Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Remain calm, it's just a drill

In case you haven't heard, practice sirens this morning around 11am, don't panic! 

This morning's activity: we are learning about emergency drills children around the world learn, earthquake drills in Japan and California, tornado sirens and storm cellars in the central US, tsunami warnings around the Pacific and my mother's childhood memories of nights sleeping in the shelter in World War II London.

From time to time throughout the year we play the siren game. I do my best wooOOOooo impression of a siren, and then time how fast it takes my 5 year-old to reach the secure room from different parts of the apartment while the toddler runs around after us giggling and excited at the noisy, busy game. 

The kids have a great time, it's a useful way to burn off energy when it's too hot or rainy to play outdoors and while I don't want them to obsess about potential dangers, I think it's better to know what to do just in case, to be familiar with these emergency scenarios as part of a fun game.

My oldest is a kid who really gets engrossed whatever she is doing, the kind of kid who can be so deep in a book that a live marching band could march through the living room accompanied by dancing elephants and a herd of gnu and she wouldn't even notice. There are two exceptions though: she's learnt that if she feels the flat shaking or she hears a warning siren she should rush to the secure room or dash under our sturdy dining table. 

I guess my mother's stories are my main influence here. She was around my daughter's age when the Germans attacked London with "doodlebugs" towards the end of WWII and her parents, not wanting to frighten her, turned the experience into a game - nights sleeping in the shelter were midnight sleepovers, tea-parties and other such adventures. They made their custom built shelter feel more like a playhouse with extra blankets and fun pictures cut from magazines. 

God Willing we'll never have to go through what my mother and her family did, but the idea of how to convey something so awful but so necessary made a big impression on me. I used to ask my mother for those stories over and over again,  and what stuck with me were not the memories of fear or disruption, but the fond coziness her parents created in the shelter, the fun of the games they played and the stories told and how to such young children it was more than anything some kind of role-playing adventure than a night terror.

I don't want to scare my kids, but we do live in a region where unpredictability is the only thing you can rely on, so it seems irresponsible to me to completely shelter them from what is happening a mere hour or so drive from our home. 

Air raid drill as mini-Olympic sport. It seems to work.

Hope we only ever need to do this as a game.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Migraine day

It began with an early morning feed which put the baby to sleep but left me exhausted and yet somehow unable to sleep.

So I got up, made myself a herbal tea, then went out onto the balcony to put some over ripe fruit out for the birds to eat. Noted that some fallen sunflower seeds from the feeder have started to sprout in the window box. 

Sleep remained elusive.

Checked the on-line papers right in time to see the flashing headlines of air raid sirens in Beer Sheva, followed soon by rocket hits Beer Sheva, after which I really really couldn't go back to sleep until baby woke up again for part two of the morning nursathon, which finally clocked me out again just as it was really time to wake up. Go figure.

Rising for the second time and this time for good, I again quickly perused the headlines, e-mails and messages. A bunch of friends down south woken early by the sirens. They are home, close to their shelters, kids are off school in the towns of Ashdod and Beer Sheva where rockets have hit.

Several feedings, diapers and ABC books later, plus a battle to convince the 5 y-o and the baby that yes they really can share the multitudinous Duplo blocks scattered everywhere, I check my messages again and see this from a friend in Beer Sheva:

Air raid at 5:30am, rocket lands a few blocks from my house. It's LOUD, we're in our bomb shelter in my house. Another siren 4 hours later, missile lands further away. Later I call my salon to get a haircut long overdue. The salon has a bomb shelter, so I have a nice haircut now. Drive home passed news crews and onlookers at the damaged house where the rocket hit. Going for a massage a bit later. Ain't life surreal?

It's around then that the familiar sinking feeling starts to push itself to the fore. The nagging Han Soloesque "I've got a bad feeling about this", the Hashem Yishmor, please, not again, but yes again because a rocket attack on Ashdod followed by two on Beer Sheva all close on the heels of this week's massive mortar barrage of Israeli border communities near Gaza just cannot be anything other than bad, bad, bad. 

Those sweet folks in Gaza have itchy trigger fingers again and it does seem to be escalating. 

There can be a myriad reasons why. Attacking Israel is always a good way for Palestinian and other Arab leaders to deflect their public away from internal Palestinian or Arab problems by refocusing public outrage on the evil Israelis. 

Part of me wonders at the timing in the Gaza escalation coinciding with increasing dissent in Syria, one of the few neighbourhood dictatorships which until recent weeks had appeared to be remaining steady amidst the wave of upheaval sweeping the region. Syria which coincidentally is one of Iran's few close buddies in the Arab world. Syria which is an import conduit for Iranian support for Hizballah, and hence Iranian influence in Lebanon, and also a player in backing Hamas.

Or it could just be coincidence. This is the Middle East and odds are even if we enjoy a few months or years of relative quiet, things tend to go boom sooner or later.

