It was hardly more than two weeks ago when we set off for Jerusalem. David was going to give a talk at Ben Gurion University, in Beersheva in the northern Negev. So we decided to make it a four-day trip, one in Jerusalem, two at the Dead Sea, and one in Beersheva. Well, we never made it to Beersheva, and we are writing this final Israel story for 1998 from Seattle. Why? Because we left Israel two weeks ago due to our increasing concerns about the situation in Iraq. Today the news seems to be good, with the Secretary-General and Saddam Hussein apparently reaching some kind of agreement. Whether or not this is true (and we clearly hope that it is) doesn't change the fact that we felt we had no choice but to leave when we did.
How did all this happen? We're not quite sure, since we're still in a semi-state of shock, jetlagged, and unsure about where we're going to be living next week. Our Seattle friends are delighted to have us back; our friends Elaine, David, and their son Uriel took us into their house with open arms, and lots of other friends have called and stopped by with offers of help, food, and friendship. But we're still left with the dazed feelings of refugees, abruptly severed from our life in Haifa, tired after a marathon 62 hour journey from Haifa to Seattle (via Tel Aviv, Frankfurt, Tokyo, and San Francisco), out of a lot of money, and without a place to stay for the next few months. We feel unprepared to jump back into our everyday Seattle lives. Our vision for our infrequent and precious sabbatical hasn't played out as we had expected, which is disappointing. Yet we've learned valuable lessons about war and what we are willing to tolerate.
Our day in Jerusalem was fabulous and multi-cultural. As we entered the Old City through the Lion's Gate, we immediately heard the Muslim call to prayer. From there we headed to the Franciscan walk that traces the Thirteen Stations of the Cross, which track Jesus from condemnation through resurrection, complete with chanting monks and pilgrims of all kinds. Although David has no cross to bear, he did carry both children on his back during most of the walk, through alleys, into churches (some of them tiny ones built around places where Jesus stumbled, for instance), through plazas, Arab markets, and more. Although all the stations are now inside the Old City, most or all of them were not at the time of the crucifixion, because capital crimes could not be punished inside city walls. Ironically, many of the stations are in the Arab Quarter (the Old City has four quarters, Jewish, Christian, Arab, and Armenian).
As we made our way from the final stations of the cross in the Church of the Holy Sepulture, we headed towards the Jewish Quarter. Along the way, we became pretty uncomfortable when some very aggressive young Arab men started hawking postcards to a group immediately in front of us. Maybe the postcards were pretty, but the mood was ugly, with the hawkers going far beyond any reasonable sales pitch. When we reached the Wailing (Western) Wall, the most holy site visited by devout Jews, it was closing in on Shabbat, so there were increasing numbers of Jews arriving at the Wall. As we have mentioned before, the "blacks" are the ultra-orthodox Jews who wear black coats and hats. What is amazing is the variety, given that basic constraint: black hats with peyas (long sidecurls), black hats without; black hats with beards and without; black hats with normal looking suits or black hats with long jackets, or short pants, or hats made of fur and white stockings of silk. Each costume means something and each is as clearly identifiable to other orthodox Jews as the plumage of birds is to a birdwatcher. The men and women have separated areas at the Wall, with the men's area far bigger. Hundreds of Jews were there praying, singing, and kissing the Wall. It is Israel, though, so we even saw a few talking on cell-phones (hey, it was before sundown --- anyways, maybe they had a direct line to G-d).
The next morning we headed back to the Wall because we wanted to visit the Temple Mount. The Wall is the retaining wall of the Great Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed thousands of years ago. Above the Wall is now one of the most holy Muslim sites in the world, including two major mosques. From this site, Mohammed was supposed to have ascended to Heaven, bringing back the basics of Islam. The Temple Mount, which includes the Dome of the Rock, is also holy to Jews, since the rock surrounded by the dome is where Abraham offered Isaac in sacrifice, becoming the first Jew. Orthodox Jews won't visit the site, since they don't want to risk stepping on the site of the altar of the first Temple, and nobody is certain exactly where it is on the Temple Mount. Despite this, this site is considered the holiest of holy sites in Judaism. It turns out we couldn't enter, since it was closed for a few hours. But this, and the holy Christian sites in the Arab Quarter, remind us deeply how these three major religions overlap in important and conflicting ways, not only geographical. Solving these conflicts might take the wisdom of more than just a single Solomon.
