Friday, November 29, 2002

The crazed wind in my garden

Friday, November 29, 2002

The wind wouldn't let me sleep last night. It hammered on the shutters as though trying to break into the apartment. From upstairs came the sound of a herd of animals clattering around on the upstairs balcony - the wind driving around the garden furniture. Bits of leaves were sucked between the shutter and the window, swirling around in the gap like balls in a lottery machine.

I'd spent the evening working on my balcony, tending to my plants. Already the strong winds had started, tousling the large tree in my neighbours' garden below, blowing my gardening stool across the porch. The dust tickled my throat, sending me indoors in a spasm of coughing.

Finally, autumn weather in November, just as we are supposed to be on the cusp of winter. The rains have been late this year. We've had a few thunderstorms so far, some brief downpours, but not the blessed bounty we desperately need. This was a teasing gale, though, dry, choking and slightly warm. It blew along bits of dry earth and dust, with not a drop of rain in sight.

By about 2:45am I realized that sleep was impossible, and, bundling up in my warmest dressing gown, I went out to see what the violent wind had wrought on my balcony.

My favourite Arabian jasmine had been pulled to one side, half uprooted, while many of the tender seedlings were doubled over, squashed by the tempest. Assorted plant debris churned around the floor, along with a child's ball and an empty flower pot.

A few mocking drops of drizzle spattered down for an instant, leaving a pattern of tears on the balcony floor, nothing more.

The terrible gusts were tormenting the neighbours' tree, tossing it this way and that, ripping off clumps of its elegant leaves and pretty pink seed pods, along with strips of the jasmine vine which sprawls over the tree. The windward side was stripped bare and skeletal, like a face scarred on one side, with the sheltered side still glorious in its foliage and seed pods, the jasmine daintily weaving in and out among them. I wondered what had happened to the flock of house sparrows which usually roost there for the night.

Good thing my neighbour harvested his lemons two weeks ago. This storm would have decimated his crop.

The wind raged on. A cluster of marigold heads from a distant garden flew past me, followed by some flimsy branches.

I went back to bed but sleep wouldn't come. A song kept repeating in my head, the wind beating at the building, the wind chimes clanging wildly in panic. In my mind the tumult outside merged with the violence of the war, the destruction striking daily at random.

I found myself humming a song from the October 1973 Yom Kippur War:

Each year in the fall, Giora,
The crazed wind in my garden
Decapitates the best of my lilies.

Each year
Each year in the fall, Giora,
I cast my eyes up to the mountains.
From where will my salvation come?

Each year
Each year in the fall
Each year in the fall

Giora fell fighting a very different war, a war in which mighty armies faced each other in the vastness of the Sinai Peninsula, a war of soldier against soldier. Troops went off to the front line, and however small the country's borders were, the battlefield and the home were separate places. Now the distinction between the front and home seems a quaint luxury.

It felt as if the turbulence had grown out of the day's events, the frantic pace of tragedies and near tragedies bombarding us one after the other, battering the tender shoots along with the mature trees. Suddenly I felt sick. So many people had been cut down that day, and here I was worrying about the plants and sparrows.

And then it came. A clap of thunder, real thunder, not just the thrashing of the wind. A new sound arose from the tumult, a reassuring steady pounding of water on concrete and soil.

Finally a blessing from within the storm.

Shabbat shalom and Hannukah sameah.


Saturday, November 23, 2002

Jerusalem of blood

Friday, November 22, 2002

"I don't know why the song is 'Jerusalem of Gold'", remarked one of the women in the waiting room to her neighbour. "They should have called it Jerusalem of Blood."

I had just been getting ready to leave for Jerusalem when radio anchor Arieh Golan interrupted an election campaign interview to report on that morning's bus bombing in Jerusalem.

We drove down Highway 443 listening to the macabre mix of news on the radio, the sickening reports from the atrocity interspersed with traffic updates about which roads were closed as a result. One station was already back to election news.

In the opposite direction a long line of vehicles snaked back from the Makkabim checkpoint, the soldiers carefully checking each one as it weaved its way through the huge concrete blocks, strategically placed to slow down traffic. Recently they were repainted to look like dice cubes, presumably by someone with a wry sense of humour. The gambling theme seemed oddly appropriate. Driving the highways, riding the buses, going shopping every day we take a chance with our lives, and not just because of the local driving culture (or lack thereof).

By the time we reached central Jerusalem the death toll was up to nine. The nurses at my doctor's office had the news on in the background. Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi was praising the "self-martyrdom operation". Rantisi is a physician, a paediatrician no less. One nurse stood staring at the radio. "He praises this," she muttered in disbelief.

At the pharmacy a woman commented that two boys had failed to show up at her son's school that morning. No one knew what had happened to them. She feared the worst.

In the centre of Jerusalem all was as usual. That day's bombing had occurred in faraway Kiryat Menahem, a sleepy neighbourhood in southern Jerusalem. Once again it struck me how large a city Jerusalem really is. Or perhaps just how compartmentalised.

As we returned to the car only about 3 hours after that morning's bombing the radio was reporting on the reopening of Mexico Street, where the bus was blown up. Over fifty buses have been attacked these past two years, including over twenty suicide bombings, so Israel is now quite proficient at cleaning up after them. Before long, life on Mexico Street will take on a semblance of normality. But the residents, cleanup crews and rescue service personnel will carry the horrors with them forever.

I walked up King George Street, pausing in the remodelled hat store to look for a winter Shabbat hat. They didn't have what I was looking for. Next door I stopped in the renovated bakery to get some rolls for lunch. Then I remembered why they had been refurbished: the bomb that had shattered this street only about six months ago.

By the time I arrived back home the death toll was up to eleven. Mothers and grandmothers, children on their way to school. The afternoon headlines brought the first names to be released. By the evening, funerals were being held. The late night news had photos to go with the names: six women, two girls, a little boy, a teenager and a young man.

The terrorist's father was interviewed praising his "heroic" son and proclaiming his desire that his other children follow in his footsteps.

There was a panicked message on my answer machine from a relative who was positive that I had been on that bus. She remembered that last year Thursday was my study day in Jerusalem and she thought I took the number 20 bus to class. Unable to reach me at home or on my cellphone (the battery was drained) she had concluded that something had happened to me.

This morning, a neighbour held a pre-Hannukkah craft fair. A friend stopped by and a few of us chatted for a bit, while business was slow. She is close to the parents of Chana Nachemberg, the young mother from Modi'in who is still in a coma after being wounded in the Sbarro pizzeria bombing in June 2001. She gave us an update on Chana's condition, how she is now off the respirator, how she gives the tiniest of responses, a flicker of the eyes, a movement of the hand in response to someone's touch.

Most of all though she reminded us of the family, the parents who spend every day at their daughter's bedside, the husband left alone to look after his little four-year-old daughter, and hold down a job and schlep to the long term care facility in Tel Aviv to visit his wife.

Sometimes in the first reaction to a terror attack we focus so much on the dead and their families that we forget the others whose lives were shattered by the blast. With nearly 5,000 wounded in over 15,000 acts of terror, sometimes we don't remember the Chanas, and their parents, spouses and children, those struggling with a slow climb back to health, a lifetime of disability or a relative who will require care in an institution for years to come.

The raw figures for yesterday's bombing were eleven dead and 56 wounded. The real casualties are far, far greater.

Shabbat shalom.


Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Kibbutz Metzer infiltrated

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

"I'm only a kid of 34, and I have to say Kaddish for two children, my whole family," sobbed Avi Ohayon clutching his late little boy's pacifiers.

The camera moved from him to the brightly decorated children's bedroom in their little house in Kibbutz Metzer in northern Israel. It was here that Ohayon's two young sons, Matan aged 5 and No'am, aged 4, were gunned down at point blank range by a Palestinian terrorist late last night. Their mother, Revital, was shot as she leant over her children in a futile attempt to protect them from the gunman. The blue and yellow bedclothes were stained with blood and bullet holes pierced the wall.

I must have seen the clip at least four times yesterday on four different news broadcasts. Each time I watched reporters close to tears. No matter how much terror becomes a "routine" event in Israel, there is no getting used to little kids butchered in their beds, eyeball to eyeball with their murderer while he coldly and calmly shoots them, a bullet for each child.

The terrorist began his killing spree on the tranquil, leafy, paths of the kibbutz, murdering Tirtza Damari as she took a late night stroll with her boyfriend, then gunning down Yitzhak Dori, the kibbutz secretary as he tried to apprehend the gunman. The Ohayon home was next.

Outside the kibbutz gates, by now sealed off by security forces, Avi Ohayon waited for news of his family.

The night stretched on endlessly, the residents of Metzer cooped up in their homes, behind locked doors and closed shutters, the entire village blacked out to hamper the terrorist's movements. Meanwhile soldiers and police scoured the kibbutz for the shooter. It was only at about seven the next morning that the all clear was given and residents were finally allowed to leave their homes. To date the perpetrator has not been caught.

The scenario has become too familiar. Lately, terrorist infiltrations have become almost a weekly event, targeting rural Israeli communities close to Palestinian areas. The attack on Kibbutz Metzer this Sunday night was only the most recent. Last week a Palestinian farm worker in Gush Katif smuggled a gun to work and murdered 52-year-old Amos Sa'ada and 18-year-old Assaf Tzfirah, in the greenhouses. The week before, a terrorist broke through the perimeter fence of the Samarian village of Hermesh, where he killed two 14-year-old Israeli schoolgirls, Hadas Turjeman and Linoi Sarousi, and 53-year-old Orna Eshel.

As the attack in Metzer took place, EU-sponsored talks were underway in Cairo with the aim of persuading the Palestinian terror gangs to renounce the murder of Israelis in "pre-1967 Israel," with the understanding that Israelis in disputed areas are fair game. Today, Palestinian officials expressed criticism of the location of the Metzer attack, with Fatah, whose gunmen perpetrated it, claiming they thought Metzer was over the pre-1967 armistice line. Had little Matan and No'am lived in an Israeli community a few kilometres east, just across the pre-1967 armistice line, they would clearly be considered legitimate targets.

In the last 10 days Israeli security forces have thwarted over fifty attempted terror attacks, mostly suicide bombers and car bombs caught en route to their Israeli targets, including a fifteen-year-old would be bomber apprehended near Nablus/Shekhem wearing an explosive laden belt.

