Monday, July 28, 2014

Pray for their safety

Last week at my halakha class the teacher started by asking everyone whether their husbands/sons were home. It's the question on everyone's lips now, so many thousands of reservists have been drafted leaving wives and children to cope at home with the rocket alerts and sirens. Everyone knows someone serving at the front, if not their spouse, child or other relative than a neighbour, friend or coworker.

Two hours earlier my teacher's combat soldier son had called to say they were shutting off their phones, would be unreachable for a while. Nothing unremarkable about that except that he also called all his siblings and his father. She knew he'd just gone in to Gaza. We read Psalms together and dedicated our Torah learning to our soldiers at the front.

My teacher is such an inspiring women, looking at her face the concern and worry was clearly there,  but so too her deep faith in God and in the justice of this cause, the need to fight the enemy so determined to destroy us.

Tonight she was a little less strained. After six days without contact with her son, days of knowing that he was with his combat unit in the thick of things in Gaza, he was finally able to call and tell her that his unit had been granted a break. He was out of Gaza for now, getting some much earned rest.

It is not easy to be a mother in Israel, especially a mother of sons in a community where the ethic of serving one's country by volunteering for combat units it's a principle value. It isn't easy being a wife either, so many husbands vanished for weeks on end, spirited away by emergency call up papers. It isn't just husbands either, some women have also been drafted, and in a rare case or two even both spouses. The Gaza front line is at most a few hours from people's homes, in most cases much closer, but in times like these, both for those now serving in the army and those left home to "hold down the fort" that distance can feel like worlds away.

Israel at war is an Israel where everyone feels the need to contribute. This is still a small country where everyone seems interconnected and with the front so close to soldiers' homes local communities are able to organise a continuous stream of care packages. Day after day community notice boards are covered in notices about which family or synagogue is collecting for which unit, what supplies are most needed by the soldiers, which stores are donating goods, which stores are offering discounts to civilians shopping for care packages and so on.

This week for example my upstairs neighbours was contacted by a relative serving in the reserves, telling her his unit has been living on battle rations for weeks. She put out a call for volunteers to cook for the soldiers, so that at least for Shabbat they could enjoy a taste of home. A steady flow of people carrying foil pans and plastic containers to her door continued late into the night, folks from around the neighbourhood bringing trays laden with kugels, rice, chicken and all manner of salads and dips, freshly baked hallot and cookies.

My neighbour joked that it was a great way to meet local residents, many of us living on the same street for the past decade or more but only now finally getting to know each other beyond a basic smile and "shalom" while passing one another in the car park or on our way to dump bottles at the recycling bins. Early Friday morning the unit sent a military truck right to our building to collect the fridge full of donations and Sunday morning grateful soldiers e-mailed photos of tired looking men with stubbled faces and dusty crumpled fatigues tucking in to the meals on Friday afternoon.

Brave civilians drive down to the Gaza border area risking Hamad mortar fire to bring food, toiletries, underwear and messages of support to weary soldiers. One man has already been killed on such a mission of kindness, struck down while handing out treats. The IDF has tried to ban civilians from endangering themselves by coming so close to Gaza, but people are still determined to find a way to get some home comforts to the frontline bases. To get an idea just how dangerous that area is, four soldiers were killed today by a mortar right in this Gaza  border region.

Israeli civilians are also doing their best to support the hundreds of thousands of people living in towns and villages right near the Gaza border, people who've been living under heavy fire, in or close to their shelters. Some businesses have had to close, others have no choice, as in the case of the farmers harvesting their crops in the intervals between mortars and rockets, with nowhere to take cover out in the open fields, in recent weeks this has cost the life of a farm worker, one of several killed or injured in recent years by attacks from Gaza.

In the middle of all this people still need to somehow earn their living, care for their families, keep their children from going completely stir crazy from the long hours in the shelters and the day after day of bombardments and alerts. Volunteers have gone down to entertain the kids in the shelters, bringing with them donations of toys, books and treats from northern and central Israel.

All over Israel synagogues and social centres have organised group purchases from southern businesses, be it mass orders of hallot for Shabbat from bakeries in Sderot and Ofakim, farmers markets in support of southern farms or young couples having their wedding invitations printed by printshops in frontline communities.

