Monday, October 16, 2006

The rains are here - Yippee!!!

Yesterday was the Jewish festival of Shmini Atzeret, the culmination of this month's festive season and the day on which Jews begin praying for rain in the Land of Israel

It was actually rather of striking that the last few days had been a searing sharav, also known as a hamsin, fiercely dry hot weather, characterised by overcast, hazy skies and hot dry winds which bring choking sand and dust in from the southern and eastern deserts. That kind of weather is enough to stir anyone to pray fervently for rain...

As I was walking to synagogue in the early morning that thick heat was still in the air. It was incredibly hot, the dusty air caught in everyone's throats, I couldn't talk or sing without breaking into a coughing fit.

By around midday though, just as the prayers for rain were about to begin a refreshing breeze began to blow and fluffy little white clouds began to drift in, replacing the smokelike stratus clouds of the sharav.

It was quite uncanny, as the prayers for rain got underway the sky clouded over more with each solemn hymn the shaliah tzibur (cantor) intoned, beseeching God for water "Cause the winds to blow and the rain to fall!"

By the time we were walking home you could almost smell the impending rain in the air. As soon as the festival ended that night my husband went and took down our sukkah.

By the early hours of the morning, when I got up to give my baby her next feed I could hear the pitter patter of rain against the windows.This morning (Sunday) we already had some puddles to splash in during a morning walk, squeezed between a medium rain shower and a massively heavy downpour, complete with thunder. On the news this evening the meteorological office announced that the yoreh, the first autumnal rains of the wet season, have officially arrived. Yippee! This is what "Singing in the Rain" was really written about.

In the language of the prayer I would like to wish all the peoples of this region a good rainy season:
For a blessing and not for a curse
For life and not for death
For sustenance and satisfaction and not for starvation and scarcity.
לברכה ולא לקללה
לחיים ולא למוות
לשובע ולא לרזון


Thursday, September 14, 2006

Onwards to the next muckup

Nothing stands still here even if it seems as though nothing changes.

The writing has been on the wall for some time now, any pocket of instability in the region from Iraq to Somalia, is going to attract Al-Qaeda and Co, and the chaos, porous borders and feuding factions that have characterised Gaza since Israel pulled out last summer are an ideal recruiting ground for the worst kinds of bloodthirsty extremism.

There is no vacum in the Mid East, either the Israeli government tries to initiate some kind of negotiations with the Hamas led government or someone else will intervene with some new hairbrained scheme that will destablise the region even further.

Meanwhile Kassam rockets still fly over the border from Gaza into Israel, and Israel sort of tries to fight terror from Gaza with a government that is scared of further escalation and an army treading on egg shells to avoid civilian casualties in densely populated areas while fighting an enemy who revels in them.

In other words, same old, same old, and if we're really lucky Olmert will go ahead with unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank too, ignoring the chaos that ensued from the Gaza withdrawal and us folks in central Israel will get kassam rockets coming our way as well.

Sometimes you just got to love being an Israeli civilian.

Did I mention how highly I regard our political leadership? If I wasn't caring for my baby girl I would have spent this summer with the demonstrators camped outside the government in Jerusalem's hot sun demanding that someone take responsibility for this summer's Lebanon debacle before they race on to the next snafu.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Our reserves

Thursday, August 10 2006

I continue to get worried phone calls and e-mails from friends and family overseas wondering what it’s like to have a war going on a few hours drive from home.

Some seemed to have the impression that something must be happening where I live, after all a war couldn’t be going on near Haifa and life be going on almost as normal a few dozen miles south of there. I apologise to those whom I tersely told to get a map, I wasn’t being rude, just making the point that to date the southernmost Katyusha struck Hadera, about an hour’s drive north of Tel Aviv, and I live south of Tel Aviv. There is no telling what tomorrow may bring – ceasefire or missile – but I can of course only comment on what is going on today.

However far away one is from Lebanon, the emergency “tzav shmoneh” draft notices have touched every part of the country. Reservists from every walk of life and every part of Israel have been called up to fight and in just about every workplace someone is away, serving at the front.

You can usually tell them apart from the regular army, the long hair and extra scruffy uniforms are usually a clear give away. These men are not young boys fresh out of school doing their national service, but mostly married, late twenty, thirty and even forty somethings, with families and jobs, putting their ordinary lives on hold to defend their country.

In normal times these men do a few weeks reserve duty a year, right now they’ve been whipped away for who knows how long – sometimes the draft notice has arrived in the middle of the night, leaving little time for contingency plans at work or home.