One prominent success was ironically near Kibbutz Metzer itself, the very morning before the infiltration, when police on patrol intercepted a car packed with explosives and carrying a terrorist with a bomb-belt. Relief that this attempted atrocity had been averted was unfortunately to be short lived. Several hours later another terrorist began his killing spree in the same kibbutz.


Friday, September 20, 2002

Allenby Street robbed

Thursday, September 19, 2002

It's a warm autumn day just before the Sukkot holiday and you've gone to Tel Aviv to run some errands. You're walking along a tree lined boulevard with a mix of stores from the ultra-hip to those that look like they haven't been renovated for decades. Here and there stationers and roadside vendors have tables piled with gaudy sukkah decorations and Rosh Hashanah cards (they're still selling them even though it's two weeks since New Year's.)

As always it's crowded with shoppers, including many old time Tel Avivians, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and a smattering of Asian and east European foreign workers. There is an atmosphere of routine pre-holiday bustle; people jostle past you with baskets full of festive gifts, sukkah decorations and groceries. Workers on lunch break linger at the neighbourhood eateries.

The air is laden with pollution from the heavy traffic. A continuous stream of buses, taxis and private cars clogs the road. A number 4 bus pulls into your stop, an Arab gets on and starts making his way to a seat. Suddenly there is a huge explosion and all hell breaks loose. The busy shopping street has turned into a scene from a horror movie.

Allenby Street is one of the few areas of Tel Aviv I know reasonably well. I've prayed at the Great Synagogue there on several occasions. On my first visit to Tel Aviv, when I was 10 years old, my mother and I spent a lot of time browsing its many shops, soaking up the authentic atmosphere of old Tel Aviv. She told me stories of her first visit to the area when she was in her teens, and we looked to see if there were any shops or buildings that had been there in the mid-1950s.

We stopped in one of those jewellery stores near Tel Aviv's Great Synagogue and Mum bought me a beautiful, simple little gold "Hai" (life) pendant, the letters filled in with blue enamel - my first ever item of gold jewellery. I still wear it. For herself she bought an unusual silver pendant. At first glance it looks like a swirling flame, and then you notice that it's actually stylised Hebrew letters spelling out the word "shalom" - peace.

Peace and life, two things that Allenby was robbed of today.

I was doing my holiday shopping in Jerusalem when the bus was blown up in Tel Aviv. I finished loading the Sukkot groceries into the car and turned on the radio, catching the tail end of a report: "wounded are just being evacuated, the street remains closed, people are asked to stay away from the Great Synagogue..." It seemed to take forever for them to mention exactly what had happened and where.

As the reports continued coming in I found myself busy with the mental arithmetic of Israeli casualties. How many Israeli dead since Rosh Hashanah 5761 two years ago? With another five murdered today I think that makes it 620. "Like the seeds of a pomegranate," DH responded wryly. I hadn't realised that I'd spoken aloud.

Like the seeds of a pomegranate. The pomegranate is a classical Jewish symbol of blessing, beauty and plenty. It is a fruit that is almost more seed than pulp, eaten on Rosh Hashanah to represent our hope that in the new year we will be blessed like the many seeds of the pomegranate. Tradition says that there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate, reminding us that God gave the Jewish people 613 commandments to live by. Whatever the number the seeds are too many to count; that's what we wish of our blessings, not our tragedies.

By this afternoon Allenby was back to normal. Only four hours after the bombing, undamaged shops had reopened and bus service had resumed. The fire department had hosed down the street and the only physical evidence of today's carnage were a few boarded up windows and myriad nuts and bolts from the bomb which were scattered throughout the street by the blast.

At a nearby booksellers they were already repairing the shop window blasted to smithereens. Amir, the owner, showed the pile of nuts and bolts which had rained down on the store, creating bullet like holes in the wooden doorframe and merchandise. On a children's book display rack, a Hebrew edition of "The Little Match Seller" had every page pierced by a small wingnut.

Local shopkeeper Tzvi Rabinovitz interviewed on Channel 2, described calmly and quietly how he had stood in his electrical goods store by the Great Synagogue and seen the bus explode, and the passengers jumping out of shattered windows. He had walked down to the nearby crossroads to stop the traffic from entering the scene of the blast. Three hours later he went back to his shop and resumed business as usual as though nothing had happened. "This is our country," he declared, "and we aren't going anywhere. This is our response, to get on with our lives."

Two days before Sukkot there are so many preparations to complete that we have no time to stop. Around us in Jerusalem festive preparations continued. Shoppers were browsing stalls selling tinsel chains, plastic fruit, festive posters and portraits of famous rabbis. Municipal workers were putting up flags. Others had piled up palm leaves from the city's trees for residents to use for the traditional sukkah roofs.

At a local DIY centre tonight people were busy with last minute holiday purchases. In the electronics section by the checkouts a bank of televisions was tuned into the evening news, shoppers looking on with horror at the painful scenes from Tel Aviv. Many strictly religious Jews don't have televisions in their homes and they stood glued to the sets, seeing the day's events for the first time.

Outside they were selling a selection of ready made sukkot. Nearby a makeshift market had stalls offering arba minim, the four species of plant used in the holiday services. People crowded under the spotlights, carefully inspecting each item, checking each etrog (citron fruit) for possible defects, making sure that the lulavim (palm branches) were straight, ensuring that the leaves on the hadasim (myrtle) looked right and that the aravot (willow) were not wilted.

All afternoon there has been banging and sawing from the apartment upstairs as our neighbours work on their sukkah. I've been cutting back the plants on our balcony so that we can put up ours this evening.

Wishing you all hag sameah.


Monday, September 16, 2002

Yom Kippur Eve

Erev Yom Kippur
(Day of Atonement Eve)
Sunday, September 15, 2002

For several weeks now our apartment has reverberated to the awe inspiring melodies of Yom Kippur morning prayers. DH will be the shaliah tzibbur for Shaharit (leading the congregation in services) this year and he has been practicing intently. It is an ideal way to prepare for the day itself, the solemn and daunting prayers focusing the mind on repentance and atonement.

I've noticed that foreign guidebooks advise visitors to Israel to avoid the High Holiday season like the plague. There will be nothing to do, they explain, and everything is closed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Quite simply, they think it's boring.

On the contrary, I recommend that visitors come this time of year. To understand what it means to be living in the world's only Jewish country, I suggest coming to see what it's like on the holiest days of the Jewish year.

The culture of these days permeates Israeli society. The supermarkets are filled with all manner of honey for Rosh Hashanah, and shoe shops do brisk sales in non-leather footwear just before Yom Kippur. Every Israeli from the simplest shop clerk to the most learned rabbi to the most secular journalist wishes one another "gmar hatima tova", may you have a good inscription, referring to the tradition that on Yom Kippur God seals our fates for the coming year.

I've lost count of how many times I've heard the haunting "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer played on the radio in recent weeks, not on religious programmes but during regular shows on popular stations. The prayer, about man's frailty passing before God in judgement, is one of the key points in the High Holiday prayer service.

They play it on the radio because it is part of our culture, something that so many Israelis relate to. "I can't tell you how many listeners tell me they look forward all year to hearing it," commented a broadcaster last night. It touches something deep in the Israeli soul, be it the spur to repentance or childhood memories of synagogue on Yom Kippur.

During the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Israeli radio has had a late night forgiveness slot where people can phone in and ask forgiveness from those they've hurt during the year. In general, radio and television stations have been run programmes about the seasonal themes of introspection and repentance, about the meaning of the High Holidays and the direction of Israeli society.

The great majority of Jewish Israelis fast on Yom Kippur, even those who don't necessarily go to synagogue or engage in any religious activity. As every year, the media interview doctors on how to fast well. This year they are forecasting a heat wave for Yom Kippur, so there were additional questions on how to take precautions against heatstroke, what to do if someone feels ill and the like.

Yom Kippur, more than any other day in Israel, is a national holy day. The entire country shuts down: every business, every place of entertainment, everything. No one drives their cars. You could walk down the middle of a major highway and the only danger would come from a few kids on bicycles - for secular children the lack of traffic has turned Yom Kippur into national bicycle day.

And now there are only a few hours to go before the Day of Atonement is upon is in all its majesty and awe. Businesses and shops closed hours ago. The streets are already quiet as people busy themselves with last minute preparations or shelter from the oppressive heat outdoors. Our building is filled with the mouth watering smells of cooking as we and our neighbours prepare the final meal before the fast. Freshly laundered white holiday clothes hang ready to be worn tonight, the mahzorim (prayer books) are ready by the door.

Last night, the last chance for midnight slihot, forgiveness prayers, before Yom Kippur, the Kotel (Western Wall) was flooded with tens of thousands of worshippers. The rabbi of the Kotel reported that people came in record numbers. And it was not only the traditional religious who came. There were large numbers of secular Israelis among the throng, people who came because the Kotel belongs to all the Jewish people, and on the eve of the holiest day of the Jewish Year they also wanted to be part of the last mass prayer service before the great day itself.

There is a Jewish belief in the power of communal prayers, in the power of large numbers of the nation of Israel coming together in prayer and appealing for God's mercy. May the sincerity of the crowds of Jews from all sectors of society, coming together in the heart of Jerusalem have the strength to banish all evil decrees for the coming year.

May we all be inscribed for health, happiness and peace.

Gmar hatima tova.


Thursday, September 12, 2002

America Commemorates

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

By coincidence this afternoon at 4pm Israel time, 9am New York time, I was on a bus, just as I was at the same time last year on September 11. Last year I sat dazed listening to the news on the bus radio, not fully comprehending what had happened. This year the bus passengers grew quiet as the radio relayed the memorial ceremony from Ground Zero.

In Jerusalem an official memorial ceremony was held in the presence of Israeli president Moshe Katzav and US ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer. The cabinet held a special memorial session at the Knesset.

All day the news programmes have been devoted to the subject, with regular programming interrupted for live link-ups with memorials in the US. Related songs have been played on the radio, including several of the recent American ballads written for the occasion.

In Tel Aviv an Israeli orchestra commemorated the attacks by performing Mozart's Requiem. An exhibition of photos from the New York site opened today at Jerusalem's Israel Museum.