And in the middle of it all, even where it seems peaceful and calm and you could pretend that we aren't a country at war, there is this quiet buzz of tension, the ever present worry, the silent prayer on everyone's lips, please God let our soldiers do their jobs, let them get the terrorists and their rockets, may our soldiers find all the terror tunnels and may they be able to do so without endangering themselves or having to take more Palestinian civilians lives, may this war restore peace to all of Israel, and most of all, please God, bring all our people home safe.

Ima, it's just like a film

I was riding home on the bus this lunchtime when we stopped in traffic near the train station. Looking out the window I saw an exhausted looking reservist in a dusty, disheveled uniform standing outside near the park and ride. Just then his wife pulled up in her car, jumped out, ran towards him with open arms and enveloped him in the tightest embrace and the longest kiss I have ever seen.

My daughter was watching out the window with me, kvelling at the sight and cooing "Ima, it's SO romantic! It's just like in a film."

Please God all our soldiers should come home safe and sound to such a loving welcome from their families.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

There by for the grace of God and Iron Dome

It was my two little sons tonight lying in the thistles and dirt by the side of the road, their father shielding them with his body, while the sirens wailed and a rocket was intercepted overhead, loud booms shattering the night like thunder.

My husband needed to run and errand and even though it was past their bedtimes the boys just couldn't sleep, they were so excited their dad was finally home from work that he reluctantly agreed to take them with him. Just a quick run to a local shopping centre to pick up a few things. The ride in the car was lulling the boys to sleep when the siren caught them on a rural local road driving home from the shops.

We're far enough from Gaza that my husband had a whole 90 seconds to unstrap them from their car seats, grab them from the vehicle, make a dash for the verge overgrown with thistles while carrying half-asleep 2 and 4 year-olds, try to lay them down as safely as possible without the boys hurting themselves on the prickles and lay himself down over them for protection.

This is what my husband recounted to me a few minutes later when my phone call reached him still face down in the brush with our little boys, waiting the recommended 10 minutes after the siren and booms to make sure there was no falling shrapnel. My heart skipped a beat knowing how that could have ended but for the grace of God and Iron Dome.

I was home with my oldest, our resident bookaholic. When the siren went and I started dashing to our shelter I realised that she was still in her bedroom where I'd sent her to change in to her PJs. I yelled my lungs off for her to come, worried that maybe she somehow hadn't noticed the blaring siren.

I am generally very calm in such situations, but for a few seconds I was worried. She is the unflapable child who has read the Home Front Command "What to do in an emergency" booklet from cover to cover multiple times, I know that she better than anyone knows exactly what to do when the alert goes, she's been fantastic at helping to herd the boys into the shelter and drill them in what to do, so where was she?

She finally appeared after what seemed like an age, but was only about a minute, her head in a book, the siren continuing its eerie wail. Sitting in our stiffling windowless shelter I rebuked her, trying to be stern  but calm without letting my worry bleed through too much. "You know exactly what to do during a siren, where were you?"

"Oh Ima, I couldn't find a book mark and I was worried I'd lose my place"

Sometimes she is so sensible about these things that I forget that she is still only a little kid. And then she does something like this to remind me.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Labour pains

In all of last week's craziness my friend went into labour. It was a long drawn out labour interrupted by several air raid sirens during which she and the rest of the maternity ward were rushed to shelters.

Our young sons are close friends, so her boy stayed with us for a few days while she was in hospital, days that coincided with our town's first experience of rockets, including an interception right overhead, shrapnel from which started a brush fire in a local park.

Poor little boy, not only without his Mummy for a few days, but sleeping over at a time it seemed prudent to put all the kids to sleep in our rather small home shelter. There he was, anxious about his mother and on top of it all trying to get to sleep with three other children in a small windowless room worried about another rocket attack.

To cap it off the siren went again just as I was tucking the boys in, my oldest calmly leading the family in singing Psalms to calm the other children, my friend's son plaintively complaining "But Mummy and Daddy always say we should do quiet things to help sleep, what's all this noise at bedtime?"

It was a tense night, eventually the only thing that settled everyone down was letting them stay up for a while snuggled in amongst the blankets and cuddly toys I'd made sure to leave on the sofabed that takes up most of the space in our household shelter room. My oldest put on a children's video for them to watch, and eventually they conked out, but not before 22:00, incredibly late for a pair of kindergartners.

