This week I went to pick up my very first gas mask. As I carried the cardboard box home, people on the street stopped to ask me if the war had broken out already. Still unclear on the proper etiquette for joking about biological and chemical warfare, I just smiled and shook my head.
At home I couldn''t figure out where to store it. My first instinct was to stick it in my pharmaceuticals drawer, but it was too big. An Israeli Anglo advised keeping it under my bed so I can just grab it and go if needed, but my bed is too close to the ground. Top shelf of my closet doesn''t work either, as I would need a chair to reach it. Someone else suggested I keep it close to the door so I can just grab it on my way to the shelter, but I live with three other roommates and generally try to keep my stuff in my own room. I finally settled on wedging it between some books on the bottom shelf of my bookcase near my bed.
But this morning was the fourth morning I woke up staring straight at the box. “DO NOT OPEN!” it instructed me in Hebrew, English, Russian and Arabic. The fourth morning it informed me that “Opening this kit may reduce its effectiveness! Open this kit only under clear instructions from the Rear Command.”
These daily reminders affect my morning routine. I brush my teeth thinking about the box. Get dressed thinking about the box. Pour milk into my coffee thinking about the box. Call my little sister, a recent olah, to remind her for the umpteenth time not to open the box. Wonder if opening the box will really reduce the mask''s effectiveness. Wonder how effective the masks are to begin with. Wonder how I''ll know how to effectively use the mask if I can''t open the box.
Suddenly, this object – which I had never truly considered before – is at the center of my every thought. At work I''ll find myself suddenly looking up gas masks online. I learn about how every couple of years the Israeli government collects whatever masks are in circulation, and redistributes new ones, usually through the post offices. About how there''s a shortage of masks. Over half of Tel Avivians posses gas masks, while only 38% of residents in areas that are especially vulnerable to attacks do. Masks are distributed on a “first come, first serve” basis, and even then only to Israeli citizens. Foreign workers and tourists are not eligible to collect them.
On my way to class, I pass by shelters or protected areas on campus and realize that if I ever have to seek refuge in one of them I won''t have my gas mask. Should I be carrying it around with me then? That would be ridiculous, I reason with myself. Maybe it''s ridiculous, but it''s safe, I immediately think.
I know that living in Israel is dangerous. But if there''s anything Israelis have taught me it''s that you can''t go through the daily motions if you''re paralyzed by fear. To some extent I''ve already internalized this. I don''t panic every time I read another report about the “inevitable” strike on Iran or hear about a terror attack. When family members call from abroad to ask if I''m worried about current events, I tell them I have no time to between work and classes. And I honestly don''t. But having that box stationed in front of me is a reminder, an interruption of the natural process of coping with a constant crisis situation.
So this morning I decided I could not wake up to the box anymore. I jammed it into the bottom of my closet, hidden behind rainboots and a sleeping bag. Then I brushed my teeth, forcing myself to think about old Community episodes instead.