundreds of people there - Kiryat Shmona at its best. The smoke of nearby fires irritated eyes already red from weeping. The prayers were punctuated by booms from artillery in the area: If this were a scene in a film, you would say the director was over the top. Sadly, it was real. When the ceremony was over, an announcement was made, one I'm sure is not heard at other funerals. 'The police request that people leave carefully but quickly.' No one seemed to move. People waited, trying to get close enough to pay their respects, as in any funeral, regardless of noise, smoke and danger. Eventually, many realized that it was just impossible, the family was too deep in grief and there were too many people. Slowly, hundreds of people made their way back down the hill, then waited while others turned their cars around on the narrow road: no honking, no shouting. One feels hollow. When they talk about the Home Front giving the soldiers strength, they don't usually mean Kiryat Shmona. Nevertheless, along with the terrible grief and pain, there is strength here, and it was clearly seen today. I'm sure the many, many soldiers at the funeral drew strength from our presence as we did from theirs. Marsha Brown Kiryat Shmona Performing good deeds I'm not staying in Safed because I believe I will not be hurt. I am staying in Safed because I believe that what I am doing is valuable, both to people still in town and to those outside Safed. My children are grown and live in America. I'm not married. It's a much harder decision for families with children. For me, it's not a decision at all. What do I do? Mostly, I send out long e-mail essays on each day's events. I post community announcements, and lots of spontaneous resources are being created every day. The phone doesn't stop ringing. Not everybody has a computer, and many people who have left Safed are without Internet access. If I can help someone by telling them who to call to bring them food or get money or get out of town or that their house is still standing, I have a reason to stay. At least that's what some people tell me. And I know it inside. This is what I do, and this is what I do well. It comes easily to me, suits my nature and is of use. Sometimes I get tired of sitting at my computer all day. Sometimes I think I should go visit the shelters or deliver food packages. But the truth is that I am afraid to run around outside. People braver than I are doing that. Devorah Leah is not afraid. She'll go on errands for people and do acts of hesed around town. So do many others. Some people think that if they have faith, nothing bad will happen to them. 'You have too much emunah,' one daughter tells me. She means I lack common sense. My parents survived the Holocaust. The rest of their family didn't. I know that bad things can happen. I learned my numbers sitting on my father's lap, tracing over his tattoo from Dachau with my finger. I know that there is no guarantee that keeping the mitzvot will keep me alive. Serving our Creator doesn't mean that you do His mitzvot and then He is good to you. It doesn't mean that you listen to your rabbi's advice and then you are safe. Serving God means that you do what He wants you to do. We religious Jews believe that if you are born a Jew, our Creator wants you to do His mitzvot. But that's just for starters. He expects a lot more from us. Somebody asked Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller how we know if we should say yes or no when offered a hesed or mitzva. To paraphrase, she said, 'Don't walk away from it if it comes to you.' Well, Rebbetzin, thanks. I'm thinking of you every day when I feed my landlord's chickens. 'Come and stay with us,' they phoned after Shabbat. 'No, I'm fine here, thanks.' 'Well, if you're staying, then will you feed Yochai's chickens?' 'I don't know how to feed chickens. I'm a city kid. I grew up in Chicago.' 'They eat everything. Just give them leftovers and water every day.' In the middle of a war, I'm dashing to neighbors. For chickens. 'They're not eating much and are not laying eggs.' 'They're probably scared from the sirens and Katyushas. Just keep giving them clean water and put out some new food. If they're hungry, they'll eat.' I'd rather stay at my computer, but nobody else is going to feed the chickens. Now I'm also feeding birds, frogs and goldfish. And I water plants. When a hesed comes to you, do it. 'Hi, Jane,' I say as I call my sister in Chicago. 'Why are you calling?' 'What do you mean, why' She is always happy to hear from me, especially this week. 'We just talked.' 'We did?' I didn't remember. 'Today?' 'Yeah.' 'When?' 'Oh, about 15 minutes ago.' 'We talked 15 minutes ago? What did we talk about?' 'You told me how hard they shelled today and you went to Phillip's house and - ' Silence. Jane laughed first. Just one small, nervous laugh. Then I laughed for a second. 'I'm not tense,' I said with sarcasm. 'I'm taking this stress just fine!' Then we both laughed. Longer. Gales of laughter. Thank God, my family knows how to laugh. So if a Jew can sing a little song or dance a little dance or make a little joke while they are serving their Creator and doing what - to the best of their knowledge and the depths of their prayers and meditations - their Creator wants them to do, then they have fulfilled their purpose in this world. I feel more fulfilled now than ever before. I'm eating well, snacking less, sleeping soundly. I don't expect people to understand this, but either scared or I'm happy. It changes from minute to minute. This week I'm happy more of the time. We gave God a little naches, Jane and I, laughing together through the sirens and shellings. Lots of Jews in Safed, in Israel and all over the world are giving Him naches. He has a lot to be proud of from His Jewish children. Chana Besser Safed An octogenarian's observation Last month I celebrated my 80th birthday. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to live so long. I survived four years in Vienna under Nazi rule and three years in concentration camps. After the end of the war I was a refugee for three years, spending those years mostly in displaced person's camps in Europe and Cyprus, finally coming to Israel. I had hoped to live out the rest of my life in relative peace. It was not to be. When I was liberated in Germany I never thought of revenge, I didn't hate anybody - all I wanted was to start a new life in my own country. It never entered my mind to go among Germans and blow them up or avenge myself in any other way. I only wanted to get away from them and start a new life. I have been here now for 58 years and have lived through another few wars, but in spite of everything we have built a beautiful, vibrant country. Israel has been a state for all these years, yet still a great part of the world debates whether to recognize us or not. No other country's right to exist is ever questioned, why us? I know there are many reasons that I could name, but hatred is the driving force. Anti-Semitism is stronger than ever, even if is called by another name like Anti-Zionism. Our history has been so twisted out of shape that people have forgotten that the Jews in British-occupied Palestine were called Palestinians. When I was a child in Vienna, people used to shout at us 'Jews to Palestine.' Now that I have lived the greater part of my life here, it seems I still have no right to my own country. Where can I go? There is no other place for me. I certainly can't go back to Vienna, which is a huge cemetery for me - almost everybody I knew there was murdered. I am very sad these days. It seems as if there will be never peace for us. I am not worried about myself. I find it even comforting that I am at the end of my life, but I am thinking of my children and grandchildren and the kind of future they are facing. I wish I had an answer. Lucy Mandelstam Netanya

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