More than any other free nation, we, who have been battered and bruised by decades of terrorism, understand how America feels. We know exactly what President Bush meant when he talked of men, women and children murdered simply because they were American. How many Jews and Israelis have been murdered simply because they were Jews or Israelis? We have been in that dark, terrifying place so often, especially in the last two years. We have so many bereaved parents, so many orphaned children.

Watching the solemn dignity of the American memorial ceremonies, we are reminded of our own. The recitation of names, the tolling of the bell like the sounding of the memorial sirens here. A people dignified and tearful, like our own. The same quiet determination is common to both, agonising sadness mixed with a stubborn resolve to rebuild our lives and defeat the evil forces working to destroy our freedom.

We extend our sympathy and solidarity to the American people on this memorial day.


Saturday, September 07, 2002

New Year in Song

Friday, September 6, 2002
Rosh Hashana Eve 5763

One of the things I love about Erev Yom Tov (the eve of a festival) in Israel is that they often play lots of my favourite old Israeli songs on the radio.

This morning I was treated to two popular tunes one after the other, both by Israel's number one songwriter Naomi Shemer, Al Kol Eleh (For Everything) and Hakol Patuah (Everything's Open). Both songs bring back wonderful personal memories for me, but the words of both songs have also been going through my head a great deal recently.

I first heard Al Kol Eleh as a little girl sometime in the early eighties. If I remember correctly, it was one of Naomi Shemer's first performances of the song. I vividly remember being in awe of the huge concert hall, the lights, the wood, the mass of people, and on the huge stage in front a little woman and a very big piano.

I was too young to follow all the words, captivated more by the soothing, gentle melody and the simple first lines of the chorus (my loose translation): "My good God, please watch over all these for me: the honey and the sting, the bitter and the sweet." As a little girl I wondered about that. I could understand the honey and the sweet, but why ask God to look after the sting and the bitterness as well?

It is only years later that the words have truly begun to speak to me in their entirety. They have become an expression of the most basic of prayers, especially for a Jew living in Israel today. The wish to just live life with all its ups and downs, the bitter with the sweet, the honey with the sting, the normal trials of normal people. In the last two years, with the fragility of existence an everyday concern, the prayer the song expresses has become such a deep yearning that it is almost a motto for the hopes and dreams of the Israeli people.

In 1994, during the first year of Oslo, Hakol Patuah became a big hit in Israel. It is a jaunty, upbeat song, and yet with all the apparent liveliness there is also a bittersweet undertone in the chorus: "Everything is still open, it isn't too late; the mood will improve tomorrow; it's conceivable, it's possible, so long as we keep on singing."

It was released as we were going through the first wave of terror which followed the start of the Oslo process. For me this was also the year I was dating my husband; the song came out around the time he proposed. It quickly became our song, our hope for a better Israel in which to set up our new home.

It felt like all the possibilities were open, not just for us, but for Israel in general. There was an economic boom underway, Jews were still flooding in from behind the recently opened "Iron Curtain", new diplomatic ties were being forged and there had been several rainy winters. Who knew what this new Oslo world would bring or how this "new Middle East" would develop? There seemed to be so many options and so much hope for a brighter future.

Today, even as things look bleak, there is again something of that hope, the feeling that in some way the tide has turned. Where last year it felt as though our future was fated to be forever terrorised, this New Year's there is the glimmer that we can truly fight it and win. All the possibilities are still open. It will probably still be a long struggle, and God forbid we may yet suffer terrorism, but as long as we keep our spirits up, as long as we remain determined to live and to fight for our right to live, there is every chance that we will know better times.

Our prayer for the new year, to paraphrase the beautiful words of Naomi Shemer, is that God "not uproot what has been planted," that He watch over "the fruit that has yet to ripen and that has been gathered," that He protect us "from anguish, from fear and from war". And, most important, may we never give up hope.

May we all be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year.

Shana Tova.


Saturday, August 24, 2002

Renewal in Jerusalem

Friday, August 23, 2002

Festive crowds thronged the streets. You had to push to make your way through the mass of revellers: hip teens, families with kids, grandparents and young couples. Above, cheery fairy lights were strung between the buildings.

On a large stage in the middle of the square a band played ridiculously loud Brazilian pop and Samba tunes. After them came a troupe performing capoeira, Brazilian martial arts. Up the street on another stage models strutted up and down showing off the latest wedding dress fashions, the pop music blaring from the speakers competing with the Brazilian carnival. Round the corner, on a narrow side street lined with jewellery and craft shops a jazz quartet attracted yet more people.

This was the scene in central Jerusalem last Saturday night. The Brazilians were in Zion Square, the fashion show was in the middle of Ben Yehuda Street and the jazz musicians were livening up nearby Yoel Salomon Street. For the first time in almost two years it felt like the old downtown Jerusalem had returned. All that was missing were the foreign tourists and overseas students who once flocked to the area.

I stood there savouring the noise and the bustle, drinking in the raucous music, turned up too loud. For once I didn't mind the assault on my eardrums. It was worth it just to see my favourite city enjoying itself after so many months of tragedy and mourning.

Music and fairy lights could not entirely mask the painful times the city is going though. Dancers shimmied past memorials to terror victims and stalls stood outside businesses closed due to the war. On Yoel Salomon Street, famous for its restaurants, local fixtures such as Amigos Mexican restaurant, Tza'ad Teimani Yemenite restaurant, Chamomile health food cafe and Kapulsky's cafe have all shut. A couple of popular bars and eateries had signs along the lines of "closed until the war is over". Near Zion Square, The Patriot Cafeי has also gone out of business. In the adjacent Cafeי Rimon customers sit inside an ornate wrought iron security cage designed to stop bombers from forcing their way into the restaurant.

For several weeks now similar street fairs have been held as part of the Jerusalem municipality's effort to revive the terror ravaged heart of the city. Each week there has been a different theme: fashion, health and beauty, music, back to school, food and more. Jerusalemites and visitors from elsewhere in Israel, have responded enthusiastically to the initiative, returning in droves to the once popular entertainment district.

Ben Yehuda and surrounding streets have been sealed off with metal gates. Armed guards and police watch every access point, searching anyone wishing to enter the "sterile" zone. Police and soldiers patrol the area constantly.

A week ago the theme was fashion. The area was packed with clothing and cosmetic stalls. A few trendy bars had temporary stands along the street, complete with blaring electronic music. Up towards Ben Hillel Street a Middle Eastern style tea shop occupied the middle of the mall. Customers sprawled on rugs and cushions, puffing on nargilehs or sipping sweet tea. A local band played traditional music from the region on Middle Eastern acoustic instruments.

Round the corner there was an old style rhythm and blues band. Further down the street there was American folk music played on fiddle, kazoo and a washboard. Mime artists and dancers in bizarre costumes milled amongst the pedestrians.

I know this sounds strange to say but somehow there is a sense of renewal in downtown Jerusalem these days. Despite the terrorism, the lack of tourists and the dire economic situation in Israel, most businesses are still managing to stay afloat - just barely. Some owners are relying on their savings, others have set up websites and are selling via mail order and a few have toured diaspora Jewish communities, selling their wares in fairs organized by synagogues in cities such as London, New York and Washington.

A few weeks ago we came into Jerusalem on Friday morning to get DH new sandals. There is a quaint old store on the corner of Rav Kook Street which reminds me of the helpful family run stores I used to get my shoes from as a child. It has been there for over 50 years and the clerks still wear old fashioned uniform smocks. Worth the schlep to Jerusalem just for the nostalgia trip.

From Rav Kook Street we turned towards Ben Yehuda Street to pick up some food for Shabbat. That Friday was the turn of the food fair and we did our shopping at the various stalls representing a choice selection of kosher restaurants, delis and Mahane Yehuda market sellers. There were herbs and spices from the exotic to the mundane and cuisines from around the world, everything from Chinese to Middle Eastern to Argentinian. A one man band wandered amongst the stalls and parents badgered him for photos with their kids.

On Jaffa Road itself there was a feeling of chaos. Jerusalem is building a new light railway system to ease the city's traffic congestion and they are busy digging up chunks of Jaffa Road to lay the infrastructure. Meanwhile, several terror damaged shops have been renovated, now sporting shiny new windows and modern fittings. If you hadn't heard the news for the past year, you might imagine that this is just part of the general bustle of urban renewal accompanying the new transportation project. If only.

Shabbat shalom.