We left cold, wet Jerusalem and headed to the nearby arid Dead Sea desert for two days. We drove past Jericho, the oldest city in the world, past Masada (David and Emma went up to the site later in the week), the site of an historic mass suicide of Jews during Roman times, Ein Gedi, a kibbutz oasis on the Dead Sea, and ended up in a beautiful hotel in Ein Bokek, at the southern tip of the Dead Sea. There was a wonderful pool and direct access to the beach. You've heard about the salt content of the Dead Sea, but it is not something one can really explain --- well, it is really weird.
After two days at the Dead Sea, we headed south, through the Negev desert to Beersheva. Then suddenly, our trusty Punto was trusty no more. With a sputtering and clanking motor, clearly overheated, we rolled into the only gas station in the desert (not really, but it felt like it). Unfortunately, it was a gas station, not a service station. After a bunch of phone calls, the car headed off on a tow truck to either Tel Aviv or Haifa (we were never really sure). After a few more calls, we got a taxi driver who promised us on the phone to take us only to Arad, a desert town from which we might find another taxi. But when he saw us he said, "Show me the shekels", and with enough of them, he offered to take us all the way to Haifa (about 300 kilometers); he drove the fast way, through the West Bank, which we had been avoiding. But we got home safe and sound. Two days later, the Punto was fixed and ready to be picked up from an Arab mechanic in Haifa.
For the previous month or so we had been reading the newspaper, watching CNN, and talking to friends. It was in the Dead Sea hotel that we started having serious discussions about leaving Israel; quite strange, given that the place was so beautiful, luxurious, and placid. But somehow, during this four-day trip, it finally crept into our consciousness that we were going to have to make some serious preparations for war. War! What an alien concept this is to us Americans, who have never in our lives faced a war on our own land. What does it mean to prepare for war? Well, our Israeli friends let us know when we said we were worried. Most of them said not to worry, and the more they said, the more we worried.
One of the first things they told us to do was find the bomb shelter in our building; all Israeli buildings built in the last seven years or so are required to have bomb shelters. Finding the bomb shelter turned out to be harder than expected. Mr. Goldstein, our downstairs neighbor and building manager, had promised to stop by one weekend and show us the bomb shelter. About ten days later, David went down and asked Mrs. Goldstein where the bomb shelter was. She said that they had only moved into the building three years ago, and they had never learned where the key was, but that they were trying to find it. Another three or four days later, after we decided to leave Israel, they sent their 10 year-old daughter to give us our key. We never went to look at it after all. We have seen bomb shelters, though, and most seem to be used as storage closets. One friend told us not to worry and to be sure to take our children down to the shelter beforehand, to get them used to staying in a confined area; and, of course, to make sure to stock the shelter with lots of toys and diapers.
When we had arrived in November there had been some tension with Iraq and we had looked into getting gas masks. Since we weren't citizens or permanent residents, we hadn't been eligible then. Of course, we didn't feel compelled to get them then, either. But then articles and pictures started appearing in the paper everyday, urging everyone to bring their gas masks up to date. Of course, we still weren't eligible, although there was an increasing discussion about making masks available for foreign workers (both legal and illegal) and tourists. (Palestinians were eligible for masks all along.) David asked the U.S. embassy for help, and they gave us the number of a private firm (it turned out this firm was later prevented by the government from selling masks to civilians); David also asked IBM to help, which they attempted to do, but with only limited success (no kids' masks, in particular).
Because there was a shortage, the Israelis were getting daily shipments of masks from Scandinavian manufacturers. The biggest shortages were for children, which caused a huge uproar. The government claimed that the shortage was because people hadn't returned children's masks after they had outgrown them, while many people claimed that they kept the masks for their kids because they were far more comfortable than the adult masks were. Babies, like our four month old, Akiva, don't get gas masks, they get special sealed pup tents. One of our babysitters told about changing his sister's diaper while she was in her pup tent during the Gulf War, kind of like working on kids in a hospital incubator. Anyway, due to the shortages, we are not even sure if we could have bought masks and tents for our kids if we wanted to.
