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In a Burning Country

A summer in Jerusalem means coming upon different kinds of shelter

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We arrived here in Jerusalem on May 6, Israel’s Day of Remembrance for those who have fallen in its wars. It is analogous to our Memorial Day, except it’s safe to assume that just about anyone you see on the street has lost someone. That night at 8 and the next morning at 11, sirens sound across Israel, and nearly the entire country stops, wherever it is, to observe a nationwide minute of silence.

Where we happened to be—eating our ritual first-night shwarma on a bustling avenue called Emek Refaim—it was as if a busy street had suddenly frozen into the motionless tableau at the end of a play. Everyone stopped walking and talking; people got out of their cars in the middle of the street. For one moment, once this year, the street became its name, translated literally: “valley of ghosts.”

Then, when the sirens stopped, everyone picked up just where they’d left off, many of them brushing away tears. There it was, it seemed to me: life in Jerusalem, and Israel, all in three moments. You eat, you walk, you laugh. Then, a memory—or a threat—intrudes, and you stop. And after that, you keep going. This, I have come to learn, is the shape that life and hope take here. Not because a particular day brings particular promise, but because, in Israel, just being here, and going on, is what you do. (Speaking of going on, the Day of Remembrance is directly followed by Israel Independence Day, which you might also call, like our July 4, Hibachi Day.)

And in fact, the first draft of this column was about how May’s Grill Day in the park set the tone, how peaceful Jerusalem feels this summer: cafés full, security guards slouching out front. That was until around lunchtime early this month, when text messages started zipping around the city: bulldozer piguah. A terrorist attack. A bulldozer?

A friend called to check in; the bus overturned in the melee was “our” line from our rented apartment into downtown, but we were all fine, nowhere near.

Now, though, it does feel as if our trip this summer—three months, for my husband’s half-sabbatical—has a before and an after. Even though the driver seems to have been a lone gunman (and we have those at home in New York), I feel—rightly or wrongly, superstitiously or realistically—a little less safe. I was thinking of writing this in a café, but instead I stayed home. This could change, I’m sure, but the way I feel right now, I may also be done with the bus.

This means my previous trips to Jerusalem with David now have a before and after as well, though in a slightly more complex way. He has been here many times, as a college student, a rabbinical student, and guy who loves Israel. I’ve been here four times: once with family to tour the country and see cousins in Haifa, thrice with David. We first came here together as boyfriend and girlfriend when he was doing a two-week rabbinical study program at the Shalom Hartman Institute. (My six-word memoir from that time: “Engaged in Jerusalem. Thank you, God.”)

On that trip in 2003, I knew deep down that fearing a piguah at every turn was like being a tourist convinced that New York City after eight p.m. really was just like The Warriors, but still. I was scared. It was a tenser time: two bus attacks in the two months before we arrived (and two the two months following). We rented cell phones (as people used to), “only for emergencies.” We walked everywhere. And even so, every time a bus passed, I’d actually brace myself and think—perversely—“Kapow!”

The next trip, one summer later, was quieter. We drove into East Jerusalem, more than once, without feeling like war reporters or clueless daredevils. On a day trip with Rabbis for Human Rights, we visited an Arab town that the still-new security wall had divided clean in two: students on one side, school on the other. No attacks for six months, but I still would not ride the bus.

This trip, I bought a ten-ride bus pass. No attacks since 2004, except the yeshiva massacre in March, also apparently the work of a single madman. Still, it had taken a while for me to feel comfortable coming here at all—especially with our daughter, Bess. How could I take my child into any situation with increased risk? (How—I eventually decided—could I both stick to that reasoning and ever leave the house?)