Thursday, August 01, 2002

Jerusalem's Silence Broken

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

I was standing by the Kotel, the Western Wall, reciting Psalms when it happened, when the bomb exploded at the Frank Sinatra cafeteria at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus.
The day was searingly hot, chokingly dry. As a friend noted, it made you feel like a pita bread baking in an oven. There is precious little shade by the Wall, and we were huddling under one of the larger caper bushes growing in the cracks between the stones.
I had spent the morning with visiting relatives at the City of David archaeological park. We climbed up and down the steep steps, through underground tunnels, over platforms above deep cisterns, jumping across the millennia of Jerusalem's history.
Here was the Gihon Spring, which had watered Jerusalem since the city's birth. Above it we saw the steps Solomon walked down during his coronation as described in the Book of Kings. At another site lie the ancient ruins of an Israelite house destroyed in the flames of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The house was uncovered under a layer of ash. From atop one of the modern Israeli houses we had a panoramic view of the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives; beyond that the sparkling gold onion domes of the Russian convent of Mary Magdelene.
Worn out by the punishing sun we headed up to the Old City for lunch in the Jewish Quarter by way of the Kotel. The midday heat is not an ideal time for standing in the exposed Kotel plaza, but who can walk past the Western Wall without taking a few minutes to pray or recite Psalms?
Immersed in my Psalm book I suddenly became aware of sirens. First one isolated wail and then more, insistently, not fading into the distance, but constantly renewed, breaking the relative quiet of the stifling midday heat. Something terrible had happened. I added a silent prayer for the victims of whatever new tragedy had occurred and walked hurriedly back to my visitors, who, frazzled by the sun had sought shelter by the police station at the edge of the plaza.
As I walked back to them I passed an ashen faced family, one son anxiously talking on his cellphone, the word "pigua" (terror attack) cropping up repeatedly. A couple of women were anxiously asking a policeman for details. Instinctively I found myself dialling DH's number at work to check for information. He hadn't heard. It wasn't being reported on the news yet. As I approached my relatives DH called back. A bomb in the main cafeteria on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University.
My relatives clearly hadn't heard. They looked relaxed, tired but excited after the morning's fascinating tour. How could I shatter their mood? And yet the words came automatically and all at once their faces fell, hands moved to cellphones to check on Israeli friends and relatives, to tell the folks back in the States that they were fine, to check for more details.
And I was calm. Almost too calm. While they were going through the shock, the pain, I found myself almost detached. I didn't even know if God forbid any of my friends or family had been hurt, and yet I had set the whole thing aside, because there was nothing I could do now, no radio on hand, the cellphone lines were already clogged with anxious calls, no way I could help. I had taken a moment to grieve when DH told me the news, and then, somehow I had just gone back to what I'd been doing earlier, guiding my relatives around the Old City. I was shocked at myself, shocked at the way I was just accepting the bombing as a fact of life.
And yet I was hurting, I was angry, but it was somewhere locked away inside. For now, I had to look after my guests. For now I didn't want to upset them too much, and wanted them to still somehow enjoy their day in ancient Jerusalem. I wanted them to feel and love the ancient stones, the special people and history, the sanctity. I didn't want reality to intrude.
I took them up to a cafe with a panoramic view of the Mount of Olives. You see that ugly concrete tower with the antenna, yes, there, on the far left, you see it? That is the Hebrew University campus. Yes, right there, that's what they just blew up. I couldn't believe I was saying the words, pointing out the site of an atrocity casually as I explained the Mount of Olives skyline, as I named the churches and the mosques and the Jewish cemetery and the hotels as we sat there over lunch, the table piled high with salads and main dishes.
I was screaming inside but outside the routine took over. How many times have I taken visitors to this site, sat in this cafe or stood at a nearby viewpoint and pointed out sites of interest? It is almost second nature.
My phone rang again. DH had more details. He wouldn't say much though, only that it was bad, very bad.
We walked back through the Jewish and Armenian Quarters, through the Zion Gate, past Mount Zion, through the calm of a sleepy Jerusalem summer afternoon.
Arriving back at my relatives' apartment they switched on CNN. Seven dead over 80 wounded. The flat English voices reporting matter of factly from the scene. Over and over they emphasised that last week Israel killed Hamas leader Saleh Shehadeh. The implication was that the bombing was simply legitimate retaliation. As if Hamas hasn't been doing its best to kill as many Israelis as possible for years now. Maybe CNN forgot that only a few days before Shehadeh was assassinated Hamas ambushed an Israeli civilian bus, intentionally murdering nine civilians? But the world seems to have a very short memory.
My relatives sat in a row on the sofa in sombre silence, absorbed by the horrors unfolding before them. I watched for a bit but couldn't take more than 15 minutes. I walked out into the kitchen to check in with DH again. I reminded him to contact our mothers. I tried calling his aunt. No reply on either her home or cellphone. I tried calling another cousin. Again no reply. Logic decreed that they were very unlikely to have been anywhere near the scene but my heart wanted to hear their voices nonetheless. It was only several hours later that I was finally able to reach everyone. Thank God all were fine.
That evening DH picked us up in the car and we drove out to a picturesque rural restaurant. Sitting in there, enjoying the breathtaking view of the coastal plain at sunset I kept thinking about all those who would never be able to enjoy these simple pleasures again.
Outwardly I kept up the conversation, enjoyed the banter, the wonderful meal, the festive atmosphere. But each time I looked out over the view I felt the hurt surfacing. This is such a beautiful country, there is so much potential, so much good, so much hope. Here, atop a forested mountain, above serene fields and villages, with the lights of the coastal cities twinkling in the distance, it was hard to believe that terrorists are killing people almost every day. It seemed the perfect escape from the reality of bombs, checkpoints and fear. Only the occasional rumbling of warplanes and helicopters overhead intruded on the tranquillity.
I wondered what it must be like to sit down one evening, perhaps in one of the Palestinian villages with a similarly commanding view of Israel's densely populated coast. What is it like to sit down with a map and plan intentionally to kill college students? To sit there and choose between blowing up a schoolbus or a pizzeria or a disco or a shopping mall or a hotel.
What does it feel like to want to kill, just to kill anyone, man, woman or child, and to feel no remorse, to feel glorious in the act of looking a child in the eye and shooting her at point blank range. To stand in a crowded cafe, look at the innocents around you and then push the button and annihilate them. I wondered at the crowds in Gaza and Jenin and Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world who this very night were celebrating the murders of seven innocent Israelis and Americans.
Still I kept my thoughts to myself. Only on the way home with DH in the car did we begin to talk. And as we talked the tears welled up, tears which had been inside me all day, hidden and buried by my routine, by my activity. Calmly, quietly the tears trickled down and all that was left was the silence, deeper than our words, a silence of common sorrow, common hurt.





Friday, July 26, 2002

Drumming at the beach

Thursday, July 25, 2002

It was a beautiful full moon evening. The waves crashing along the shore glistened in the moonlight. At intervals along the beach groups of people gathered around bonfires, some partying, others playing with their kids, most just relaxing after a hard day's work. Couples sat embraced watching the sea.

It was the eve of Tu B'Av, the Jewish festival of love, when in ancient times the single women would wear borrowed white dresses and go out into the vineyards to dance and hopefully attract their future husbands.

At one end of the beach a group of about 50 people sat in a circle, each with a drum, all pounding out the same frenetic Middle Eastern rhythm. Behind them was the Mediterranean Sea. In front of them the flames of the bonfire licked high into the night sky, giving an orange tinge to the silvery light of the full moon.

You may have thought this was some exotic religious ritual. No, it was just DH's annual departmental beach picnic. This year they added some entertainment to the picnic in the form of "the drummers' circle", a group of percussionists who come along with all kinds of Middle Eastern, African and Latin American drums and teach participants some of the basic rhythms, ending with a jam session.

Aside from the drumming it was as usual a very casual affair. People stood around with pita breads full of salad, humous and cold cuts, sipping on chilled beers and orange juices while the kids romped in the sand.

It was just the same as previous years, save that this time three armed security guards kept watch over us. A bunch of picnicking computer programmers and their families is after all a very tempting target for a terrorist.

People have been a bit more on edge since last week's terror attacks. This week two more victims of the Tel Aviv bombing died of their wounds. On Monday Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization called on Palestinian groups to step up terror attacks against Israel. There have been a number of alerts across the country. On Sunday the rail line to Rehovot (south of Tel Aviv) was bombed and the train driver escaped with moderate injuries. Several terrorists have been caught en route to attacks: a suicide bomber near Ramallah; gunmen armed to the teeth near Gaza, on their way to infiltrate a kibbutz. The list goes on.

You'll understand then the relief of many Israelis when we heard that Hamas arch-terrorist Saleh Shehadeh, the man responsible for atrocities such as the bombings of the Dolphinarium disco, the Sbarro pizzeria and the Park Hotel, was killed in an Israeli air strike.

The relief that Shehadeh is dead is tempered by deep sadness that the cost was the tragic deaths of so many Palestinian civilians. It was not meant to be that way. Missions to assassinate Shehadeh had been aborted no less than eight times, because the army was concerned that there were civilians in the vicinity.

Earlier this week there were F-16s over a house in Gaza where Shehadeh was staying. At the last minute Israeli intelligence discovered that there were civilians in the building and the attack was aborted. Had intelligence known that his family were in the building Tuesday night that attack would have been aborted too.

On the rare occasions when unfortunately Israel has killed non-combatants, each time by accident, Israelis are shocked and upset by the tragedy. There is a public outcry. The media ask how it could have happened. Government ministers and senior generals apologise for the civilian deaths. There are inquiries into how the mistake occurred, how the target was missed or why intelligence reports were inaccurate. Disciplinary measures are taken against those responsible for the error.

No one here wants the death of Palestinian civilians. And while people were glad that terror-mastermind Shehadeh was gone, no one celebrated. We don't rejoice in people's deaths, however terrible the enemy.

Our enemy, on the other hand, is very much into celebrating death. For Palestinian terrorists, civilians are the targets, not tragic accidental victims. Our enemies are people who go and murder kids at a pizza parlour and then hold street parties and hand out candies to celebrate the murders. Out of 579 Israelis killed by Palestinians since September 29 2000, 401 have been civilians. Out of 4,287 Israelis wounded, 3,056 have been civilians.

Not only do Palestinian terror groups relish killing Israeli civilians, but they seem to have no qualms about endangering their own. Over and over again we've seen them locate military installations in the heart of civilian areas, run bombmaking labs in apartment blocks, store weapons in private homes and of course shelter terrorists in residential neighbourhoods. They keep civilians around them, knowing that Israel will avoid attacking them when there is a risk of catching civilians in the crossfire. And they have no qualms about leaving booby traps that might hurt their own people, as happened on Thursday when a Palestinian-laid roadmine exploded under a Palestinian bus, injuring ten passengers.

Israelis will keep trying to live, and the Palestinian terrorists will keep trying to kill us. So we'll go to the beach with armed guards and go to weddings with armed guards and do our groceries with armed guards and ride buses with armed guards and check our seats very carefully for suspicious packages and phone the police every time we see someone wearing unusually bulky clothing for the hot Israeli summer.

And come the Jewish New Year in about six weeks' time this will have been going on for two years.


Thursday, July 18, 2002

Horrors ancient and modern

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

This year it feels as though Tisha B'Av, the 9th of Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, came early. The fast day commemorates the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, the massacre of the city's inhabitants and the end of Jewish sovereignty. It comes at the end of a three week mourning period, marking the siege and conquest of the Jewish capital first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then, even more brutally, by the Romans in 70 AD.

Tonight we will sit on the floor, according to the Jewish ritual of mourning, and read the heartrending book of Lamentations, describing in graphic detail the horrors of the last days of independent Jerusalem during the Babylonian siege.

This year it will not be hard to envision the suffering of our ancestors. There are far too many fresh images of carnage in our minds. Yesterday Palestinian terrorists attacked a bus near the religious town of Immanuel - literally, "God is with us", in central Samaria. First they exploded a mine under the bus and then they opened fire on the passengers trapped inside, tossing in a few grenades for good measure.

Among the eight Israeli civilians murdered were three members of the same family, the husband, grandmother and 8-month-old baby. The wife, the 8-month-old's twin and another baby were wounded. Among the seriously wounded was a 22-year-old woman, heavily pregnant with her first child, shot in the stomach and legs. Doctors performed an emergency C-section in an attempt to save the mother and her 8-month-old fetus. Tragically the baby boy survived only a few hours. The mother is still in critical condition.