The huge number of reservists currently serving up north is reflected in almost every aspect of daily life, from casual conversations with shop assistants to finding out that your doctor or plumber has been called up to empty desks at the office and mounting backlogs as other workers are left to take up the slack.

Today for example I was working on an article about native animals. Calling a local zoologist I was surprised that as he answered his cellphone I could hear the radio chatter of an army patrol in the background. I had reached him on reserve duty.

My neighbour had planned renovations this summer. A couple of days after the builders began work her husband was whisked away by the army, leaving her home alone with a bunch of kids on school vacation to look after, a house being torn apart by workmen and no idea when her husband would be back.

A few of the women I met at my daughter’s jamboree playgroup told similar stories – suddenly alone, some pregnant, others “just” with a bunch of young children, trying to hold their lives together while their husbands go off to war.

Several people from my husband’s workplace have been drafted, including some he works with on a daily basis.

One of them, a 36-year-old father of two, was among the fifteen soldiers killed during Wednesday’s fighting.

The office chartered a bus to take everyone to the funeral. The driver himself felt as though he was on reserve duty. He spent much of the week ferrying firemen around the north, part of the effort to control the forest and brush fires sparked by Hizballah rockets and mortars. The other day as he drove around the corner a Katyusha flew over and landed only metres in front of him, gouging a deep hole in the ground as it planted itself in the pavement.

This evening, after putting the baby to bed I finally caught up with the day’s news. Yet another soldier lost from my town, and a few more from villages in the surrounding area.

Maps aside, the war certainly does touch us all however physically distant we think we are from it.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Video of rocket damage and forest fires in northern Israel

I'm subscribed to a local JNF (KKL in Hebrew) mailing list which sends me hiking suggestions in different forests every week, in north, south and central Israel.

This week instead of their usual recommendations for northern Israel, they sent a video showing some of the forest fires and destruction caused by Hizballah rockets in northern Israel.

I thought that this video gives some perspectives on the scale of the damage up north. Every time there is a report that a rocket "fell in an open area", this is what it means - in a forest or someone's field or orchard, still causing massive damage. Katyushas fulling in "open areas" have proved lethal to anyone unlucky enough to be caught outdoors when the rockets struck.

This is one of the most scenic parts of Israel, with tourism and agriculture two of the main sources of income, so every forest, field and nature reserve burnt is someone's livelihood gone.

The interviews and commentary are only in Hebrew, but I figured some of the footage might be of interest even to those who don't understand:

Also see this article in the Jerusalem Post:

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Two days, two funerals

Wednesday-Thursday, August 2-3 2006, Tisha B’Av

My sister answered the phone Tuesday night with Tisha B’Av in her voice. She just got word that a friend was critically hurt in the fighting in Lebanon.

I had heard the news that night and they were reporting soldiers lightly wounded and moderately wounded, no one critically wounded. Sometimes they say critically wounded to break it to the family gently. Sometimes it means critically wounded, sometimes it means dead. My instincts told me it was the latter. With a deep sense of foreboding I prayed that it was the former.

When I SMSed her a few hours later to see how she was doing, her reply was a curt, chilling two words: hu neherag – he was killed.

Taking in the newspaper Wednesday morning, the glaring headline mentioned the name of only one of Tuesday’s three casualties, an uncommon name from a moshav close to Modi’in. With a sinking heart I realized without a doubt we knew this family too.

The phone rang again. This time it was my husband with Tisha B’Av in his voice. “Have you heard the news? Did you hear the names of the soldiers?”

One of the fallen, Yehonatan Einhorn, was the son of a man my husband sings with in a local hazzanut choir.

13:30 Wednesday found us packed in among hundreds of mourners pouring into Jerusalem’s Mt Herzl military cemetery. A calm, sombre crowd quietly escorted the 22-year-old paratrooper on his final journey.

We arrived just as the military hearse did.

To the chanting of a Psalm, a group of young paratroopers lifted the coffin draped in the Israeli flag and made their way up the stone stairs, followed by an honour guard and more soldiers, many straight from the front. The throng of mourners fell in behind while a posse of media cameramen pursued the best shots of raw grief.

The area around the open grave was cordoned off to provide the immediate family and honour guard room to breathe. Nearby wreath and pebble covered mounds marked the fresh graves of other soldiers killed during the current Lebanon war.

People continued to file in as the earth was filled in over the coffin and the bereaved father uttered the Mourner’s Kaddish in a voice cracking with emotion.

My husband was visibly shaken. “It’s hard to see such a cheerful man so broken,” he said to me through tear-bleared eyes, “he always has a ready smile, an optimistic word, it’s agony to see this happen to such a man.”