When we came to Israel, there were a small number of gas mask distribution centers nationwide; Haifa had one, for instance, and it's the third largest city. There were about 50 a few weeks ago, and another 100 or so poised to open. Occasionally but infrequently, there were mob scenes at the distribution centers. In addition to the gas masks, there were runs on tape and material for sealing rooms against biological weapons. Israel was also getting huge shipments of anthrax vaccines. Since some forms of the vaccine can be taken prophylactically, a number of people (especially in Tel Aviv, it seems) had started doing so.
Of course, some people claim this is all ridiculous, since it's not entirely clear what chemical and biological weapons Saddam still has and, even if he has them, he may not have missiles to deliver them. (One article in the paper described in great detail why Israel shouldn't be worried, because it simply wasn't rational for Saddam to attack Israel in this situation. We didn't find this argument compelling.) But the fact is, nobody really knows. Additionally, the U.S. had convinced Israel not to retaliate during the Gulf War in 1991, but there is no question that Israel would retaliate this time if attacked. Tactical nuclear weapons were mentioned more than once when possible reactions were discussed. In the worse scenarios, the U.S. would bomb Iraq, Iraq would rain biological weapons on Israel, Israel would respond with tactical nuclear, and then either Russia or China would come back at Israel. Bingo. World War III. Not a likely scenario, but hearing about it and reading about it more than once hits home a bit more when your kids live there.
The Palestinians were another wild card. In the last week we were there, there were many rallies with Palestinians burning Israeli, American, British, and U.N. flags, stoning Israeli soldiers, and selling Saddam t-shirts and posters in solidarity. They were asking Saddam to bomb Israel if the U.S. bombed Iraq; remember, these are people who live in the Palestinian Authority areas, which are all adjacent to and mostly surrounded by Israeli territory. The day we left Jerusalem, twelve people were hurt in Palestinian rioting in Bethlehem, just a few miles away. The Old City of Jerusalem also had a rash of stabbings of mostly yeshiva students stabbed by (presumably) Palestinians. One of our Israeli friends said of the Palestinians, "Why do you think we don't let them become a state? What can they do with just sticks and rocks?" Of course, a relative of ours is working at an institute that has the goal of developing dialog between Israelis and Palestinians who share professions (teachers, doctors, planners, etc.). Israel is a land of disagreement and contradictions even among the Jews.
As we thought about the possibility of war, we discussed whether Cathy could take the kids to some country out of the firing line, perhaps Greece or Italy. We discussed whether David's insurance policy would be valid if he stayed and died of anthrax poisoning during a war. We spent a lot of sleepless nights. We talked to friends in Seattle who told us how worried they were about us. We wondered how our five year-old, Emma, would feel getting fitted for a gas mask. But then we realized that we weren't willing to take that step. We did wonder what we would have looked like sitting in a bomb shelter looking like bugs. (We recently saw an article from The New Yorker describing the pecking order for getting gas masks in Israel. We were above foreign journalists, but not much else. Tourists staying in hotels had masks assigned by the hotels, which they could return at the airport along with their rental car.)
Thinking about the possibility of our kids --- even more than ourselves --- dying from missiles, anthrax, nerve gas, or even nuclear fallout --- however remote these possibilities were --- were the thoughts that made us finally decide to leave Israel. Maybe it was the thought of gas especially. As one friend noted, gas truly horrifies us as Jews, after the Nazi death camps. What is sobering is that Israel is the homeland for Jews and it may some day have to serve as the solitary haven for Jews in a world hostile to different religions. But Israel is such a tiny spec of fragile, exposed land. Jews abroad recognize and protect this homeland by sending money; supporting Israel is a strongly ingrained cultural value for Jews worldwide. But that doesn't make it a place where all Jews really want to live --- at least we don't, that is.