The next day they went of to summer camp as usual but with huge bags under their eyes.  And when I say summer camp I mean staying indoors or in the yard within 90 seconds of the nearest shelter.

Whether it was the tiredness kicking in or just the tension all around I don't know, but these quiet boys who usually keep themselves busy with toys cars and dinosaurs were bouncing around my flat like jumping beans that afternoon, as though they didn't know where to put themselves.

And then I caught what game they were playing.

"Wooooohoooh!" my son wailed


 "Listen, it's another siren, we better run to the Mamad (secure room/shelter)"

 "Oh, it's still going, lets stay in the Mamad and hide."

"Oh, now we can come out YAAAYYY!!"

 "Oh no, it's another siren we have to go back in again."

And so on and so forth. Not exactly the kind of new game I hoped my kindergartner and his friend would come up with. On the other hand they didn't seem scared, a bit too frenetic, a bit too animated and jumpy, yes, definitely, but it was mixed the the natural exuberance of kids their age. All said and done despite it grating on my already strained nerves it was certainly a good way for young children to process the upset going on around them, a good outlet for their concerns and stress from the situation.

Eventually they got tired enough that I was able to entice them into the kitchen to bake biscuits with me, followed by a nice quiet hour of them making sticker pictures with the toddler to take to my friend in the maternity ward, and a few extra to send with care packages to our soldiers in the south.

After dinner the boys embarked on another round of "sirens and rockets" (the game even has a name), this time with the boys taking turns at being "good rockets" and "bad rockets", with the good rockets chasing the bad rockets around the room and trying to catch them before they could "explode", accompanied by yet more pseudo-siren noises. Oh the noise, the noise, my poor poor neighbours.

They were still at it when my DH came home from work and I was trying unsuccessfully to get them to bed with a story. My friend's son finally wore himself out and crashed, spreadeagled on the bed, clutching one of my son's cuddly animals.

My boy was still hyped up though, my husband beseeching him "Stop being a siren and go to sleep!" Five storybooks later he finally curled himself up at the opposite end of the bed next to the toddler and nodded off, his big sister slumbering away on the mattress on the floor. Finally, all four of them asleep in the shelter.

While her son played and eventually slept at my house, over in a Tel Aviv region hospital my friend found out what happens when the sirens go and you're in labour hooked up to a monitor in the maternity unit and need to get to a shelter.

Over the next few days she would find out over and over again what it was like to be in hospital during an air raid. Her newborn had to spend time in the NICU, which it turns out is not in a reenforced secure part of the hospital, and because of the frailty of the babies hooked up to equipment, they can't be rushed to a shelter during an alert.The nurses stay with their tiny charges through the sirens, relying on Iron Dome to keep them safe. It was a terrifying experience for a mother: "When the rocket alerts came there was nothing much those of us in the NICU could do, other than to lean over our babies and protect them with our bodies in case the blast from a rocket strike or even the interception was close enough to shatter windows."

Days later her baby was finally released from hospital. As she signed the paperwork and happily carried her newborn out to the car she saw nurses rushing to the helipad with gurneys, medivac helicopters coming in to land and her heart sank with the knowledge that these were surely signs of bad news. We found out today these were some of the first IDF casualties from the ground assault in northern Gaza.

It's all part of the dizzying pace of events lately, personal joys mixed with national sorrow, children's unexpressable fears spilling out in exuberant play, the mundane and the surreal, the honey and the sting, the bitter and the sweet.

We pray for simpler, peaceful times.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gymborees and bomb shelters

The war has developed a routine of it's own, or rather I should say has spread the routine of the long suffering residents of Israel's south to the centre of the country.

On mother's groups on Facebook and Whatsup women seek recommendations for children's outings that are a) fun and b) close to a bomb shelter. Gymborees, museum and small petting zoos close to fortified "safe rooms" are popular.

Other mothers ask if it's safe enough to take their kids to the park, what if they get caught out in the open by a siren, is 1.5 minutes enough time to gather up all the kids and rush to the relative safety of a nearby parking garage or the stairwell of a building? Some answer that they are trying to keep to their regular routines and trust in Iron Dome to keep them safe. Others have pretty much been staying indoors for most of the past 3 weeks. Yet other online groups are dedicated to fun activities for kids stuck at home by the conflict, creative crafts, games and baking projects. 