Once here, though, we are again reminded—both before and after the “bulldozer piguah”—most of life here is life. As Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote in “Tourists”:

Once I was sitting on the steps near the gate at David’s Citadel and I put down my two heavy baskets beside me. A group of tourists stood there around their guide, and I became their point of reference. “You see that man over there with the baskets? A little to the right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. A little to the right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: Redemption will come only when they are told, “Do you see that arch over there from the Roman period? It doesn’t matter, but near it, a little to the left and then down a bit, there’s a man who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

The whole bus hushes when the news comes on the radio every hour—and here, there is new news every hour—but the passengers continue on, to school, to work, to buy fruit and vegetables. People find their own ways to feel safe: someone told a friend of mine, yes, visit Israel, come see us in Tel Aviv, but whatever you do, don’t go to Jerusalem. (Of course, Tel Aviv is no stranger to attack or threat; when we there a few weeks ago, an entire block of central Dizengoff was evacuated because of a “suspicious package.” That kind of thing is so routine that it would never make the news.)

tourist at the Western Wall
Illustration based on Western Wall by Jon Caves; some rights reserved.

And people keep coming: tourists, students, individuals and families. The overall numbers of people making aliyah are going down—and research shows that fewer and fewer American Jews under forty consider Israel a significant part of their Jewish identity—but still: more than five thousand olim just this year. They come to live; they even come to fight. I keep thinking of the night we met a friend of Bess’s young babysitter (herself a recent olah), an American in his Israeli army uniform, barely twenty, pale-skinned and wispy, his massive backpack practically bending him in half. He could be surfing, or applying to grad school, but here, now, any day, something could happen and he could go to war. And yet here he is, on a brief leave, watching Grey’s Anatomy on our couch.

David’s father made aliyah, too, staying for eight years in the ‘50s and fighting for a country whose religion he did not espouse in a ritual or theological sense, but whose very existence moved him enough to pick up his life, and a gun. (Having served as a soldier and worked on a kibbutz, he ultimately decided that he needed to return to a more stable life in the States.) During part of his service, he was stationed on Mount Scopus, then an island of Israeli territory in the middle of Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem. Thirty-five years later, in a reunified city, David studied at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, in freedom.

I admire David’s father. I admire David. I admire all the people who come here planning to stay. I admire the people who live here and don’t leave. I admire their ability to live with—not in spite of—danger and uncertainty as part of their lives. “An attack like this won’t bring life to a halt,” the owner of a business near the bulldozer attack told Haaretz. “There’s no such thing as a lull in Jerusalem.”

Still, now that I’ve been here for longer than I’ve ever been in any other foreign country, now that—thanks to ulpan—I’m much more comfortable ordering coffee and arguing with cab drivers in Hebrew, now that I’ve stocked a pantry and hired babysitters and hung my laundry out to dry, now that I’ve dipped in more than a tourist’s toe, I see the importance of moving beyond my inherited relationship to Israel: Israel as reparation, Israel as testament to Jewish survival, as a living reminder of the Holocaust and of ongoing threat. This is the Israel of my mother (and so many of her generation), who heard, listening at the keyhole, the stories of her only Polish cousin who survived the Holocaust and made her way, through some miracle, from Auschwitz to Manhattan. It is the Israel that was safe haven for my mother’s father’s brother and his family, who left Poland for Argentina before the war and ultimately settled here. My mother visited here, alone (but for her dreamy affair with an Egged bus driver), before 1967; my most indelible memory of Israel—okay, after my engagement—is seeing her cry when she touched, with one hand, holding mine with the other, the Western Wall for the first time.

But as many Jewish thinkers now understand, Israel must not derive its identity only from the past, only from—inspiring though it may be—persistence in the face of threat. That’s surviving, not thriving. And to what end? That’s the real question. What about an Israel built on Jewish values, timeless and current? A country that has produced poets, philosophers, advances in medicine and science? Like Amichai himself, who, we like to joke, showed up at our wedding, when we each—unbeknownst to the other beforehand—chose to quote him in the vows we spoke to each other during our ketubah signing ceremony.

Stay with me. I want to be you.

In this burning country

words have to be shade.

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In a Burning Country

A summer in Jerusalem means coming upon different kinds of shelter

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