The Human Spirit: Talking about the intifada

How much of the horror do we need to share with the enthusiastic young people who come here?

DIASPORA TEENS on the Shalem section of the Young Judaea Yea (photo credit: Barbara Sofer)
DIASPORA TEENS on the Shalem section of the Young Judaea Yea
(photo credit: Barbara Sofer)
It’s a delightful Jerusalem Friday night when the Shabbat table grows on its own. Sixteen teens from Israel study/volunteer programs – from the Shalem (religious) track of Young Judaea and Chabad’s Ma’ayanot – are dining with our family. Lighthearted conversation about their first month living in Jerusalem is interspersed with Torah talk. Noah, Mrs. Noah and the ark. The flood. The first rain.
Then a sabra friend of ours named Shay happens to drop by for dessert. Serendipity, I think, and ask him to tell the young people about his life, particularly the night of September 9, 2003, and its aftermath.
So, in a quiet voice Shay tells them about a night he was going out with a woman friend, how he parked his car near Café Hillel on Rehov Emek Refaim – a place the students already know and love. “The coffee shop was twice as big back then,” he tells them.
Someone warned him about getting his car towed, but he brushed it away. They would be in and out in less than an hour. There was a lot of tension back then and police presence, he says. Earlier that day nine soldiers were killed and 30 people were wounded when a terrorist set off a charge at a hitchhiking post outside the Tzrifin army base.
“We shrugged. What can we do, stop living our lives?” asked Shay. “We were only going out for coffee.”
The café was crowded, but they got a table.
Then, at 11:20, the café exploded. “I know you’ve seen this in the movies,” Shay looked for a way of explaining. “But it’s unbelievable. One moment you’re sitting in a café, and the next the café is gone. Everything is silent. You feel like going to sleep because you’re so tired.”
He and his friend were lying on the floor. Then someone was shouting. Maybe there would be a second bomb. They made their way out. He tried not to look at the dead around him. The young woman he was with had a lump of flesh in her hair. It was a body part. He took it out and let it fall. “What was that?” she asked. “Just cake,” he answered.
They sat on the sidewalk. “Passersby were walking by asking: ‘do you know there was a bomb in there?’ They couldn’t imagine we’d been inside. I was ready to go home for the night,” said Shay. The medics who arrived minutes later didn’t think so. Only later did Shay realize his left leg was mangled and a potentially lethal screw had entered his chest and was lodged close to a vital artery. “When you’re in shock,” he said. “You don’t feel anything.”
He spent a month at Hadassah University Medical Center. Forty-nine other men and women were wounded. Seven were murdered: David Avizadris, Shafik Karam, Alon Mizrahi, Gila Moshe, Yehiel Emil Tubol and the bestknown, emergency medicine pioneer Dr. David Applebaum, 51, and his daughter Naava, 20, who was to be married the next day.
AS SHAY speaks, I realize how unfamiliar these teens are with the events of the second intifada, the 10th anniversary of which we recently marked with media retrospectives. He might have been describing the Yom Kippur War, the anniversary of which we are also remembering these days, mostly with new revelations about intelligence failures.
These students were only eight when the intifada started, 11 when Shay, a lawyer who specializes in real estate, was wounded. I tell our dinner guests that back in the intifada days, their counterparts in Young Judaea were in lockdown in Jerusalem, for security reasons, prohibited from riding on buses or ordering cappuccino in a café. The women’s section of Ma’ayanot, a Chabad study program, hadn’t begun.
Because we have entered a more somber mood, a visiting American guest named Miki shared her experience of leading a Hadassah mission of middle- aged American women and men during the Second Lebanon War. She tells the kids about two buses of not-young mission participants hurrying from the bus to shelters as sirens sounded in Haifa. When they finally arrived at the Dan Carmel, reception clerks, chefs, and chamber maids applauded them. They were the only tourists in the hotel.
As Miki speaks, I have to flip through a mental file like an old Rolodex to remember what year that was. It’s a humbling moment. I was on that bus with them: 2006. I was making a movie of each day’s activities. The rough cuts are still on my computer. Smashed buildings in Haifa, crowded underground shelters where families had relocated, the tent city of Nitzanim, the Kassam collection at the police station in Sderot.
Even for those of us who heard the blast at Café Hillel and who dodged rockets, the events of the last decade fade fast, partly because of the overload on our memory, partly because of our need, like Noah, to rebuild after the deluge.
HOW MUCH of this do we need to share with these fresh, enthusiastic young people at the table who are, thankfully, free to hear the creative musicians in jazz clubs, to bike around the Kinneret, to swim with their cousins in Ashkelon? Why shouldn’t they simply fall in love with the dew at the Western Wall in early morning, the moonlight on the water outside a pub in the Tel Aviv port, the felafel in the stand where one of them volunteers in Arad?
I remember sitting in the Jerusalem sunshine at a park with my own children and listening to the Demjanjuk trial on a radio while they climbed a jungle gym and reached skyward with their sandaled feet on the swings. What was I listening to, they wanted to know. Their lives as Israeli kids would include sealed rooms, terror blasts, combat under fire, but they needed to know about the Holocaust, too. Already by kindergarten, playmates were swapping stories of relatives in the Holocaust as they built block towers.
That ambivalence about sharing the dark side of our Jewish identity runs deep. We are not the same people who were ready to go along with Camp David and Taba before the second intifada, but we have a hard time communicating that at the dinner table and at the negotiating table.
The bomb blasts – you could hear it from where we’re sitting in our living room – I tell the students, the funerals, the cheering in Jenin and Gaza City have lodged deep like the metal shrapnel in Shay’s shoulder. You can take it out, but it will always hurt.
Time for cake and ice cream. I send the teens off with a blessing for peace to explore Israel and their own hearts. Outside, the first rains have left the air cool and eucalyptus-scented. For the young, the night is young.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who concentrates on the wondrous stories of modern Israel and its people.