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 clich×™, 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.