Many outdoor attractions in central and southern Israel which earn their bread and butter durign the busy summer season are virtually empty. Those in the south are closed on the orders of Home Front Command because the area is under the heaviest bombardment. Most in the centre are open but restrictions on large outdoor gatherings mean that summer camps and tourist groups have had to cancel, leaving only a few brave or possibly foolhardy families to visit the zoos, nature reserves and amusement parks in central areas targeted by Hamas rockets. The economic impact on these businesses is huge, many have had almost no custom for weeks now in what should be their peak season, and some have had to close their doors for most of the summer.

One place that has been busy is a local gymboree in my town which is in the reenforced concrete lower level of shopping centre. It's right next to an official shelter, but the nature of the construction means that the whole lower story of this structure is technically a shelter. It is one of many attractions advertising "easy access to secure area" in big bold letters.

Home Front Command, the army unit in charge of keeping civilians safe, has a dedicated "explainer" for children. In online videos and special meetings she teaches children what to do when the sirens sound, tells them stories designed to help reassure them and allay their fears, encourages them to talk about their concerns and holds Q&A sessions for worried children in which they can ask all kinds of questions about the situation and what it means to be a child when Israel is at war.

From personal experience I think it's often hardest for those children who aren't yet old enough to ask these questions but are alert enough to the changes in routine and the general atmosphere of tension to know that things are not as they should be. I see my own recently weaned toddler desparate to nurse again, needing that extra proximity, wanting that unique comfort, and friends report similar reactions in their young ones. In many families toilet trained children have started wetting their beds again or having "accidents" in their pants. Kids of all ages wake up with night terrors about sirens and rockets or fears that "bad people" are breaking in to their homes.

I'm glad that for the most part our children are calm, but that level of calm corelates to their ages, with the oldest most able to understand the situation, find ingstrength in knowing what she has to do in case of a siren or other emergency, while the middle one voices more concerns about "what if a rocket breaks our house?", going stock still at every unexpected sound asking us "what was that noise?" and the youngest shows the most signs of stress, like waking up more at night and wanting to nurse again.

My nine year-old at least has tried to find some kind of silver lining. "Ima, I don't like this situation, but you know what, at least I'm learning from it. I remember the stories about grandma spending her nights sleeping in their backyard shelter when she was a little girl and the Nazis were shooting flying bombs at London. When the sirens go here and when we go to sleep in our shelter it makes me feel connected to her. Now I know at least a little bit what it was like to be a child in those days." 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Welcome to our local insanity

Hamas fires a rocket from Gaza and knocks out Israeli power line just over the border which supplies power to, wait for it, Gaza. So Hamas just knocked out their own electricity by shooting rockets at Israel because Israel supplies Gaza with free electricity. Talk about poetic justice. 

Fortunately some common sense prevailed in Israel and a decision was made that Israeli workers would not go in under fire to restore electricity to Gaza. However if the shooting dies down Israel's electric company will repair the line and resume free power supplies to the Hamas ruled Gaza even as it lobs dozens of rockets at Israel on a daily basis. Welcome to our local insanity.

This is your early morning wake-up from Hamas

At six this morning the morning silence was shattered by the wail of the air raid sirens again. I was sort of awake already but that racket is one hell of a way to snap to instant alertness.

Somehow in last night's attempts to get the toddler to sleep I'd ended up settling him in my own bed, even though he'd eventually toddled off back to DH who was sleeping in the living room with our other son, close to the shelter. They were all snuggled up in the secure room in the seconds it took me to dash across the flat.

My daughter already had the sequel to last night's nature documentary DVD, trying to keep the boys focused on the novelty of Ima and Abba allowing early morning television watching. She and my middle son seemed to be taking the whole thing in their stride, but just like last night, the 2 year-old was kvetchy and hard to comfort.

He'd had very little sleep, which I'm sure contributed to his mood, but nothing seemed to help, he just wanted to be held and nursed (even though he's pretty much weaned), kept looking around with unease. He's at a tough age, old enough and alert enough to pay attention to every detail, but way too young for us to be able to explain to him what is going on and why.

And then it was over and we all got ready for the day, older kids at their day camps, DH off to work, me home with an anxious toddler who finally managed to nurse himself back to sleep around 10am.