Houses, Gas Masks and Guns

Cathy Tuttle and David Notkin (c) 1998

The house we live in is perched at the top of a terraced cliff. It is built of local stones and follows the contour of the hillside. From the base of the hill the neighborhood we live in appears as an ancient structure---almost a fortress. The neighborhood's feeling of timelessness is reinforced by the herds of cows and sheep we see grazing on the scrubby landscape in the wadi (an Arabic term for valley) far below. We've been puzzled about where all this livestock comes from, since the buildings closest to them are a shopping mall and a convention center. Is pastureland so valuable that the cows were brought in by truck? Perhaps the cows like to shop at the mall? Maybe the animals are inflatable.

Because our house was only built seven years ago, it has many of the flaws of modern architecture -- the ceilings leak, the light switches fall off, door handles come off in our hands - but the exterior structure of the building is quite clever. For example, although the building we are in is part of a 10-unit complex, we have no sense of being so crowded. Until we go outside, we cannot see another house.

Building into the hills of Haifa is quite common. Our friends Eitan and Bath-sheva helped pioneer this style of architecture 25 years ago. They live in the middle level of five houses. Despite being long and set into a hill, their house has an exquisite floor plan that allows for large parties as well as intimate gatherings. And even though more than half of the house is underground, the laundry room, kitchen, living room and master bedroom all have outdoor balconies.

Part of the purpose of this style of architecture is to keep cool in the summer. In fact there are many architectural elements in Israeli houses that keep them cool in the summer. Most floors are stone-tiled, living room ceilings are often two stories high, many large windows open onto cool stone patios and balconies, and seriously heavy window blinds keep out sunlight. Unfortunately, it is winter here now, and these uninsulated and drafty rooms were a bit hard to take until we got a new heating system installed (our old heating system almost burned the house down --- if you visit, we'll let you see the scorch marks that still remain on the ceiling). Still, it is often warmer outside than inside.

But winter is not really cold here. It's usually in the 50's or warmer. Roses are still in bloom, the peas Cathy planted are bearing fruit, and there have been occasional days in January when sitting outside in the sun at the beach in a T-shirt is pleasant. To our minds, there is a national neurosis about bundling up, particularly about bundling up babies. We have seen adults wearing ski hats, down coats and gloves while we swelter in long sleeved shirts. And we have never been in a public place without one person (and often many people) coming over and adjusting Akiva's blankets, pulling down the legs of his pants, or chastising us about his lack of warm clothes. Often when he cries, people's first reaction is to ask if he is warm enough.

Although winter is not especially cold, the wind and rain can be fierce. The first few times Cathy heard thunderstorms at night, she thought we were being attacked by Iraq. Our large picture window overlooking the Mediterranean is an amazing place to watch huge lightening storms sweep in from the sea. The storms, coming as unexpectedly as they do, make it easy to imagine how the ancient nomadic people from this area --- who lived in tents, not in stone houses --- developed an idea of an all-powerful god.

The other really loud sound we sometimes hear from our house is sonic booms from military planes flying missions (possibly training, possibly to Lebanon). In the past few months we've gotten pretty complacent about the military presence here. The first month we were here, Saddam and the Americans were threatening each other and we were told by friends and neighbors we should go get gas masks. Gas masks are issued for free, in a variety of sizes, from infant to bearded man, at a tiny bunker at the municipal theater in downtown Haifa. However, unless the American embassy declares a state of emergency, it turns out we can't be issued gas masks on our extended tourist visas. But we did talk to a lot of our friends here about living through the Gulf War seven years ago.

It turns out that every house and every building built in the last ten years or so has a bomb shelter that is also designed to be safe from gas (the seminar room in the basement at IBM doubles as a bomb shelter). During the war, families we know slept every night in their shelter, following special rules about how to tape the doors and windows to keep out gas. We read recently in the newspaper that many people died during the war from lack of oxygen in their shelters or while wearing their masks. Still, it is chilling to hear people talk about recent attacks on places we frequent now. One of the nearby wadis still has a scar from where an Iraqi scud landed during the Gulf War.