It was disconcerting, especially in Israel, to see such a large crowd stand so quietly. Even the crying was muted, restrained, without dramatic outpourings of anguish. The pain was clearly etched on the mourners’ faces, but most seemed to bear it with a dignified resilience.

The birds too were silent, despite the ample trees. Only the sporadic wail of ambulance sirens from the nearby Sha’arei Tzedek hospital broke the stillness.

The scattered trees were insufficient to shade the multitude from the harsh mid-afternoon sun. An intermittent Jerusalem breeze brought some relief from the stifling heat, bringing with it the refreshing scent of native pine trees and rosemary bushes.

A few soldiers handed out bottles of iced mineral water from an industrial sized cooler, but the supply was woefully inadequate, and people passed each bottle around, taking a sip, briefly placing it on their forehead and passing it on to whoever looked like they needed it most.

Eulogies were given by family members, by his commander, by rabbis who taught him and by people from his village. The pervading theme was Yehonatan's great humility, piety and devotion to Israel and the Jewish people, a young man who embodied the true ethics, spirit and resolve of the IDF.

Many of the speakers pleaded with the government to make sure that this time the army is allowed to do their job, that Israel fight Hezballah until it is no longer a threat, rather leaving it strong enough to regroup and start this whole terrible war all over again in another few months or years. Our soldiers must not have died in vain.

The parents remain fixed in my mind. Two sweet, humble, religious Jews bravely meeting the most terrible of all with acceptance, faith and understanding. They spoke with such warmth and such love, and no bitterness, only determination that their son died doing what was right to defend his country fighting for its life, doing what he believed in.

The father spoke last of all, with words of such power and courage that I cannot even try to convey them. Yehonatan literally means “God gave”; he thanked God for giving him his son for 22 joyous years. He ended with a plea: Dai – enough, God, please end the constant attacks on our country.

The next afternoon, Tisha B’Av itself, I was back at Mt Herzl, this time to pay respects to my sister’s friend, Michael Levin, an American oleh killed in the same battle.

As on Wednesday the mourners included soldiers wounded in Lebanon and others who had come from the front, a sea of red paratroopers’ berets peppered with the colours of other units.

There were also groups of English-speaking youth visiting Israel on summer programmes, who had been brought to the funeral to learn about the Zionist ethos and to gain an insight into Israeli life. A group of them entering behind me didn’t even seem to know whose funeral they were attending. “So who is this dead soldier?” one asked his companion. “An American immigrant, from Philly I think.” “No, really, an American in the Israeli army?!” “Yeah, it’s going to be a military funeral, I hear they shoot guns and stuff.”

As I was leaving, a counsellor was addressing a British group, trying to convey to his charges all that this young soldier embodied in his life and death – self-sacrifice, devotion to his cause, idealism and the courage to pay the ultimate price if that is what the defence of Israel requires.

Some of these wide eyed kids from abroad were clearly overwhelmed by the whole experience. Others brushed off the heavy emotion of the occasion with glib jokes and bravado.

The eulogies were briefer, simpler than at yesterday’s funeral, but they were no less moving or heartbreaking. They painted the portrait of yet another special, dedicated young man whose abundant promise had been cruelly and abruptly cut short, a man who crossed thousands of miles to fulfil his childhood dream of living in Israel and defending his people by serving in the elite IDF paratroopers.

His commanders spoke movingly, one reciting a poem he had written in beautiful literary Hebrew in memory of the fallen soldier. Several of the Israeli speakers did their best to say a few words in English, for the benefit of family and friends unable to understand Hebrew. Their heavily accented, mistake-riddled English did nothing to diminish the obvious sincerity and love in their words.

Long after the huge crowds had left, a knot of close friends, family and comrades-in-arms clustered around the fresh grave, weeping, talking, singing mournful Carlebach songs and remembering.

The press with their intrusive telephoto lenses stayed too, hoping for a good snap of the bereaved, the fresh pain, sorrow and shock on their youthful faces, bright eyes glazed with tears and disbelief.

One girl commented to her friend about how shocked some of the American family had been to see the media at the funeral. “Mike would have liked it, though,” she responded. “He would have loved all the cool cameras.”

Hard to believe that only about 10 years separate me from them, though they seemed so young, so innocent.

As I hugged my sister at the graveside I had no words of comfort for her, all I could do was to be there. I was about her age when one of my classmates was killed in the previous Lebanon war. I knew how she felt, but there was no consolation in saying so. At the moment of loss it feels as though no one else can possibly understand.

Standing beside Michael Levin’s friends, the memories of that terrible day seemed as fresh now as they did all those years ago. Time may bury the ache, but it is always just beneath the surface.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Fireworks or Katyushas?

