The view from Haifa

In the beleaguered city, routines stop but life goes on.....

empty haifa 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
empty haifa 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
From my desk I have a view of the sea and Mount Carmel. It is an inspiring view, for below on the coastal road there is always a steady flow of traffic and trains, and the beach is alive with walkers and swimmers. Haifa is a town of leafy streets, full of people shopping and going about their daily lives. If I walk on that golden beach, I can meet friends at one of the restaurants or join in the folk dancing on a summer evening. Now as I look from my window, the streets are empty, there are no trains chugging along the coast and the beach is deserted. The usual Sunday morning traffic of students returning from their weekend and the exodus of soldiers back to their bases has been replaced by a surreal quiet. It is a threatening quiet, for at any moment it can be broken by wailing sirens, followed by explosions and the high-pitched sound of emergency vehicles. And between the alarms, we hear airplanes and helicopters in a sky that normally only accommodates the twice-daily plane to Eilat. It takes time to absorb that we are at war. There was shock when the first missiles dared to reach us so far from the border, then denial for we were convinced it would be over soon, and now a constant knot in the stomach and heavy weight of depression in the chest as we realize that the situation is getting worse. The first missile in Haifa hit an empty road, and then we had a quiet weekend. So last Sunday (July 23) we continued life as usual. We were waiting in line at the Rambam Hospital Outpatients Clinic for my husband's check-up, hoping we would finish the procedures quickly and get on with the day's routine. My diary was full for the coming weeks: Our son and family were due to arrive from abroad for his son's bar-mitzva, our firstborn grandchild. In their absence, I had made the arrangements. All we needed was the bar-mitzva boy to arrive. But in Haifa on this busy Sunday, routines stopped for everybody - as it has in the entire North. The doctor was talking to us when the sirens began, followed by a loud explosion, the one that had struck a lethal blow to the railway workers. As a Blitz baby born in London during World War II, I can never hear those sounds, even during a TV movie, without palpitations and a cold shiver. Patients and staff were told not to leave the building. We all gathered on the ground floor in the shopping mall. Parents with children and babies, the elderly and immigrants of all nationalities sat down with water bottles or coffee cups watching the TV news and waiting patiently. Compared to those whose homes were damaged, or worse, those who lost loved ones and the families of the kidnapped solders, that waiting experience was but an interlude in a busy life. But what is extraordinary was the calm and patience of a people who are known for their volatile personality, a nation that is in such a hurry that they can't stop for a traffic light and push into lines. In those couple of hours, these same people became remarkably helpful to each other. There was no hysteria or panic. Only when I emerged from the hospital and saw the media vans and cameras around the emergency entrance, ambulances drawing up to the door and security guards at the gate trying to keep out non-urgent visitors, did I have the feeling that this was not a routine day. We came home to full voice-mail and e-mail boxes. I started to answer those anxious messages from London, New York, Jerusalem and Netanya - all places that had experienced their own terror attacks. Each day there were phone calls from family and friends abroad and in Israel. Voices from the past, old school friends I have not seen in years wrote after witnessing the terrible scenes on their TV screens. And so the week unfolded, pragmatism and reorganization taking over from disbelief. I spent the days confined to home clearing my desk, tidying files, polishing bookshelves. We received many invitations to go south, but home still seemed the most comfortable option. Our daughter in Ramat Gan invited all her siblings for Friday night dinner, so we decided to escape for a day from Haifa, do some shopping and be reunited with our family. It was like another world, 50 km. south from Haifa. The caf s were packed, and children relaxed after an afternoon at the pool. It was tempting to stay. But going into the second week, there are work issues to reorganize. Then came the news that we'd have to postpone the bar-mitzva; there was no point in our children's coming from abroad to dodge the missiles. Last Shabbat's synagogue service brought to the surface all my raw emotions - worry that my sons and son-in-law will not be drawn into yet another war in Lebanon, and grief for the families of the missing and lost soldiers and those suffering on both sides of the border. The Moriah Masorti Synagogue is a sunny sanctuary with large windows looking onto trees and garden. Not an appropriate place for a war-time gathering, the service was relocated to the bomb shelter of the Reform synagogue. A bar-mitzva had been scheduled, and we were happy to see that the boy's relatives attended, even from outside Haifa. The bar-mitzva boy began to sing the Haftorah. Then the sirens began. With a tremble in his voice, he sang loud and clear, while from the depths of the shelter explosions could be heard. There was hardly a dry eye in the synagogue. We are an obstinate nation, determined to overcome threats to Israel's existence. Remembering the calm, controlled people waiting in the hospital, the boy who continued singing his Haftorah, the gestures of goodwill and concern, there is no doubt that we have the inner strength to overcome this assault on our own backyard. This article was written last Sunday.