Yesterday's horrors came after several weeks in which we had something of a reprieve from "successful" terror attacks, now that the Israeli army has taken control of major Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank under "Operation Determined Path". The army's success in catching perpetrators and blowing up bomb factories has saved hundreds of Israeli lives. Several suicide bombers and vehicles jam packed with explosives have been intercepted en route to terror attacks.

Just last week there was a high alert along the Modi'in-Jerusalem road, which was shut for several hours after intelligence sources warned of a planned attack. The terror cell was tracked down to a nearby Palestinian village but they escaped. Yesterday the army caught several Palestinians from a nearby village who had been throwing stones at vehicles on the road. This morning they caught gunmen from another village, including a Fatah gunman planning attacks on the road.

Listening to the names of these villages, Harbata, Beit-Ur-A-Tahta, Beit Likia, places I pass every time I go into Jerusalem, it still feels weird to think that people who live so close, many of whom once worked even closer, are trying to kill us, their neighbours. You may think me crazy after all this terrorism, but I still can't get used to thinking of these places as hostile.

For the most part, certainly in comparison with many other Palestinian areas, these villages have been quiet. But several have also produced killers. One local resident was among the perpetrators of the infamous Ramallah lynch almost two years ago, the one photographed while gleefully waving his bloodied hands to the cheering mob.

It's strange to stand on the hill at the edge of Modi'in and see the tranquil-looking villages to the east and northeast, knowing that should I visit them I might not live to tell the tale.

When I take the bus into Jerusalem I see these villages from the highway, watch the kids walking to school, farmers tending their fields, shepherds guiding their flocks. Some of the villages still sport Hebrew signs advertising plant nurseries, building supplies, car repairs or decorative pottery, a legacy of life before Arafat embarked on his Oslo War.

The exits to the villages are now blocked off with mounds of earth or concrete blocks. We haven't shared this road with Palestinian cars for about a year now; too many Palestinian terrorists took advantage of the arrangement to attack Israeli motorists. This winter, weeds started to sprout on some of the dirt embankments. Others have been bulldozed by Palestinians, only to be rebuilt by the army.

A few of the blocked roads have become trading posts. At any hour of the day you'll see Palestinian taxis and trucks on one side of the blocked exit road and Israeli vehicles on the other delivering supplies and goods. Sometimes they transport people, perhaps taking elderly ladies to their hospital appointments in Jerusalem. An army patrol usually hovers nearby to make sure that terrorists aren't being transported as well. One of these barriers has become so organised that it even has forklift trucks. From time to time Israeli employers come to these roadblocks to pick up Palestinian workers - usually illegally, as Israel has rescinded most work permits due to the obvious security risks.

Sometimes I see Palestinian hitchhikers waiting by the roadside for passing taxis or mini-buses owned by Jerusalem Arabs, which will take them to Jerusalem or the Ramallah-area checkpoints. Occasionally I see someone riding a donkey along the highway shoulder or people walking along the road, waiting to cross to the other side.

Once or twice we've made eye contact. Several weeks ago I noticed a group of schoolgirls, aged about 14 or 15 I would guess, standing by the road near the Palestinian village of El-Jib, close to the Jerusalem end of the highway. They were dressed in typical Palestinian school uniforms, pale blue short dresses worn over jeans, with neat white headscarves. There were road works and the bus slowed. Looking out the window I saw the girls waiting to cross the road. I smiled, instinctively. The schoolgirls stared back, with a mixture of haughtiness and hate.

I reflected on their ages again. The Oslo accords were signed in the autumn of 1993. They would have been little kids then. They had grown up under autonomous Palestinian rule during the Oslo years. They were supposed to be the generation of peace, the kids brought up knowing only the peace process and co-existence. That was the Oslo utopia. Instead their education had taught them hate and death. They are the generation of suicide bombers and jihad.

It was Tammuz 17th, the fast day commemorating the siege of Jerusalem, at the beginning of the summer's three week mourning period. I was staring into the eyes of hate, the eyes of those taught to rejoice in my death.

I found myself feeling only sorrow and pity.

May the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days and may we know no more sorrow.


Friday, June 21, 2002

Dreams, surprises, sorrow and reality

Thursday, June 20, 2002

When I began writing this evening at about 9.30pm the number of Israelis murdered this month by Palestinians stood at 64. By 11.15pm that figure was 68. Terrorists infiltrated the village of Itamar tonight, breaking into a family home and shooting its residents.

Now, just after midnight the number has reached 69. The body of another little boy was just salvaged from the burning ruins of the house.

I feel like going to bed and telling my DH to wake me up when the war is over.

Yesterday, when the bombers hit Jerusalem again, I was visiting the port of Ashdod with a group of over 50 British Jews visiting Israel on a mission. A visiting relative had invited me to join them for a day trip to southern Israel to see some of the wonderful environmental and educational projects the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has undertaken in the desert.

As nineteen Israeli families mourned their loved ones murdered in Tuesday's bombing, I was touring projects dedicated to bringing life to some of Israel's most barren regions. Out in the middle of the desert we visited reservoirs designed to catch the flood waters of the winter rains. Around a completed reservoir we saw green fields and citrus groves. Elsewhere in the flat, scrubby desert we saw ostrich ranches, tomatoes grown in brackish water unfit for humans to drink and orchards irrigated with treated waste water from the major conurbations of central Israel.

It was heartwarming to see this lively, intelligent group of British men and women whose love of Israel had brought them here in these terrible times, ignoring the advice of British friends and family that the trip was too dangerous.

I almost had to pinch myself.

Here I was, riding around the dunes of a remote corner of the desert near the Egyptian border with a busload of tourists heartily singing Hatikva, The Hope, Israel's national anthem. It was like something out of an old Israeli satire movie (Efraim Kishon couldn't have done it better), only it was real, and the enthusiasm and dedication to Israel left me in awe of these people.

At the port of Ashdod we stopped at the naval base to visit the brave men and women protecting Israel's shores from terrorist incursions. I wanted to hug every one of them.

The day ended with a surprise. Instead of heading back to the Jerusalem hotel, the bus turned south once more, then east past the town of Kiryat Gat. I've come to know this area fairly well. DH and I like to take night time drives on the quiet rural roads, looking for nocturnal wildlife, admiring the canopy of stars almost unspoilt by urban light pollution. When the bus pulled off onto a dirt road near a JNF forest, my hunch as to the night's surprise destination was proven right. The stunned visitors found themselves by a network of ancient bell caves - ancient quarries hollowed out from small mounds, resulting in vaulted, bell shaped caverns.

Dinner was served in the caves. After the meal members of the mission gave moving accounts of their visit. Some promised to come back soon with family and friends. Others pledged their support to fund more life giving projects or to defending Israel in the foreign media. All were visibly strengthened by their visit here, impressed at how we do our best to live as usual in the midst of terror, distraught at seeing how much protection we need just to go about our daily lives, encouraged at seeing the fortitude which keeps Israel going.

When I awoke this morning I was sure that it must have been a dream.

The atmosphere at class today was subdued, with an almost palpable feeling of hurt, of loss. In my first lecture of the day, an overview of the biblical prophets, we could barely keep to the topic. The final unit of the course was on prophecies about the end of days.

Over and over, themes from our current reality cut into the theoretical discussion of topics from Isaiah and Jeremiah. Recollections from the funerals so many of us have attended over the past year mixed with commentaries on the "birth pangs" of the messianic era, reflections on the death around us alongside the prophecies of a future world without sorrow.

Upstairs in the beit midrash (study hall) I tried hard to prepare for my next class, Chronicles. It was a futile task. I could see that my teacher was upset, and as I sat reading my bible I could overhear snippets of conversation from the next table, as she and other students talked about friends killed and wounded in yesterday's bombing.

This was the last class of the year and we were studying the final chapter of Chronicles, about the death of the righteous king Josiah and the beginning of the end of the kingdom of Judah, the chain of events which would ultimately lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and exile to Babylon. Not the most cheerful subject matter under any circumstances. Today it was hard to hold back the tears.

My teacher did her best not to leave us only with tragedy, devoting the last few minutes of the class to sources about redemption, about hope, a little light to diminish the darkness closing in around us.

As she rounded up the session with a few end of semester words of thanks her voice faltered slightly, and in a quiet, slightly shaky voice she announced that today's class was dedicated to the memory of a friend killed in yesterday's bombing.

We sat in painful silence for a few minutes, unable to just pack up and go, each and her own hurt.

And then we walked out into the Jerusalem sunshine to catch our buses home.

Across Jerusalem police have set up roadblocks at main junctions and along major roads. Police or soldiers stood guard at many bus stops.

It was an odd feeling, riding on the buses today. My mind kept going back to Wednesday's bus bombing, to the Megido bus bombing two weeks ago and to the attack on a bus stop yesterday. The horrifying news footage would not leave me. As I sat in the bus I pondered the force it took to render the solid looking vehicle into a twisted, blackened piece of scrap metal.

I felt especially tense when a young Arab man stood next to me on the bus. A young guy carrying a bag.

Probably just out shopping. Maybe not.

It is madness. There is no way of knowing whether he was an innocent local Arab or a terrorist. It is one of the most maddening aspects of this war, the way the enemies' "soldiers" masquerade as civilians so that suddenly you feel as though you can't trust any Arabs at all. Which is sickening because like it or not, we all live in this land together, walk the Jerusalem streets together, ride the buses together, shop at the mall together. You get the idea.

The nervousness is fleeting though. Yes, I guess it is always lurking somewhere in the back of my mind, but I find that as the war goes on the fear is further and further from my thoughts. I suppose that is the way we learn to live in such a situation.

I don't know if it is real or only my perception, but the bus drivers have seemed friendlier, more polite lately. I find that my cheery "shalom" is more likely to be responded to with a smile, my "thank you" is more likely to earn a "you're welcome" or "with pleasure".

After all, who knows if this is our last bus ride.

Shabbat shalom.

Wednesday, June 19, 2002

We are not alone

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Judging by all the foreign news crews at the scene, you already know about this morning's bus bombing. Just to let you know, we're fine. It wasn't in an area of Jerusalem we get to that regularly, as if that is any comfort.

