These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem


Posted on December 2, 2012 by Falynn Schmidt

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Originally posted on my blog:
Years ago I heard comedian Yisrael Campbell give his shpiel about converting to Judaism. It is hilariously funny in the way that can only come from truths. In one part, the rabbis ask him, “Do you put your lot in with the Jewish people.” “Sure,” he shrugs, realizing that is easy-peasy when you live in LA. And then he comes to Israel. Ok, a little bit harder. And then he experiences an intifada. Much harder. And then two of his closest friends are killed in the Hebrew University bombing. And now, whether he likes it or not, his lot is bound with the Jewish people.
My lot has never been anywhere but with the Jewish people. Israel much less so. It is easy for me to pledge my allegiance from America where Israel is all about a birthright where even the garbagemen wear kippot and Memorial Day is a poignant moment of silence. But that silence is surreal. You cannot know the reality of Memorial Day in Israel. That is, of course, until you have someone to memorialize. When you go from sympathy to empathy you start to bind your lot.
Hearing an air-raid siren for the first time, loud and surprising and outside your window, brings your lot a lot closer to the rest of the Jewish people. Before this past Friday, I hadn’t even contemplated what the term “air-raid siren” means. Something having to do with Communist Russia in the Forties, right? School children hiding under their desks with the fingers laced behind their heads. A thing of the past. What’s an air-raid anyway?
In this case it is an attack from thankfully inaccurate, thankfully short-range, makeshift missiles launched by the ill-equipped Palestinians from Gaza into Israel. It is a tube of metal filled with explosives propelled somewhere into our vicinity sent out with the hope of hitting something. Unfortunately the facts of their primitive warheads do not pacify my fears. With time and money those weapons can only get better, and there is only so long we can outspend and outsmart them. Our army is for sure better in every way. But for how long?
Every building in Israel is built with a bomb shelter in the basement, or if it’s newer, with a safe room right inside each apartment. Another term I never considered: bomb shelter. In Israel it is further veiled as it is called by a Hebrew name: miklat. Sounds like a nice place, not like a concrete and metal box that protects you from falling concrete and metal. I have lots of questions about this new space I need: How thick are the walls? Are there windows? Are there bathrooms? For how long can you live in one? Are they stocked with water?
I relate to crises in the way I am trained: as if they were hurricanes. You tape X’s across your windows, fill your bathtub with water and your car with gas, and have plenty of battery-operated flashlights. So where is the stockpile of water in the bomb shelter? Don’t need one, apparently because after the siren goes off, you wait for the “boom[1],” and then you only stay in the bomb shelter for ten minutes. Ten minutes, and then all clear. Israelis are sure of this and think you’re crazy for questioning it. “Hootznikim,” they scoff, “outsiders.”
And so I am. An outsider somehow on the inside. For sure I am choosing to be here. Actively choosing, every day, to be here. I know the risks, and I bask in the rewards. I could be in America, where you can believe it is much safer only because there is no siren that warns of gunmen at gas stations, in movie theatres, or on college campuses who go on rampages to avenge bad grades, bad skin, or a bad social or economic position. In America where the reality is that more people die in car accidents every week than in all the fighting of the current operation in Israel.
Somehow it seems better to die in a car accident, which is by definition unintentional, than to be killed with kavanah (intention) because you are Jewish living in Israel. As my friend here pointed out, at least when you killed by a terrorist you get a nice momument and a memorial service every year.
Last week when the siren went off, I was with friends who have been here a long time. Their tenure in the country didn’t seem to matter much as one got really scared, and one got really calm. I’d like to think I was calm, but really I was just focused on pacifying our freaked out friend. I’m good in a crisis.
We left the apartment, food on the stove, Shabbat having just started, and stood in the stairwell (the next best place to be besides a bomb shelter) until the siren stopped. But when we went back in I realized my breathing was shallow and my hands were shaking a bit. I couldn’t have been in better company at that moment, and yet hearing my first sirens to sound in Jerusalem is chilling.
The most interesting thing about this experience is that it is nothing like you would think. The fact that air raid sirens and bomb shelters exist is crazy. Watching the Iron Dome target a missile and blow it up in the air is crazy. Knowing that you have friends on both sides of the fight, friends in the army, friends who don’t support Israel, friends who are Palestinian. It is pure cognitive dissidence.
And then, just as soon as it started in Jerusalem, it is over. At least for now. Life goes on as normal. People talk of the war. “Welcome to war,” my friend said to me. And welcome back from war. It’s a lot to digest, a lot to process when you realize just how bound your lot is not just with your people but also with all people.

[1] Boom, said with an Israeli accent, is the word for when the missile hits the ground. Once it hits you wait 10 minutes, and then all-clear. You’re safe again until the next one.