The notorious bombing of Café Hillel in 2003 cut very close to the bone of life in Israel. Dr. David Applebaum – whom I did not know – and his daughter Nava were blown apart as they enjoyed hot chocolate together; a “last night” out before Nava’s scheduled wedding the next day. The next morning, in lieu of nuptials, there was a funeral. This event represented a new level of horror and my editors at the Jerusalem Post kindly waited while I penned a more fitting article to the typically humorous one I’d submitted just before deadline.
Somewhere in the piece I asked whether or not Israeli parents are made of “different stuff,” suggesting that, perhaps, they are naturally inured against the potential calamities that might befall their loved ones. After all, how could one be an effective mother if she constantly imagined The Worst? Living in a country where The Worst occurs with maddening frequency, my deductive thinking resulted in an idiotic conclusion that Israeli imas could not possibly love their children the same way that American mommies love theirs. Israeli children ride buses and perform mandatory military service. They go on field trips accompanied by armed security guards. And the shelf in the hall closet or family bomb-shelter contains made-to-measure gas masks for babies as well as adults. This is not the stuff that Parents Magazine covers in its back-to-school issue, I think.
In my defense, however, I supposed I was steeling myself for the day that my son would don an IDF uniform and defend this country that I love beyond words and that I hoped he (as well as my other children) would share my passion — because the thought that any child of mine might not share my ironclad belief that this is the Jewish homeland that was promised to us thousands of years ago could cause me to panic and lose all spiritual footing. Disliking pain as much as the next gal, I avoid the topic at all costs.
Which is why the War-That-Barely-Was, i.e., Operation Pillar of Defense, sat squarely in my home and heart as my son was stationed at the border of Gaza. He warned me he’d be unreachable and that if they went in, it would be a long stint. Promising he’d be in touch when he could, like thousands of other Israeli mothers, I shopped and prayed. Worked and prayed. Cooked and prayed. Slept, sewed, did some Zumba…and prayed.
For almost two decades, friends and family members have called us from overseas to see how we’ve been faring, and I’d almost feel guilty upon uttering the sentence, “We’re fine.” Sometimes I’d add a little drama, i.e., personal knowledge about another family or someone I’d met who was somehow better connected to the conflict du jour. But I felt guilty that the strife always seemed so far away, even in this teeny, tiny country. While friends in Hadera and Beersheva sought to relocate to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem for the duration of the hostilities, we didn’t feel much different from those who live overseas and tune into CNN when convenient.
It seems a little crazy after witnessing suicide bus and market bombings, drive-by shootings, lynchings, Sbarro, Passover and Dolphinarium massacres, that Israelis can still go on a well-deserved vacation, compare prices for kitchen granite and marble, perm and dye their hair or consider the pros and cons of collagen injections. I’ve lived here during the Second Lebanon War, was an inconsolable as the next Israeli upon seeing the pictures of the butchered Fogels, railed against the injustice of the media response to the Gaza Flotilla and stood silently alongside thousands of my brothers at the funeral of Michael Levin. Enduring the smug interference of wise outsiders who continually shake their heads at Israeli obstinacy, I’ve been chastised and edified via Wye, Camp David and Taba summits. But until one has a child in uniform during the conflagration, there exists a wee chance to “turn off” when it all gets to be too, too much.
Pillar of Defense afforded me a front row seat to fear, compassion, hugs and prayers. Until such time as one realizes the impotency that is part and parcel of being the parent of a soldier, words cannot convey anything more than a faux image of what it feels like to awaken with an entreaty to the Heavens that the day closes with no news, i.e., good news, for oneself and for every other mother in the country.
The first time the Code Red siren went off in my area of southeast Jerusalem, I did everything I was warned not to do. The Sabbath entered, and my husband was in synagogue; in my velvet Shabbos robe and spangled head-scarf, I went out to the patio to see if I could “locate” the missile before the Iron Dome did her thing. We are not supposed to do that, because it’s rumored that we cannot out-run a rocket. By the second time, however, I was a pro. I heard the siren, picked up a bottle of water and my knitting and walked down to the bomb shelter. I was back in the apartment within ten minutes.
Upon reaching a cease-fire, many Israelis were angry, some felt relief and almost all were confused. As a passionate Jew, proud Zionist and loving mother, I felt all three and reached the conclusion that the dust has yet to settle and silence is the only way I’ll be able to hear those things that allow a simple woman to put one foot in front of the other and negotiate a fragile existence in her God-given, chosen home.