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Walter's Israel journal (Part 4): An encounter in the shelter

Walter hears the sad story of a young Israeli mother.

Inside the hot, dank and overcrowded shelter, Orly Magen, a harried-looking woman of about 25, sat dejectedly in the corner, holding her two and a half year old son Etai. Asked about her situation, Magen explained that several weeks earlier her husband had been called into the reserves and the office where she is employed as a clerk sent its workers home for the interim of the conflict.

After several days in which she and Etai were forced to take shelter ten or more times a day during incessant air raids, Magen decided to take her toddler to Tel Aviv and stay with acquaintances there until things calmed down in the north. Yet after a week, and a half, Magen felt that she had worn out her welcome, and with her meager bank account dwindling rapidly, she was in no position to move into a hotel. Instead, she drove back to Haifa with Etai, and moved in with her mother in the building in which the Hadassah members took shelter (see previous post).

A few days later, a missile landed nearby, totally demolishing Magen’s car. She has been assured by a government official that she will eventually be reimbursed a large portion of the value of the car, but, for the moment, she has no idea when the money will come. After narrating her story in matter-of-fact fashion, Magen’s voice quavered as she said, “I can’t stand any more of this. Etai is being traumatized by the constant air raids and the boom of the rockets when they hit. The situation is completely unbearable.”

Several of the Hadassah women hugged Magen and placed into Etai’s eager hands presents like stuffed animals, crayons and coloring books. Smiling broadly through her tears, seemingly for the first time in days, Magen profusely thanked the visitors and said, “It means a lot to me that there are Jews from America who are willing to come here despite the dangers and be with us at this moment.”

Walter's Israel journal (Part 5): An odd sense of normalcy

Away from the war zone, Walter finds life goes on in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Like almost every Israeli to whom I spoke, Magen (see previous post) said she supports the government’s decision to press on with its military offensive to the Litani River, some 20 miles north of the Israeli-Lebanese border, although, like nearly all the others, she is dubious the expanded offensive will bring lasting peace or end the missile threat that had turned their lives upside down. When the cease-fire was announced several days later, there was an almost unanimous feeling that it would last only a matter of hours or days and then violence would erupt again.

The three quarters of the Israeli population that lives south of Hadera in the region where the missiles have yet to penetrate live in a jarringly different reality than their compatriots further north. In Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere in the center and south of the country, life goes on more or less normally. People sit in cafes or to the beach as though the whole nightmarish scene happening a few score miles to the north simply does not exist.

A slogan emblazoned on an electronic billboard overlooking the main Tel Aviv-Haifa highway proclaims, ‘Residents of the North, we are all with you’, yet the slogan seems at least partly hyperbole. When I informed friends in Jerusalem that I had just spent two days in Afeq and Haifa before coming to the capital; most responded with comments to the effect of, ‘You were brave to have done that, but I wouldn’t go there myself in this situation.’

Most of those to whom I spoke seemed to feel they are in enough danger and under enough stress given the reality they are forced to live with in relatively peaceful times as well as times of war—that they don’t need to go in for false heroics. It is enough that they go to work every day to keep the economy running—not to mention being ready, if fate so decides, to sacrifice their children for the good of the country. In addition, many have opened their homes to refugees from the north. So why, they ask, should they go north and dodge missiles themselves?

Walter's Israel journal (Part 6): Coming home

This is the final installment of Walter's report on his recent Israel trip. Although it only peripherally about our Israeli relatives, it sounds as if it could be the opening of a new chapter of Ruby family history.

As for myself, I made a decision during my two days visiting my cousins in Afeq and sitting with residents in the air raid shelters of Haifa; namely that someday in the not-too-distant-future I will return to live in the hometown of my youth, stricken now, but still achingly beautiful as it sits resplendently on the steep slopes of Mt. Carmel.

Over 25 years ago, I made a decision not to stay permanently in Israel despite my abiding love for the land, the people, the Hebrew language and the primal intensity of the place. I felt myself too much of a cosmopolitan Jew to stay permanently in a place that then seemed to me parochial and intensely nationalistic, and I was unready to join the IDF and take part in enforcing an occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that I found to be fundamentally wrong and immoral. Or so I rationalized it to myself then, yet somehow I have known in my bones during all the ensuing years that Israel is where I belong.

And then suddenly last week, listening to my aunt Penina narrate the story of our family and the role they played in the rebirth of the Jewish commonwealth in the land of our forefathers, and listening to Orly Magen express her profound distress on the emotional toll that the latest outburst of violence is exacting on her Etai and whole new generation of Israelis, I vowed to myself that I will return to Haifa to devote the remaining years of my life to doing whatever I can to help transform conflict into reconciliation so that the next generation of Jews and Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese alike, will not have to endure the horrors that have scarred the lives of this generation and the four generations of Israelis and Arabs preceding it.

Suddenly I remembered two things I knew long ago but had somehow since forgotten; that underneath their hard-edged and sometimes truculent exteriors, Israelis are kind, decent and profoundly vulnerable. Also that despite the hell visited upon it by recurring wars, the tiny jewel-like Land of Israel is the most radiantly beautiful place on earth. It is where I belong.


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