Thursday, August 07, 2014

A strange city without soldiers (II)

I think I only really grasped how crazy our lives in Israel have been of late when I took the kids for a planned visit to overseas relatives this week. The first thing my 4.5 year-old asked as our relative met us at the airport was why there were no signs for shelters. My boy can't read yet, but he knows how to recognise the shelter sign words.

At a relatives house he again asked where the secure room was, and when I explained that in England people don't have shelters and secure rooms he looked concerned "But what will they do if the bad men come?" I don't really have much of an answer for that.

On our first morning abroad a loud emergency vehicle goes by, its siren wail eerily reminiscent of our air raid sirens back in Israel. I'm busy helping my daughter with something, my boys are in the next room, and I hear a clatter of feet and the slamming of a bathroom door.

I go to check on them and find my 4 year-old holding the two year-old's hand and sitting with him leaning against the bathroom wall. I ask what's going on and my four year-old explains that he heard a siren, he knew that there are no shelters here so he grabbed his little brother and ran to an inside room without windows, just like he learnt we should do if we find ourselves in a place without a secure room during a siren. I don't know whether to cry or be proud of my little boy. My heart aches that he should be so matter of fact about it all.

The next day we go to a big local park. As we're walking home two aircraft streak across the sky at high altitude leaving distinct contrails in the clear sky. My four year-old asks: "Are those good guy rockets or bad guys rockets? Do we need to get down on the ground?"

Walking in the street one day my four year old asks me why there aren't any soldiers or police around "Who protects these people and keeps them safe?" I say they have police, we just haven't seen any. "It don't feel safe Ima" he continues "there are no hayalim (soldiers) to look after us if the bad rocket men come."

Shabbat morning there are police mounted on motorcycles outside the synagogue we attend. My boys are thrilled by the big snazzy looking motorbikes. The police look back at them unsmiling. My son turns to me and asks why the only police we've seen are outside the synagogue.

We're invited to friends. There are a lot of other guests. We also meet some random Jewish neighbours who live on my relative's street. Everyone coos sympathetically when they find out that we're from Israel, politely asking what it's like there and how we're doing, but their eyes start to glaze a few seconds in to our genuine responses. Asking about Israel is mostly a courtesy like a how are you. We don't bring up the subject at all unless asked, but even so, it's like people don't really want to know, maybe they've had enough of hearing about the Middle East, maybe it's just too unpleasant, maybe they don't want their kids to hear, whatever the reason, we learn just to say it's been hard on the kids and leave it at that. It almost feels impolite to say that much.

We don't mention that we feel terrible about leaving Israel in wartime, like we're being disloyal, though we make it clear that this trip was planned. We aren't running from home, it's just the school holidays and our only convenient time for a visit with overseas family.

Playing in the garden my kids meet the kids next door who also happen to be Jewish. The father makes small talk with us, asks if we've had a lot of rockets, if we're trying to "get away from the bombs for a bit." I give the usual pained smile, explain we haven't had too many sirens in our sleepy town and that this visit was planned before the war. He seems satisfied, but his 8 year-old son wants to know if we spent a lot of time in the shelter, what it was like and so on. His father looks awkward and steers the conversation to a different topic, but my son volunteers that he slept many nights in the shelter, that he once had to jump into thistles because of a siren and that he knows he was safe because of Kipat Barzel (Hebrew for Iron Dome).

My kids love aircraft so we go to a local aviation museum. The whole thing feels different in the context of our new war experience. As we enter the main hall my son straight away zooms in on a Cruise missile hanging from the ceiling. "Ima, is that a good guy rocket or a bad guy rocket?" I try to draw his attention to the actual amazing historical aircraft on the museum floor, like the cool Bleriot flier or the early jets. By the time we reach the Second World War exhibit I realise it's futile. My son zeroes in on the V1 and V2 rockets and my daughter enthusiastically explains to him that these are the rockets the Nazi bad guys used to shoot at grandma when she was a little girl, she's heard the stories from her great-uncle. Try as I might this is the kind of thing my kids are currently interested in, we are all looking at things differently now, it can't just be a museum about aircraft and rockets.

The next room features models of wartime London with mannequins dressed in period clothes. The kids are of course most fascinated by the replica corrugated iron shelter, "just like the one grandma had in her parents' garden" my oldest explains. As we're standing there looking at it and comparing grandma's family shelter with the one in our home the audio explanation kicks in, complete with a recording of a siren. My four year old looks panicked for a moment until I remind him that it's just a recording in the museum and they don't have real sirens here anyway.

A museum employee comes over and asks if we'd like to go over to the next room where there's going to be an audio-visual presentation about the Blitz. I say I think the kids don't need realistic sounding explosions and sirens, and she starts to assure me that there are no actual scenes of destruction, then sees my two young boys and says "oh, you've got little ones, yeah, I guess they're too young to learn about all that anyway."

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