That "oh no not again" feeling though isn't about regional politics and players, it's about the more selfish personal hurt on behalf of my friends down south having to go through another round of this. Of them thinking up shelter games to calm panicked kids. Of them putting on brave faces for the benefit of people living beyond rocket range, because even though most people do get into a kind of "routine" in how they deal with regular daily rocket bombardment, it isn't "normal". It should never be normal.

The niggling in my head began to worsen, harbingers of a migraine.

The patter of raindrops outside was welcome, I opened some windows and let the rich scent of damp earth cleanse the stuffy apartment. I find the rain soothing. Soon the dry summer will be upon us and I'm determined to enjoy every bit of precipitation.

My migraine began to retreat.

Baby finally went down for his nap. Big kid decided to stage a toy animal play. 

I decided it was time to finish up my last bag of flour and make a batch of berry muffins to keep the kids happy in the run-up to Pesah. Sometimes the sweet smells of vanilla and berries help to stave off the worst of the migraine.

I don't like to have radio news stations on during the day, I don't want to impose that on my little kids, but I compromise on Reshet Gimmel, an all music station with occasional news and traffic updates. And in this country you can learn a lot just from what music is playing - the softer, quieter and more pleasant, the greater the odds something awful has happened. 

It's like a national code for the initiated telling you to make sure to catch the next news broadcast, making your ears prick up when the music fades straight into the pips announcing the news instead of breaking for jarringly loud adverts. 

I was just measuring out my muffin ingredients and defrosting the berries when the phone rang. A friend of a friend was visiting Israel for the first time, was just near the Jerusalem central bus station after a museum visit, thinking about hopping on an intercity bus and coming to see our town, would this afternoon be convenient?

I was about to say no when I heard the boom, shouting and panic and then the call was cut off.

An hour later I received a very shaky call back from the woman, now back at her hotel trying to digest the horror she had just witnessed, albeit from far enough away that she was physically unhurt and spared the close-up sights of the explosion, near enough that she had felt the blast and the ensuing sirens and terror.

That sinking feeling from the morning was starting to feel like a premonition. 

As we say here in Israel, we've been in this movie before. It isn't a sappy feelgood flick.

The music on the radio didn't change though. As far as I could tell the usual programming continued, including the jarringly loud adverts before the news. I don't know if this is because thank God we've gotten out of the routine of regular terror attacks, or that this one wasn't as terrible as it could have been (they were initially reporting no fatalities), or maybe that we've experienced so many that the powers that be thought it best for the station to continue business as usual. 

I didn't switch to a news station though because the 5 year-old was back to playing in the living room and baby was just waking up. Besides, sometimes you learn as much about events from the traffic reports as from the news itself. Main Jerusalem highway and the entrance to the city were closed. 

My migraine ratcheted up a few levels, not quite to the level of incapacitating though. The familiar aching sinking sensation was firmly entrenched by now. Not thoughts of politics and statements and will they or won't they, just the forboding of finding oneself once again in familiarly painful territory, a place you prayed never again to be revisiting but which deep down you always knew you'd probably have to see again. 

Anyone who was here in the early 2000s remembers it well, some more personally than others, but all of us deeply familiar with the feeling of taking a gamble every time we rode a bus or lingered in a public place. Israeli roulette a friend of mine called it then, black humour of a people living with the knowledge that each one of us, man, woman, child and baby, was walking around with a price on our heads and a target over our hearts simply because we were Israelis.

I hope and pray that this was a one off. Sometimes there are brief flare-ups of terrorism and then things quiet down again.

Adding up the recent pattern of attacks though, things are starting to feel eerily familiar, echoes of a decade ago. Hope that I'm wrong.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Jerusalem Purim

We did Purim at home, we did Purim se'udah with family in Rehovot and then we did Purim again with family in Jerusalem. And a good time was had by all.

Here are some photos I took from the car while negotiating our way through Jerusalem city centre traffic on Purim (and no I was not taking photos while driving, I was in the passenger seat) Apologies for the poor photographic quality, snapping away through the window while the car is moving is an art I need to work on...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Never more

Spring has arrived. Perfect weather for going out into the woods with the kids to play and explore, splash in the big puddles left by the weekend's rain and snack on warm pita straight from the saj seasoned with freshly prepared wild zaatar in olive oil.

Everything is coloured yellow and pink from the carpets of wild mustard and cyclamen that bloom in every woodland clearing, hillside and roadside.

The air is heady and sweet with the scent of citrus blossoms, bubbling with birdsong.

And one family will never again be able to go out and enjoy all this because of men so consumed with hatred, so fixated on this conflict being an all or nothing zero sum game, that their eyes were closed to everything but their desire to kill and destroy in this land they claim to love.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What do you tell your children?

Saturday night a friend in the US asked on her Facebook page for advice on how to explain the tragedy in Japan to her four year old son. He was curious about the pictures, what to do?

Funny, on Friday I was thinking the same thing. I took out my daughter's earthquake book and we looked at it a bit and talked. Is it scary? Yes. Do we have some idea of what to do in case? I hope so. Can I promise her we will never face a big quake here? No. Can I reassure her that quakes in this region usually aren't quite as powerful as those along the Pacific rim? I think so.

