The human spirit: Who by storm and who by fire

With each year of life experience the central prayer in the Ashkenazi tradition, Unetaneh Tokef, is more frightening.

A BOAT sits on what used to be a house following Hurricane Irma in Big Pine Key, Florida. (photo credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
A BOAT sits on what used to be a house following Hurricane Irma in Big Pine Key, Florida.
My seatmate to the right on the domestic American Airlines flight surprises me by reading a book in Hebrew. In the instant familiarity engendered by being 39,000 feet above the Earth, we are soon exchanging thumbnails of our lives and travel plans.
He’s a young fast-food entrepreneur from central Israel, visiting family and exploring business opportunities, but mostly taking a needed break from the stress of his small son’s successful but taxing battle with leukemia. On his phone, we watch a film documenting the Israeli experimental treatment that has worked.
The older woman sitting to my left is going home to the Caribbean island of St. Croix and she’s worried.
By the time our plane lands in Miami and we go our separate ways, Miami Mayor Philip Levine is on TV, urging residents and tourists to evacuate. The pumps won’t stop the storm surge, he says. “This is a nuclear storm.”
Months earlier I’d happily accepted a speaking engagement in Miami. I have a now valuable ticket out in three days, 36 hours before the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Irma. At a nearby Publix supermarket, shelves are empty. My request for canned tuna elicits a laugh. Long gone. Also the diet Coke.
Lines of cars and trucks circle gas stations. Ubiquitous TV screens provide constant weather predictions. Conversations revolve about boarding up and battening down, gathering lawn furniture, installing generators.
The nervousness is contagious, even for a crisis-weathered Israeli like me. I’m relieved that a brave audience comes to hear me speak, transported briefly to Jerusalem.
The sky is blue. How hard it is to imagine a “nuclear storm.” Modern technology can predict storms, but we can’t stop them.
Departing, the airport feels like a refugee camp. Stretching lines of men and women carrying children, animals and oddshaped parcels are seeking tickets to anywhere. Passengers on my flight to Phoenix hug dogs, silent on their laps.
The plane begins taxiing forward, then stops. So much traffic on the runway. The lift-off is greeted with applause and tears.
Hurricane Irma is a monster storm, not a mad dictator, nor enemy rockets, but the anxiety, the hovering around the TV sets, the stocking of home supplies, the tough dilemmas have an inescapably familiar resonance.
Do you stay home in Beersheba or visit family in Rehovot when the South is under fire? Then Rehovot is hit. How far south should you move your children when the rockets fire on Israel’s northern cities? Do you go to a bar mitzva in Jerusalem’s Old City or downtown to buy sandals when terrorists stalk your streets? The confluence of multiple catastrophic acts of nature and the approach of the High Holy Days have made the seasonal introspection even weightier for me, feeling more vulnerable.
With each year of life experience the central prayer in the Ashkenazi tradition, Unetaneh Tokef, is more frightening. “How many will pass from Earth, and how many will be created; who will live and who will die… who by fire, who by water, who by sword, who by beast, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague…”
“Storm” says the gloss on this medieval prayer, includes lightning, hail and earthquakes.
I circle the US and am home before the holidays. Among my many pre-holiday calls, I phone a young friend, a schoolteacher named Inbar, 29. Just two years ago, she and her husband, Ori, were taking a thrifty vacation at her grandmother’s home in Jerusalem.
They were driving home near the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, when shattered glass and a deafening boom was followed by a flash as a firebomb exploded in Inbar’s lap. She struggled with the scorching seatbelt clasp, her skirt on fire.
“I’m alive, I’m alive,” she said, rolling on the ground. “I can tolerate the pain.”
Ori stamped out the fire as a passerby helped pull Inbar away and asked, “Ma’am, is anyone else in the car?”
The children! No, their three children were safe at her parents’ home.
In the agony of her burns and the long recovery, what did this observant Israeli Inbar think of? Jewish fires.
She thought of the ancient torching of Jerusalem, the ovens of the Shoah, and the Yom Kippur description of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon being burned alive wrapped in a Torah scroll, one of the Ten Martyrs murdered by the Romans for ignoring the ban on teaching Torah.
“The parchment is burning, while the letters of the Law soar upwards,” he is reported to have said. Somehow the images gave her strength.
What else did? Her baby, Noam, born a year after her release from hospital. Says Inbar wryly, “When we get to the part of the High Holy Day service, ‘who by fire and who by water,’ I can check that one off.” Such resilient people!
And “by storm?” The Caribbean Islands were hit hard. I wonder about my St. Croix seatmate, regretting not getting her email address. I message my Israeli seatmate, now a Facebook friend.
He hunkered down with his cousins and survived the storm. Counting his many blessings, he flew back to celebrate the holidays with his wife and children in Israel. I stop by a local branch of his fast food chain and consider buying sushi. Then I go home and make old-fashioned tzimmes.
May we be written and sealed for a good and sweet year. 
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.