The blast was big. I had a call from a friend in a nearby neighbourhood. She was shaking. She said she could still feel the blast, with the boom resounding in her head over and over.

Through her tears she said the US should send Colin Powell over here, not to give the Palestinians a state, but to ride around in Israeli buses all day. Let him and his partners in the European Union do something useful, she said. If they have so much faith in negotiating with the Palestinian terrorists, let them live like ordinary Israeli civilians for a few weeks.

Israeli radio is now reporting 19 dead and 50 wounded. The bus, crowded with commuters and schoolchildren, was heading through southern Jerusalem from the suburban neighbourhood of Gilo towards the centre of town.

The announcer on Palestinian radio reported the news eagerly, essentially justifying the attack based on the origin of the bus route. "It appears that most of the people on the bus were settlers from the colony of Gilo," he said. No criticism of the bombing was expressed in the Palestinian media, except to suggest that the timing was inappropriate; Palestinian condemnations of terror are limited to foreign-language spokesmen.

CNN seems to have taken their cue from the Palestinians. Their reporter on the scene emphasized that Gilo is "what the Palestinians call an illegal settlement." CNN owner Ted Turner was interviewed today in Britain's Guardian newspaper, where he explained that "both sides are involved in terrorism."

Funny, I haven't noticed any exploding Palestinian schoolbuses, cafes or discotheques.

Maybe Ted should spend a few weeks riding Israeli buses too.

On the newsflash on Israeli TV they're showing the cleanup operation at the scene. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, against the advice of his bodyguards, is visiting the site, slowly, respectfully passing in front of the body bags laid out in a neat line by the road.

Behind him are the remains of the bus. Every time I shut my eyes I see the twisted, blackened bus, the ruins of its familiar red and white panels jutting out skyward at a ridiculous angle.

I know how often I ride on similar red and white Jerusalem city buses. It doesn't matter that I've rarely if ever taken route 32A from Gilo to central Jerusalem. All that matters is that at 8am the bus full of passengers ceased to be.

It could have been any route. How many others have been targeted? How many route numbers today are now also painful reminders of terrorism? The 18 always reminds me of the suicide bombings of 1996, the 6 of the attack in French Hill, the 13 of the Mahane Yehuda bombing, and so on and so on with so many routes.

On the radio morning programme, presenter Carmit Guy interviewed the headmaster of a nearby religious high school, only about 300 yards from the site of the blast. He has been methodically checking the rosters, trying to determine which pupils and staff are missing. He heard the blast during morning prayers. They were reciting Psalms, Psalms that we recite in times of trouble.

Carmit Guy, an avowed secularist, asked him gently if there are any particular Psalms we should be saying. They recite three Psalms every morning in these difficult times, he replied. Which ones? "I cast up my eyes to the mountains, from where will my salvation come?"

"From where will my salvation come?" she echoed, her voice almost breaking.

The bomb, packed with bits of metal, did so much damage that by 3 o'clock this afternoon only one body, that of the driver, had been identified.

The police have called on anyone who knows that a loved one was on the bus to come to the morgue to help with the identification process.

According to Israeli intelligence five suicide bombers are on their way to Israeli cities. The problem is finding them before they explode. Yesterday there were alerts for Haifa, Jerusalem, the Sharon region (from Netanya to Kfar Saba) and Tel Aviv - pretty much all the main population centres.

In Jerusalem last night the high alert was evident. We were stopped at a makeshift police roadblock in the city. The police were everywhere. Sadly, it didn't help this morning, but then trying to find one bomber in a city of over half a million people is, you'll excuse the clichי, like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Tonight we have plans to go out to dinner in Jerusalem. We won't be cancelling. We're meeting a relative of mine who is here from England here with a solidarity mission.

We joined him this Shabbat at his hotel in Jerusalem. That in itself was a hizuk - an inspiration, a strengthening experience. Not only was there a solidarity mission of British Jews and Christian friends of Israel, but for the first time in a long while this Jerusalem hotel was actually full.

Over Shabbat we met people from other solidarity missions. I was particularly moved by a young Lubavitch rabbi from Palm Springs, California, who came with a few members of his community to volunteer at an Israeli army base.

Shabbat afternoon we walked down to the kotel, the Western Wall, for minha (afternoon prayers). Amongst the women praying by the wall were some French women, also here on a solidarity visit. Walking back we passed what appeared to be a European tour group.

Every Israeli who speaks to these groups begins by thanking them for just having the courage to come. I feel the same way. With the death and hatred that surrounds us, one of the most wonderful things is to see a large group of diaspora Jews and Christians arriving in their tour bus to tell us that we aren't alone. Especially on a day like today.

Friday, June 14, 2002

Sheva's Psalms and songs

Thursday, June 13, 2002

Shabbat brought a searing "sharav", a dry, dusty heat wave which blows in from the desert. Temperatures hit about 40 C (over 100 F) all over the country, even hotter in some areas. Our apartment isn't air-conditioned, but it was just bearable compared with outdoors. Stepping outside, even into the sheltered entrance to our building, was like stepping into a furnace.

The furious wind we saw whipping the trees in the gardens below was deceptive, for the sharav wind is not a refreshing one, but a choking, hot wind, carrying with it sand and dust from the desert.
This is the weather for forest fires, spread rapidly by the fierce, hot wind. While some are accidental, sadly many of them are acts of arson set by Palestinian saboteurs in their eagerness to destroy everything Israeli, even the trees. Several acres of woodland were destroyed in the hills to the south and east of us, towards Bet Shemesh and Jerusalem, with the flames at times threatening the homes of a nearby kibbutz.

By the evening it was down to "only" the low 30s (90s Fahrenheit) and we began feeling a bit better. We started getting ready to go out for the evening to a concert in Jerusalem we had been looking forward to.

Turning on the radio for the first time after Shabbat went out, we felt worse again. Once more a terrorist had infiltrated a Jewish village in the Hebron area, this time murdering 23-year-old Eyal Sorek and his pregnant wife Yael, as well as an army reservist, Shalom Mordechai, in the early hours of the morning.

No longer in the mood, we decided nevertheless to go through with our planned night out. The longer this terror war continues, the more determined I feel to live life to the fullest, not to put off plans for a hoped-for better day, not to spend long hours at home wallowing in sorrow, shut up with the news reports.

As we neared the club we wondered if something was wrong. A police van and several officers armed with M-16s were stationed in front of the building. Metal barricades blocked off the entrance.

It soon became clear that this was just the latest in security for a popular place of entertainment.

The police eyed up anyone approaching the place, and a private security guard by the barricades searched each patron. After another set of barricades, we finally reached the ticket desk. By the door, a member of staff kept an eye on all those entering.

Had you stopped by during the evening you might have heard the band sing an impassioned rendition of, say, Psalms 121, traditionally recited in times of trouble "I cast up my eyes upon the mountains, from where will my salvation come? My salvation is from God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth". The crowd sang along, each word resounding clearly.

You would be forgiven for thinking this was a concert of Hassidic music for the religious public, perhaps a performance by one of the many groups following in the footsteps of the singing rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach.

You'd be wrong though. For one thing the clothing was a clear giveaway. Only one of the band members had his head covered and with his turban and bare arms he looked more like the genie from Aladdin than a rabbi. A guitarist sported thick, matted dark dreadlocks. Other band members wore gaudy loose cotton pants, oriental tops, brocade vests, Arab style pristine white robes or rock chic faded t-shirts.

Only a tiny handful of men in the audience wore kippot, and they were easily outnumbered by the men with ponytails. Several women were clad in the long, flowing Indian skirts so popular amongst religious women, only here they were mostly worn with revealing strappy little vests, crop tops or transparent gauze blouses.

Near the stage a gaggle of young women in tight jeans and miniscule t-shirts seemed mesmerized by the music. Sitting near the back, still dressed in our Shabbat clothes, we did feel a trifle out of place.

In short, not the sort of crowd you'd expect to be singing along enthusiastically to verses from Psalms or other traditional Jewish texts as they bopped and shimmied, undulating trancelike, many couples with their arms around one another.

And yet at the end of the concert DH remarked to me that he had rarely heard such genuine, sincere, religious music. My thoughts exactly.

The group performing were a band from the Galilee called Sheva, comprising six Jews and one Arab. Their music is rooted in traditional Middle Eastern and Jewish/Israeli music, but with clear influences from around the world, be it reggae, the Balkans or central and southern Asia. Each musician is a master of several instruments, an eclectic mix of East and West: electric guitars and Balkan baglama, Western woodwind alongside Middle Eastern ney (reed flute), darbuka drums and a rock drum kit, even a zither.

Lyrics from traditional Jewish texts featured prominently in their repertoire. They began the evening with a song whose words were from the first chapter of Psalms. Another number was set to the opening verse of Grace After meals thanking God for nourishing the world.

The melodies melded beautifully with the texts, bringing out the words, emphasising the grace of the Hebrew.

There were also many peace songs. Not the breezy, starry eyed anthems about imminent rosy utopias so typical of the Oslo years, but rather poignant yearnings for a day which right now seems hard to imagine. Through melancholy ballads and swirling, ecstatic rhythms the simple words touch a chord with every Israeli, the hope that someday we will have real peace.

Sheva also has a vision for that peace, a grand "sulha", the traditional conciliation ritual feast between feuding Middle East clans. One of the members announced that they were looking forward to a world sulha, but they'd be happy to start with a regional one, perhaps at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron where finally the descendents of Isaac and Ishmael would meet and be reconciled. Or perhaps in Jerusalem, in fulfilment of the biblical prophecy of all the nations gathering in Jerusalem on the pilgrim festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) and celebrating together.

At the end of a week so stained with Israeli blood, a week in which terrorists murdered 21 Israelis and wounded dozens more, it is amazing that Israelis can still sing such songs of peace and reconciliation, let alone pen new ones. For now we are fighting for our lives, but we still cling to the dream of redemption our prophets expressed so beautifully all those millennia ago.

Just because the Messiah is taking such a long time to come, does not mean that we cannot continue to hope and pray for that most joyous of all days.

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Herzliya bomb

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

After a few worried phone calls this evening I realise that I was remiss in not letting you all know that DH is fine. The bombing in downtown Herzliya was not in the part of town he works in, it is nowhere near the industrial zone, and he didn't even hear the blast. We much appreciate the concern.