Saturday night, and I hoped that she wouldn't catch on to the horror of the Itamar murders. We don't have the TV on in our house, and we usually don't listen to the radio news around the kids. I know we can't shelter them forever, especially in this part of the world, but the news is often so graphic that I want to try to filter it for as long as I can.

It's hard to hide anything from my precocious and perceptive five year old. She looks over shoulders as Abba sneaks a peek at his Android or Ima glances at the newspaper. She listens, watches, picks up on what's happening without needing to have it all spelled out.

So what do I say when she asks what happened? How do I explain without glossing over or simplifying?

She has already asked why we have to be searched and go through a metal detector whenever we go to the mall or take the train or go to the central bus station. Why our buses go through checkpoints when we go to Jerusalem. Why soldiers or police sometimes get on and inspect the bus.

Why when we travelled to the UK and the US we only had to be searched at the airports and museums but nowhere else.

I've told her that our neighbours have a dispute with us over whose land this is. I've told her that some of our Palestinian neighbours have been taught that it's OK to hurt and kill people if you are angry with them, rather than talking to them. I've told her we have to be careful of toys or packages left in the street because sometimes bad people put bombs in them.

I don't think such parev, simplistic explanations will hold her for long.

I don't know how to tell her that it isn't just in the street or in the shops or on the buses, but that sometimes, rarely, but sometimes, the bad people even come into Israeli homes and slit the throats of babies in their beds.

I made extra sure to hide the newspaper today.

In our part of the world concerns about terrorism are every bit as real as those about potential earthquakes, but there are no simple kids' books to explain the how and why.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Just after Havdalah my husband whispered to me that there had been a pigua (terror attack) in Itamar, home invasion. Very bad he said.

That's all he said, sotto voce, so as not to alert the kids.

When I found out the details myself all I could do was just watch my little ones safe in front of me and wonder how, how anyone, however angry or desparate or anything could take it upon themselves to deliberately murder tiny children in their beds, how someone could end the life of a tiny three month old baby for any reason under the sun.

This wasn't a bomb or a rocket or even a firearm, weapons which provide some modicum of distance, even of anonymity, from the victims. This was the up close and personal intimacy of a knife attack, of the killers hands on his victims, their lifeblood on his, as messy and involved as a murderer can get.

I look at the face of little 4 year-old Elad Fogel and I see my own little boy and my mind simply cannot comprehend how a person can hate an enemy so much that they could kill a tender child. I couldn't conceive of doing that to my worst enemy, but apparently my worst enemy has no problem doing that to me.

It is a small comfort that attacks like this are mercifully rare, with a lone Palestinian killer breaking and entering Israeli homes and murdering Israeli families asleep in their beds just because they are Israelis. It seems that even most terrorists balk at getting this intimate with their victims.

I don't care what grievances Palestinians may have, I don't care if they feel like they need to take up arms to achieve independence, that they feel like settlements are an affront which can't be tolerated, there is nothing that can rationalise, justify or explain this act, nothing. It is an act of pure evil.

Israelis want peace, yes, and most Israelis have been willing to go pretty far beyond their ideals in compromising for peace. Many Israelis believe that even if a deal can't be reached it is important to keep the channels open just on the principle that it's good to keep talking. There are some people though who you can't talk to though, and those Palestinians who have opted to support and celebrate the barabaric attack on the Fogel family are not people Israel can make peace with. I pray that they are not the majority. I pray that there are decent Palestinian people who are horrified by this atrocity.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Twenty years on

Signs that your mall experience is an Israeli mall experience -
1)there are neo-pseudo Breslev hassidim doing an impromptu frenzied hora outside the supermarket
2)all the stores have specials for International Women's Day
3) those that don't are packed with costume accessories for Purim
4)but the single most popular item most people seemed to be taking home with them is a gas mask. (Or at least a cardboard box on a shoulder strap claiming to contain a gas mask.)

Don't panic, well not yet anyway. Israel distributed gas masks during the 1991 Gulf War, and then again when the US invaded Iraq in 2003. It's just a routine precaution. What, they don't do that where you live?

You know the way folks in big cities have eleventy billion locks on their doors just in case? We get issued gas masks, just in case one of our sweet peaceful neighbouring despots looses it one day and decides to let off steam by going postal against Israel with a non-conventional payload.

Back in 2003 everyone was so convinced that Saddam might decide to go out with a bang that Pikud Ha'Oref (Home Front Command) broadcast continuous instructional videos on Israeli television urging people to familiarise themselves with their masks by trying them on.

Very reassuring except that it meant that within a short time the masks were no longer effective because the filters were now unsealed and said filters had a limited lifespan once unsealed.

So is it a coincidence that Pikud Ha'Oref is redistributing gas masks just as the stores are full of Purim costumes? Perhaps it's in honour of the end of the First Gulf War? Special twentieth anniversary edition gas masks?