Thursday July 20 2006

Junior and I went to a little playgroup meeting this morning in a nearby moshav. In between the chatter about toys, food and general kids’ stuff we couldn’t quite escape the news.

One of the kids got hold of the TV remote and turned on the box, her mother flipping the stations to find the children’s channel. On the way she couldn’t help passing a couple of news broadcasts. One of the little girls called out, “Zikukim!” – fireworks – as a brief image of explosions came on the screen.

“So that’s how you explain it to her, fireworks?”, one of the other mothers asked.

“What else am I going to say? She is too young to be told what those pictures really show, and in times like these I need to see the TV news but I don’t want them to know what’s going on. This is my way of shielding them.”

“We do the same,” concurred a third mother. “My older ones know that the broken buildings are ‘under construction’, pictures of ‘building sites’.”

Talk turned to family and friends up north.

“You know that’s why I was late this morning. We have a full house at the moment,” said M. Her sister and family live in one of the kibbutzim close the Lebanese border and had come to stay with her to escape the war.

M herself had only just left the border in time. She and her children had been spending a family holiday with her sister, enjoying the gorgeous location and kibbutz swimming pool.

Then one day they heard some very loud booms.

Her sister called from work and told her to stay indoors, not to take the kids to the pool and to seek cover, she would be right home. They had just heard the first wave of Hizballah’s new offensive – shelling and rocketing Israel’s northern border.

M packed up her young children and baby and got on the first bus going south. Shortly afterwards the first Katyusha rockets slammed into the grounds of the kibbutz.

Another mother mentioned that her neighbour was also hosting a northern family. Like many Israeli towns, the municipality has organized a hospitality programme for people from front-line communities.

H noted that many families up north might want to travel south but don’t have the cash at the moment. In a recent phone call northern relatives told her that local people are running short of cash because the banks are closed due to the situation and no one is refilling the cash machines.

Her family are originally from Tzfat (Safed) and many still live there. So far the city has suffered more rocket strikes than any other but her relatives are determinedly staying put. Like many crisis-seasoned Israelis, the first thing they did after their town was hit by Katyushas was to rush to the supermarket and stock up on water, dry goods and batteries. Cash or no cash, they were well stocked for the duration.

As I arrived home my mobile rang. It was Tzohar, an umbrella organisation for religious Zionist rabbis. Since the crisis began they have set up a hotline to help the northern communities. They were looking for families to host people from the north, could we accommodate a family of three and their dog from Karmiel?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Beautiful northern Israel

Before anyone starts worrying, these are not recent shots, but some photos from a trip up north a few years ago. Just so anyone who hasn't visited knows what a wonderful part of the country this is.

The Israeli border town of Metulla in better times.Visiting there a few years ago you could see the Hizballah flags and positions right up near the border fence. For the last few years, ever since Israel pulled out of Lebanon, farmers from the town have risked Hizballah attack every time they tend to their orchards which with the redrawing of the border by the UN are now right up against the border.

Saar waterfall

Monday, July 17, 2006

Evil from the North

It's been quite an eye opener reading the foreign press. The game is how far do I have to read until I realise that Israel was a)attacked first and b) that Israel is suffering hundreds of rocket strikes from Hizballah controlled southern Lebanon.

A few friends who e-mailed me from overseas mentioned that while they hope Im safe, they really must protest
Israels behaviour. Why dont we negotiate with Hizballah? Why isnt our response more proportional?

How do you negotiate with someone whose stated goal is your destruction? Someone who regularly swears his allegiance to your annihilation and rejoices at the death of every Israeli man, woman and child?

As for proportionality, Im tempted to reply, well, do you want us to randomly mount a border raid and kill 8 Hizballah guerillas and kidnap two more, or in response to rockets fired at Israeli cities should we willfully target residential areas in
Lebanon? Should we perpetuate this mad game of Hizballahs invention or should we try to bring it to a halt and create an atmosphere where neighbourly relations with Lebanon just might be possible?

Watching the news footage from
Lebanon I can understand why these friends feel uneasy. War is not a pretty sight, however just your cause, however pure your motives.

Whoever said war is hell knew what he was talking about, but standing by and letting Hizballah pick off Israeli soldiers and civilians at their leisure is more hellish still.

Israel has to defend itself, no sovereign state can allow hostile militas to cross its border at will or rockets to slam into its population centres and not react.

During the Oslo War of 2000-2003 about 70% of Israeli casualties were civilians, willfully and intentionally targetted by assorted terror groups -
Israel is fighting on two fronts to prevent this from happening again - it is the responsibility of every sovereign state to protect its civilians.