There is something personally ironic though about an attack in Herlziya today. You see early this morning I had a doctor's appointment in central Jerusalem. A couple of friends had invited me out last night, one to a dance performance in Tel Aviv, the other to a concert, also in the Tel Aviv area. I turned them both down, knowing I had an early start, not wanting to be out so late.

One of them tried to convince me to come, and when I protested that I needed to be in central Jerusalem early the next day she was suddenly shocked, "You're going to Jerusalem?" she exclaimed. "To central Jerusalem? Are you crazy, taking your life in your hands like that?!"

And today the bombers came to Herzliya, the part of the country this woman lives in. There is no way to know where the terrorists will strike next. I have long ago ceased trying to live my life second guessing them. It is an impossible, and generally futile task.

It has been another crazy day today lurching from one terrorist outrage to the next.

A Palestinian ran up to a traffic cop in Jerusalem and slit his throat, the officer somehow managing to let off a few shots at his attacker before collapsing. Thank God the policeman survived, but his condition is serious.

Later in the day a terrorist detonated a bomb near a bus transporting high school kids out cherry picking on a farm near Hebron. Three kids were seriously hurt.

Then this evening a bomber blew himself up in a Herzliya shwarma fast food joint, killing himself and wounding 15 Israelis. By midnight a 14-year-old girl had died of wounds sustained in the bombing.

Just another day in the life...


Saturday, June 01, 2002

A hidden reservoir

Friday, May 31, 2002

Two weeks ago, we enjoyed a beautiful Shavuot weekend with DH's aunt in Jerusalem. This year we decided to study Divrei Hayamim (the biblical Book of Chronicles) and Mishnah Hulin (part of the fundamental code of Jewish law).

The unseasonably cool weather was perfect for walks in the nearby Jerusalem Forest. On Shabbat afternoon we went on a four hour hike down into the valley and came across a reservoir hidden between a picturesque village and green wooded slopes. We knew from maps that it existed but on previous walks we'd never been able to find it.

Walking along a rutted dirt path we suddenly caught sight of a large, impressive dam, the like of which I have never seen in Israel. Behind it, the long, tongue-shaped body of water surrounded by pine trees was oddly reminiscent of a Scottish loch.

In an overgrown meadow by the shore, a Balkan-looking shepherd clad in a white shirt, black pants and a small fur cap watched a small flock of sheep and goats gorging on the wild grains and thistles.

All this on the outskirts of the sprawling city of Jerusalem. Israel is full of such surprises.

Throughout our walk we saw all seven of the special species mentioned in the Bible, some cultivated, many growing wild. Pomegranate trees covered in bright red blossoms were prominent in many gardens and by the roadside. Cultivated and wild grapevines draped along walls, or crept along the grass verges, several growing parasitically over olive trees. The olive trees themselves, like the fig trees, were everywhere, in cultivated groves, garden centrepieces or just wild. A few date palms grew in village gardens, a touch of the Middle East in an otherwise European looking landscape. In the lush, green valley the browning wild wheat, barley and oats looked out of place.

Above the reservoir, the little village with its twisty streets and red-roofed houses reminded me of Provence, with gardens and window boxes overflowing with bright geraniums.

Dozens of loquat trees, heavy with their fragrant orange fruit, added a touch of the exotic to many gardens. Atop one of them a green parakeet was feasting on ripe loquats. Both the loquat and the parakeet were originally introduced from lands east of Israel, but both have acclimatised well.

I foolishly undertook this walk in ordinary sandals, and on our way back through the village my feet were burning from the constant rubbing of the straps and all the bits of gravel and sand from the dirt paths. I could feel the birth pangs of several blisters.

In the middle of the village we came across a small, secluded, almost hidden park, up a few steps, above the road. We decided to sit there and rest a few minutes in the shade. A sign informed us that this was "Park Ma'ayan". Ma'ayan is Hebrew for spring, and appropriately enough there was a little stone drinking fountain with deliciously cool water. We drank and I poured some water onto my feet too, easing the soreness. DH produced a mini-mishnah from his pocket and we learnt a few mishnayot.

The pleasant, but chilling Jerusalem evening breeze ruffled my light Indian cotton skirt, the red and green fabric matching the geraniums and flowering pomegranate trees. I pulled the matching shawl tight around my shoulders against the light wind. The mirrored embroidery caught little flashes of the golden sunshine.

As we sat there, enjoying the vines and flowers, the beautiful views and the songbirds, I noticed a plaque in one corner of the park. I read it and felt the tears welling up. This was no ordinary park, but a memorial, a memorial to a young woman named Ma'ayan Levi, murdered in a shooting in central Jerusalem's Yoel Salomon pedestrian mall on October 9, 1994.

Ma'ayan was born and grew up in this pastoral landscape. Her life was cut short by a Palestinian terrorist almost exactly one year after the Oslo peace accords. Her murderer was a member of the then brand-new Palestinian police force. She was only 19. Her death was a harbinger of the horrors this so-called peace process was to bring.

I remember the attack well, the shock, the surprise that the perpetrator was at once a member of Hamas and a Palestinian police officer. At the time there were those in government who dismissed the tragedy as an aberration, a teething problem of the Oslo peace process. Few imagined that six years later the process would climax, not with the hoped-for end of conflict, but with a war in which such Palestinian attacks would be routine, in which no one would be shocked any more by Palestinian policemen turning their weapons on Israelis.

I was also 19 in the fall of 1994. I was just starting college and planning my wedding.

Here I was 8 years later, in my late 20s, sitting with my husband, enjoying a pleasant Shabbat afternoon. And here was Ma'ayan, forever 19, buried in the cemetery of her home village, her last memorial a pretty little park and water fountain.


Friday, May 24, 2002

There but for fortune

Friday, May 24, 2002

My personal excitement for today was the cute little pink lizard which lodged itself in the frame of my open bathroom window. I managed to coax it out, only to have it flee in the wrong direction, slip on the smooth tiled bathroom window sill and land unceremoniously in the bathtub, where it ran around in frantic circles trying to escape up the slippery bath sides.

At this point the phone rang. DH told the caller that I couldn't talk because I was busy chasing a lizard around the bathtub.

Eventually I somehow coaxed the panicked creature into an (empty) plastic hummus container. Well, the first time I thought I'd caught it, I was left with nothing but its tail - they are detachable for just such emergencies. The second time I was fast enough to trap it and carry it out to freedom on my balcony. I'm happy to report that it has found itself a nice shady corner near my pepper plant and when last seen was happily gorging itself on plant bugs.

If only life in Israel could always be this uneventful.

As of about 1am this morning, Israel has a new hero: Modi'in resident Eli Federman. A 36-year-old security guard, his alertness foiled a terror attack at a Tel Aviv disco.

Standing outside the Studio 49 club, Federman suddenly saw a car hurtling towards the building. He yelled at the kids standing near the door to get down, and then opened fire at the vehicle. It erupted into a massive explosion, sending pipe bombs in all directions. Thanks to Federman's actions there were only five injuries, and the only person killed was the terrorist himself.

It was barely a year ago that a suicide bomber murdered 22 young Israelis at the Dolphinarium disco on Tel Aviv's beachfront. Had it succeeded, today's attack could easily have been worse.

Just as life in Israel seemed to be returning to some semblance of normality, just as people were feeling freer again, right after the most normal holiday Israel has known in a long time, the bombers plunge us all back into the routine of death and destruction.

Over last week's Shavuot holiday weekend, for the first time in a long while, hotels all over Israel were booked up, Israelis were travelling and hiking in numbers not seen since the war started. This Shavuot hinted that perhaps, just perhaps, this time, something was going to change for the better. The PLO would reform, the more moderate Arab states would force Arafat to behave - and Mary Poppins would come to the rescue of us all.

Only last Shabbat, as we were sitting around the table and "the situation" came up, DH was saying how it looked as though things might be starting to change, the war might be drawing to a close, or at any rate, we finally seemed to be winning it.

I've been thinking that too of late, but though I'm not superstitious, I didn't want to say it out loud. No reason to build myself up for disappointment. No reason to stop looking very carefully at the people around me on the bus or at the supermarket.

Operation Defensive Shield saved many Israeli lives, that I don't doubt. As I've mentioned before, though, I can't help observing that the Israeli army was not allowed to finish the job. As a result the terrorists still have plenty of bases, and for all the valuable intelligence that enabled Israel to prevent a series of terrible bombings, it wasn't enough to prevent all of them.

Two successful suicide bombings in four days this week. Five murdered Israelis. Over sixty wounded. Netanya on Sunday, Rishon Letzion on Wednesday. Today's foiled car bomb in Tel Aviv. Two other incidents in which suicide bombers exploded prematurely, killing themselves, but no one else. Another handful of suicide bombers-in-waiting Israel caught before they could strike. With all those planned terror attacks it is perhaps not surprising that a few should succeed.

Wednesday night we went to bed with the news of the suicide attack in downtown Rishon Letzion. A bomber detonated himself amidst a group of locals gathered in a park to play their nightly game of chess or backgammon. Only that morning we awoke to news of a bomber shot by border guards while attempting to cross into Israel.

Thursday morning we could, God forbid, have been in the midst of horrors that would even have dwarfed any of the previous terrible attacks we've suffered. Everyone is talking about the "mega terrorist attack" which miraculously failed.

As a diesel tanker pulled into Israel's largest fuel depot, Pi Glilot, an explosion ripped through the truck, sending flaming diesel fuel spilling out of a gaping hole in the tank. Thank God the onsite emergency team was well drilled and immediately leapt into action, putting out the fire before it could spread to nearby tankers.

Had the emergency crews not reacted so quickly, I don't even want to think of the possibilities. A huge depot, tons of highly flammable gas, petrol and diesel, all in the middle of Israel's most crowded population centre. The northern Tel Aviv suburbs are to the south, the Herzliya industrial zone to the north, and the country's busiest highways surround it. In the worst case scenario, had the main depot exploded, the resulting fireball could have extended for half a mile in all directions. Police estimate that if, God forbid, the attack had succeeded, casualties may have been in the hundreds or thousands.

Thank God, we were spared all that. As of that afternoon the fuel depot was closed until further notice pending security upgrades.


Thursday, May 16, 2002

Average Israeli's dream in a nutshell?

