The Human Spirit: Reading Esther in Sderot

Why are these traumatized youngsters singing about 'shalom' and 'salaam,' not about vengeance?

2803-sofer (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Purim eve in Sderot. Residents have already fulfilled the commandment of listening to every word of the Scroll of Esther. The biblical story tells us how the massacre of the Jewish people was aborted at the last moment by a dramatic turnabout of events. Twenty-four hundred years later, the evil of a new Persian kingdom is palpable in this town, where Iranian-backed terror groups bombard civilians with daily barrages of deadly missiles. The attacks hardly rate the international news. To bring attention to the plight of those who face the rocket threat and salute them, an organization called OneFamily has organized an international "virtual rally." OneFamily came into being during the second intifada to aid survivors of terror attacks. Tonight, its founder Marc Belzberg has been inspired by the ancient words of Queen Esther "to gather all the Jews," and has utilized modern technology. To attend a virtual rally, you don't even have to leave the comfort of your home. Belzberg has called on friends of Israel all over the world to show solidarity simply by using their home computers to log onto a Web site called Broadcast live from the site will be speeches and entertainment, first from the police station in Sderot, and then moving to the Western Wall, to London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and Johannesburg. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz, former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler and Hadassah National President Nancy Falchuk will kick off the program in Sderot, and then celebrity supporters of Israel around the world will join in as the broadcast moves abroad. A crowd of locals and visitors, including the city's steadfast mayor, Eli Moyal, have gathered at the police station. The moon is full, the air balmy. A distant whoosh announces that a Kassam rocket is falling 10 kilometers away on a Negev kibbutz that grows grapes and tomatoes. If a rocket comes this way during the broadcast, says Israel Police National Spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld in Hebrew and English, the Color Red alert will sound. Everyone needs to go into the police station. With alacrity. THE SHOW begins on time, at 11 p.m. Behind me, a visitor from abroad is watching the log-in numbers rise on a portable device with Internet capacity. Among those who speak is Kobi Vahknin, critically wounded in a Kassam attack on nearby Kibbutz Nahal Oz. "Look at me," he says to the enemy across the border. "I'm standing on my two feet." There's a musical interlude. Belzberg introduces a local singing group called simply Tze'irei Sderot, Hebrew for "The Youngsters of Sderot." Eight teens clad in jeans and white T-shirts walk to the mikes. They're such a mixture of adolescent sizes - from petite to chunky - and of ethnic backgrounds that you have to smile. They're not quite sure where to stand, and they lack the rigid posture of a singing group that has practiced under the baton of a strict choirmaster. I think they'd rather be hanging out at a Purim party. But then the guitarist strikes the opening chords and everything changes. In the first seconds, I realize how good these young singers are. I remember that before this beleaguered town of 23,000 was known for withstanding daily missile attacks, it was famous for producing music talents like Kobi Oz, Smadar Levy and Shlomo Bar. But the real surprise is that of all songs in the world, the one they choose to sing on this Purim night is their own rendition of "Od Yavo Shalom Alaynu." "Peace will yet come upon us... and all Israel." The refrain is in Hebrew and Arabic: shalom and salaam. Written by songwriter Moshe Ben-Ari of the Sheva Band, Od Yavo Shalom has become the unofficial anthem of left-leaning youth movements. But we're not at a Peace Now meeting in Ramat Aviv. Stacked on rows upon rows of shelves behind these young singers are jagged metal pipes, like a warehouse of salvaged spare parts from car wrecks. More exactly, they are the sharp-edged shards of exploded missiles. The remnants of over 7,000 missile attacks. Unlike those of us who drive in and out of Sderot, these kids have grown up amidst the reality of the 7,000 attacks. These teenagers cannot remember a time when they felt safe in their own homes, walking to school, or biking to a friend's home to watch TV. In the local conservatory where they have studied music, the rooms are equipped with speakers to announce Kassam attacks, so the students can put down their guitars and go to the safe rooms. Quickly. They all know people who haven't made it on time. Who could blame them if they had written angry songs of destroying the enemy across the border? According to everything we have learned, they have been indelibly marred by the routine of terror that has become part and parcel of their lives. But they're singing about shalom and salaam not about vengeance. TEARS ARE streaming down the faces of the men and women around me. How do we get such amazing young people? OneFamily's initiative is a success. But it's the voices of these young people that echo in my ears. I get a copy of their CD and play it over and over. I have to talk to the head of the conservatory and its musical director. Finally, I phone some of the singers themselves. Hagit Yasu, 18, says she's lived in Sderot her whole life. Her family came from Ethiopia. She's been lucky - the attacks have missed her - but one did come so close that her mom had to be treated for shock. "Of course I hate the people who are dropping rockets on us and trying to kill us," she says. "But I don't hate the average person living out his life across the border." One of the lead singers, Lidor Mamman, 17, says he got his start singing in synagogue and at family bar mitzva parties. He tells me how on December 27, 2006, he witnessed an attack in which his two friends, Matan Cohen and Adir Bassad, were torn apart by shrapnel from a rocket attack. "I saw the pool of blood and my friend had no foot." After witnessing such horror, how can he stand before the world and sing about peace in Hebrew and Arabic? "We have to have hope," he says. "And we do have hope." I go back to the Web site to make sure I've heard Marc Belzberg's opening words right. Not only does he want to tell the people of Israel that we stand united. He wants that message to get to the God of Israel, too. How can the Creator resist the prayers for peace in the voices of the children of Sderot? May it come. With alacrity.