With terrorists blowing up busy sidewalk cafes, and frequent threats of war, Israel doesn't feel especially safe to us in the long-term. However, many of the people we talk to here have made aliyah ("moved up" to living permanently in Israel) because the country does feel safe to them. The three young American women who have done babysitting for us said they moved here because they felt safe walking in their neighborhoods at night. A California beach boy who opened a coffee shop in Haifa moved here, he said, because his good friend was shot at age 13 in some street violence. And people we know with children say they moved here because their children can freely walk to the playground or neighbor's houses to play. It is a trade-off - day-to-day safety versus the potential for total annihilation. (We even live not too far from Mt. Megiddo, which is where Armageddon is supposed to begin.) Even now, with it heating up a little more in Iraq again, we feel quite a bit more relaxed than before; somehow the long-term threat is easy to forget about (or at least think about less), especially given how safe everything else feels (well, except for crazy driving and children rolling around in the back seats of cars with no seat belts).

But nobody here really forgets that Israel has been in many wars since independence in 1948. Children on school field trips are required to be accompanied by an armed adult. Occasionally we see groups of soldiers on the beach, running right past the felafel stand and playground, training for desert battle while carrying heavy weapons. We no longer even notice when a soldier with a gun walks by, or gets on the bus, or is picked up while hitchhiking. We've talked to a number of Israelis and they universally feel safer when they see soldiers with guns around. In the U.S. if you saw a 20 year-old with a gun, you'd probably run as fast as you can; if they were in a uniform, you might even be less comfortable rather than more comfortable.

Service in the military is ostensibly universal. Men and women serve for several years in active service, starting when they are about 18 years old. The men then serve in the reserves until they are 45 years old or so. The primary exception is the Israeli arabs, who aren't required to serve due to the potential of mixed allegiances. The other exception that receives a lot of attention these days is religious Jews who avoid service by declaring that, "Torah is my way of life." This exception has been around for awhile, but recently the number of men applying for the exemption has increased markedly, to something like 7.5% of the eligible men. There is talk about limiting the number of exemptions available, and the rules have been tightened a bit; but like many things in Israel, the orthodox Jews hold significant political power, making it very difficult to change this rule. But there is definitely unhappiness among the secular Jews about this situation.

There is mixed opinion about how important it is to a young person's future to have done military service. The usual course of events in a young Israeli's life (who is not an Arab or yeshiva student) is to go right into the military after high school. There are definitely preferable jobs - being an officer in military intelligence provides some computer training while being a cook or a paratrooper does not. Kid's high school records are reviewed, they are interviewed, and they take tests to find out their aptitudes. There is some feeling that compulsory military service helps high school-aged kids keep on track in school and reduces delinquency - if you get arrested for graffiti or shoplifting, you are more likely to be assigned to a less desirable job. Israeli society, at least superficially, appears to be a pretty conservative: there are very few weirdly dressed people (no nose rings and mohawks), few public signs of drug or alcohol abuse, and little visible vandalism.

Two of the young American women who have been Emma's babysitters have made great efforts enlist. One finally gave up when a government bureaucrat asked her to write an essay on "Why I want to join the army." The other has endured months of psychological and physical testing and is still waiting for an assignment. The Israeli army seems to have a problem with what to do with both women and foreigners. An Israeli woman we know is serving as a tour guide for school groups as her army position, but her unit has been mostly idle for the past year because of some problems with the educational ministry. A foreign man we know is pleased that he did not get the job frequently assigned to foreigners of prison guard. Instead, his job is to make sure soldiers who have security clearance are awake in case an important phone call comes in for them.

We're happy to be here while Israel is relatively peaceful. But the Middle East is still an unstable region. Mothers we know told us that they had hoped and expected that Israel would be at peace by the time their children were 18 years old. But instead the boys are still headed to active service in Lebanon, in the Occupied Territories, and to other places right on the front-lines.