Israel is not randomly lashing out, but targetting the infrastructure used by Hizballah to transport arms - roads from Syria (a key Hizballah sponsor), and airports and ports, fuel depots, munitions dump and Hizballah positions. The A-Dahya neighbourhood of souther Beirut is a Hizballah stronghold. Unfortunately Hizballah offices, outposts and the like are usually in civilian areas, and by the nature of war there are tragically unintended civilian casualties. To this end Israel has distributed leaflets encouraging civilians to leave the areas affected, because Israel doesn't want civilians do be harmed.

Israel was trying to assault Lebanese civilians as the article alleges far more than 200 would have been killed in the first week of fighting.

The Lebanese government seems to think that they can let Hizballah attack
Israel from Lebanese territory and then deny any responsibility for the consequences. If Lebanon can't or won't stop attacks on Israel from its sovereign territory than Israel has no choice but to defend itself. Israelis have sympathy and warm feelings towards the people of Lebanon and have enjoyed long periods of defacto peace in the past before assorted militias took control of the south. If Israel could erradicate the threat from Hizballah without harming the rest of Lebanon be assured that Israel would.

Israelis were hoping that the pullout of
Lebanon in May 2000 to the United Nations certified international boundary "blue line" and more recently the Syrian pullout of Lebanon would allow a new chance for normal relations with Lebanon.

Israel has acted with restraint for six years, despite Hizballah's border raids and constant bragging about how it was stock piling thousands of missiles that would bring all of Israel's population centres within range.

Israelis don't not want to cause suffering in Lebanon, but neither can Israel sacrifice its citizens and allow them to be held hostage to Hizballah border raids, shellings and rocket attacks.

The north and the south of it

Sunday July 16 2006

Dear family and friends,

Having a super active high need baby does make it difficult to sit down for long enough to actually write something coherent, but under the circumstances considering the deluge of e-mails and phone calls we’ve had I thought it might be prudent to at least try.

Everyone wants to know how we are doing, how we are “bearing up”. I admit it’s a little strange being asked that question. Small as Israel is, thank God, living south-east of Tel Aviv, as of now we are nowhere near the front lines or the areas under attack.

After several phone conversations I realize how hard the whole situation is to convey to folks abroad who watch their television sets and don’t understand how where I live in central Israel, life goes on pretty much as normal and an hour and a half drive away to the north people are in their shelters under rocket bombardment.

Still, Israel is the kind of place where everyone is no more, and often far less, than six degrees removed from everyone else and pretty much everyone I know has friends and family somewhere in the country who are directly affected by current events.

Shabbat afternoon in the park the lady pushing her child on the swing next to my daughter's had just received a call from her family up north.

They live in Carmiel, a town in north-west Israel which has been hit several times by Katyushas, and had gone to seek refuge in Tiberias, a town in north-east Israel, which until now had been safe.

That afternoon Hizballah fired rockets at Tiberias. This family were unharmed, but when they called friends in Carmiel to check in, they found out that one of the rockets fired at Carmiel that day scored a direct hit on their house there.

We know people in Sderot, Ashkelon, Carmiel, Haifa, Safed and other "frontline" areas north and south targetted by rocket attacks - ordinary folks living in otherwise ordinary places.

We pray and hope for better news, and for God to keep them safe, and for God to keep us all safe.

Those of us living in so far unaffected areas are well aware of Hizballah’s threats to get us too.

Only yesterday the Israeli Air Force hit a missile launcher carrying an Iranian made Zilzal missile – a weapon with the range to hit the greater Tel Aviv area. The strike on the launcher caused the missile to misfire, sending it careening into a junk yard of old tires where it started a massive fire.

The funny part, if one can find the humour in all this, that Hizballah’s Al Manar TV and other Arabic stations saw this thing falling from the sky and reported that an Israeli aircraft (God forbid) had been shot down, even claiming to have captured two pilots – thank God both reports turned out to be untrue. You could say they had egg on their faces when it turned out that the “Israeli plane” was actually the very missile Hizballah was planning to launch at Tel Aviv.

Just in case there are more of these though we have cleaned out our shelter, set up a tv with Seseame Street and other kids videos in there and stocked up on canned and dry foods and water - things that always come in handy. Odds are I’ll be making a lot of tuna and corn casseroles over the next few months.

I guess that answers your questions about whether we have a shelter. Pretty much everyone in Israel has one: in offices, public buildings, malls, houses and flats or a communal neighbourhood shelter which usually doubles up as a community centre or synagogue. It’s just a fact of life.

For those who say I’m too calm, most everyone I know is, even some people I spoke to in their shelters up north.

It’s kind of scary, but we've been through worse and God willing we will get through this.