We had a number of reactions to our leaving. One Israeli said, "Of course you know it's more dangerous to drive. Stick around and see the beautiful spring in the Galilee." Well, we hadn't planned on giving up driving in any case (and we were going to fly home sometime anyway) so to us the threat of war was added risk. A few people simply couldn't understand what we were concerned about. But most were sympathetic. One co-worker of David's said that the Gulf War had been a kind of thrill, sitting in the bomb shelters listening for missiles. But now that she has a child, she realizes that there is no positive aspect to it. Another Israeli mother told us she and her family had already bought tickets out of the country (to the U.S.) in case things heated up. The newspapers said that, in addition to many fewer people entering Israel (conferences and tours were being cancelled, for instance), many fewer people were leaving because most Israelis wanted to be with their families in times of crisis. There was also a large increase in applications for passports.
Since leaving Israel, we have become wandering Jews. After the exhaustion of worrying about war, after leaving in a hurry, and after the grueling trip home, we have been stressed with living out of suitcases while trying to find a place to live. Cathy has become depressed walking on familiar streets with two kids, phoning friends from pay phones, getting phone messages left at David's mother's, and spending time in the library to warm up and use the bathroom. We sleep a lot, our judgment is clouded, our energy is consumed by where the kids will get their next bath, where they will sleep the next night, and where we'll eat our next meal. Of course friends and family have opened their homes and their tables (and their baths and their toys) to us with great warmth and affection, and we have money to eat in restaurants and stay in hotels. But we have developed some small understanding of how refugees and homeless people must feel.
Leaving Israel was hard. Emma will miss Avital's birthday; Avital is turning eight this week, and she and her father became good friends of ours. Her father said that we ought to be in Israel during a war, since it's a chance to see the Israelis being extremely polite; nobody barges into line at banks and supermarkets, drivers let each other pass. In fact, according to Avital's father, the Gulf War left Israel with a net increase in lives since about 400 people fewer than usual died in car accidents during the war, while fewer than 10 people died from the war itself. Another friend said that the Israelis develop their best jokes during wars; we'll miss that too, we guess.
We'll miss hanging out at the beach on Friday afternoon and on Saturday, too, which was starting to get lively as the weather got nicer, with organized folk dances, tons of kids, dogs, and pedestrians -- Israelis at their most exuberant. By April we understand we could buy watermelon and feta cheese at the beach; Emma and Cathy will really miss that.
We will miss our sweet friends in the Galilee, and taking a walk with them to see the wildflowers (iris, jonquil, and anemones) that emerge after the heavy winter rains. We will miss our friends Bath-Sheva and Eitan, and their wonderful, loving, four-generation family. Bath-Sheva told us that she was sad we were leaving, but that with young children she would have done the same. Our relative Marsha in Jerusalem, who was responsible for getting biologically and chemically impervious rooms built at the college where she works, also thought we were making a wise and prudent decision to leave. We'll miss her. We will also miss our cousins Mickey and Ora, in Tel Aviv, who were out of the country when we left, and had to do with only an email goodbye.
We will miss Emma's gan --- her kindergarten --- and her superb teacher, Ety. We never wrote much about the gan, but we are grateful Emma got a chance to learn a little Hebrew and experience another culture this way. Emma and we enjoyed celebrating Hanukkah and Tu Bishvat, the New Year for trees, at the gan; and Ety was very supportive of Cathy creating a garden at the school and coming in every week to talk about plants and gardens. When Ety heard we were leaving she said, "War is not a big deal. I'm 45 years old and I've been here for seven wars. If you can't take the pressure of a war, you will never be an Israeli." Ety also told us how proud she was of her 18 year-old daughter, who is about to enter military service as a captain in the border guard, a very risky position.
We'll miss our fabulous babysitter, even though her reaction when we said we were leaving was, "You're joking, aren't you?"
We'll miss our friends Jody and David and Liav, who were warm hosts and good friends for a number of Shabbat dinners. And we'll miss our friends Alan, Irith, Adam, Gil, and Coral, who took care of us in ways that are almost impossible to list.
We'll miss Bubbe (David's mom) being in Israel with us for nearly two months; and the chance to be with her when she reconnected with all of her friends and relatives. So many people were so anxious to see her again.
We will miss this year in Jerusalem. Every Jew has a dream of celebrating Passover in Jerusalem. So nu? Next year in Jerusalem!