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.

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