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Hard to believe, but Shavuot, the feast of weeks, is already here. Fifty days after the horrors of the seder night massacre in Netanya, and in comparison life has been relatively normal. Who would have believed that we'd come to consider "only" a couple of successful suicide bombings a month to be relatively normal?

Yet we have lately felt things returning to normal. The radio news a few nights ago opened with announcer Esti Perez: "Like any normal country, we begin tonight's news programme with a slot about the weather." The average Israeli's dream in a nutshell.

The weather was indeed the most striking story of the day. Towards the end of what until then had been a pleasantly balmy May evening, we suddenly felt drops of rain. The wind shook the palm trees, and a moderate but steady rain was falling. The cool drops soaking through our thin summer clothes, dampening our hair, were deliciously refreshing. Driving home, the sky in the distance was sporadically brightened by flashes of lightning. Rain in mid-May. Yes really, rain in mid-May in Tel Aviv.

Only that afternoon we'd been experiencing the harbingers of the Israeli summer. In Jerusalem the heat was dry, though not yet the scorching, searing heat of summer. Overhead, swifts raced through the sky hunting flying insects, skimming the rooftops, their piercing cries slicing through the noise of the traffic on the busy street.

From behind their cool sunglasses a pair of soldiers kept a watchful eye on the scene from the relative shade of a shop awning. A middle aged cop sweated into his sticky dayglo vest as he directed traffic in the strong afternoon sunshine. Caught out by the changeable spring weather women gazed with renewed interest at shop displays of strappy open sandals and wispy cotton dresses.

The approach of summer means the arrival of Shavuot. Over the past few weeks television and radio have been full of ads for cheeses, cream and cheesecake, while commercial jingles are pastiches of Israeli folk tunes. Florists are selling fresh garlands for children to wear at the traditional harvest festivities, and there are special deals on bouquets for Shavuot decorations. Display windows look like mock barns, full of straw, milk churns and plastic produce. Clothing stores feature rack upon rack of pristine white.

More than our other festivals, Shavuot at home in Israel is much richer than in the lands of the diaspora. We may not have been able to bring our harvest offerings to the Temple since its destruction nearly 2000 years ago, but the spirit of the harvest festival is alive nonetheless.
Just look around and you can see the fields full of wheat, others covered in the stubble from the freshly harvested crop. As Passover celebrates the spring, Shavuot commemorates the start of summer. The summer flowers are in bloom, but the spring greenery is already fading to summer's browns and yellows. The pomegranate trees are covered in gorgeous red, bell-like, blossoms; the fruit itself will only ripen by late summer or early autumn. The fig trees have regained their foliage and the first tiny unripe fruits have appeared. Look carefully at the grape vines and olive trees and you will see miniscule seed like clusters - embryonic grapes and olives.
For the average Israeli, Shavuot is a time of folklore and harvest festivals, celebrating an older, more rustic Israel, the rural Israel of the kibbutzim and rural villages, of moustachioed farmers driving red tractors, of young men and women in "kovei tembel" (the floppy sunhat - Israel's national headgear) rising at 4am to work in the cowshed.

Agricultural communities across Israel hold Shavuot harvest celebrations, with swirling folk dances, white dresses, floral crowns and all. Last week Jerusalem got a taste of the festivities when farmers from across Israel brought their produce to the city in honour of Jerusalem Day - a ceremony recalling the Shavuot pilgrimage to Jerusalem of Temple times.
A village in northern Israel built a giant basket and invited communities and individuals to fill it with local produce. The filled basket was then taken to Jerusalem and presented to the Rabbi of the Kotel (Western Wall), for distribution to the city's needy.

Walking through downtown Jerusalem this week I was taken aback to see a giant basket of produce sitting in the middle of Zion Square and next to it a huge statue of a couple sitting at a festive table, glasses of wine in their hands. The basket was courtesy of Israel's produce marketing board and the couple had been donated by the Barkan winery, one of Israel's largest.
All this isn't to say that here in Israel we forget that Shavuot is also the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Increasingly, the custom of staying up and studying Torah all night is not restricted only to the religious or the more learned. Community centres across the country offer Shavuot Jewish Studies programmes, and an increasing number of study sessions are organised even by secular Israelis. For example, at the Metullah poetry festival in northern Israel they'll be devoting tonight to the study of the Book of Ruth, traditionally read on Shavuot. Each poet is expected to turn up to the session with a five minute commentary on the biblical book, and they intend to keep going for as long as they can hold out.

In previous years we've stayed with relatives who live in walking distance of the Kotel, the Western Wall, where we joined the Shavuot early morning prayers. Now that is a sight to behold: hundreds of thousands of Jews streaming into the Old City through all its gates at about four o'clock in the morning, filling the Kotel plaza. The walk back afterwards is exhausting, but well worth the effort for an inkling of what the ancient pilgrimage must have been like.

Wishing you all a happy Shavuot,

Friday, May 10, 2002

Was Uri Tzvi Greenberg a prohpet?

Thursday, May 9, 2002

This is a week of celebrations in Jerusalem. Friday is Jerusalem Day, commemorating thirty-five years (according to the Hebrew calendar) since the city's reunification during the Six Day War. In honour of the anniversary there is a week long programme of special events in the Israeli capital, with concerts, exhibitions and the like.

Last night we attended a festive evening in the Jerusalem Theatre. The highlight was the world premiere of a new symphony by renowned Israeli composer Gil Shohat. It was flanked by two lighter events in the lobby: a performance by the Jerusalem School of Flamenco and a trio singing French chanson. The music of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf make many an Israeli go dewy eyed.

We were pleased to see such a full house, like the "old days", before the war, with not a seat to spare in either the lobby cafe or the auditorium. At the entrances guards with machine guns kept watch. Everyone entering the building had to pass through a metal detector.
We had good seats, a few rows back from the stage. Amongst the VIPs in the audience was Gil Shohat himself, the 28-year-old composer, dapper and most un-Israeli looking in his suit and silk evening scarf.

Jerusalem was the repeated theme of the event. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in the Jerusalem Theatre performing two works based on texts by Jerusalem poets in honour of Jerusalem Day.

The first, shorter, piece was excerpted from a symphony whose texts were commissioned from poet Hayim Guri, also present in the audience. The centrepiece followed: the premiere of a symphonic arrangement for a poem by the late Uri Tzvi Greenberg.

Greenberg was one of the leading Hebrew poets of the twentieth century, and one of the most controversial. His work is often called prophetic, having foreseen the destruction of European Jewry many years before the Holocaust. Unlike many of his contemporaries, while a staunch Zionist, he did not see Jewish statehood as the panacea for his nation's suffering. For him sovereignty was necessary in part as a means of enabling Jews to defend themselves, a need which would not vanish anytime soon.

Last night's symphony was based on a 1930s Greenberg poem entitled "Kodesh Kodashim", "Holy of Holies". It tells the metaphorical story of a Jewish mother, representing the helpless pogrom-ravaged Jews of Europe, and her son, representing the new generation taking shape in the Land of Israel, committed to sovereignty and self-reliance.

As the mother lies dying in her son's arms, they dream of being carried together to Jerusalem. The mother advises her son to remain always on alert:

"Even when the Redeemer comes and the nations beat their swordsTo plowshares and throw their guns into the fire,You - No, son, not you!"
"No, mother."
"Lest the nations arise again and collect iron
And once again set upon us when we are unprepared
As we have been unprepared until now... Woe!"

This, for Greenberg, was the central lesson of modern Jewish history: That Jews unable to defend themselves would always be potential targets. No amount of self-abasement and gestures of goodwill would bring any lasting security for the persecuted nation. No one but the Jews would look out for their survival.

Classically, Jewish poets have turned to Jerusalem as a symbol for the eternal peace at the time of the redemption. In Greenberg's poem, though, that Jerusalem is elusive. The City of David, for him, is the city of David the warrior, who fought all his life to defend his kingdom from the surrounding nations. It was only his son, Solomon, who enjoyed the fruits of his father's success and ruled in a time of peace. In this poem, Jerusalem is the Jerusalem of David, not of Solomon, of vigilance, not tranquillity.

Perhaps we, too, must accept that we are, metaphorically, the generation of David, not of Solomon. God willing, our children will enjoy the peace that we can only dream of. For now though, we have no choice but to fight the vicious enemies who seek our destruction. The only peace we can foresee is the peace of deterrence.

Greenberg was no stranger to the horrors of war, having fought in the trenches of the First World War. As he wrote in another poem, he understood the yearning for the day when "night creeps softly on tiptoe and nightingales gather at my window - instead of death." Yet he was ever aware that longing for peace does not bring it about.

Today, his pragmatic, Hobbesian view of the world seems particularly relevant. Those who saw peace just around the corner have had their hopes violently dashed. The expectation of peace led to far worse tragedies than the suffering it had been purported to end. Maybe this is why interest in Greenberg's poetry has undergone something of a revival recently.

On our way home we were just in time to catch the 11 o'clock radio news. The headline was about a family in an Israeli village in Gaza who had miraculously escaped physical injury when a Palestinian mortar shell slammed into their house, plunging through the roof, spraying their living room with shrapnel.

A few minutes later regular programming was interrupted. An explosion in the Rishon Letzion industrial zone, preliminary reports say many injured. In my mind's eye I could see the area; last year we were at a wedding in a hall right nearby.

Dear God, not again, not again.

Once again the radio was repeating those dreaded numbers, the phone numbers for the hospitals, and for the national morgue. How many dead, how many dying, how many wounded. By morning the toll was sixteen Israelis murdered, over fifty wounded.

Three weeks had passed without a suicide bomber succeeding. It felt like a glimmer of hope. A hope we knew would not last. We knew that the Israeli army was forced to end Operation Defensive Shield early. Every Israeli knew that sooner or later we would have to pay for leaving the job half done, for leaving part of the terror network intact in the face of international threats.

Every day for the last few weeks the Israeli army has prevented a suicide bomber from reaching an Israeli population centre. Thanks to intelligence gathered from the raids on Palestinian terror bases and from interrogating the terrorists apprehended there. But there was so much more to be done.

Was it only yesterday that we were enjoying the stupidity of a football referee scandal, the mundane headline about the budget?

And now there is nothing left for us to do but to stand in front of the TV, watching the terrible pictures from Rishon, while we recite Psalms. May our tears and prayers open the gates of Heaven.

Uri Tzvi Greenberg has rarely seemed more prophetic.