Tuesday, July 15, 2014
The sound of that siren piercing through your entire body and soul is an experience no Jew forgets. It is heard from every corner of our small country on Holocaust Memorial Day and on Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Terror Victims. On national remembrance days, when each of us stands in silence for two straight minutes, the siren serves as a way to commemorate the millions of Jewish individuals who were slaughtered and tortured during the Holocaust, and to honor the tens of thousands killed in battle defending their ancestral homeland or brutally murdered in terror attacks.
When I hear that siren on Holocaust Memorial Day, I think of this picture and I clench up.
I think of mass graves. I try to think of what six million people perishing actually means, but then remind myself that the way to do so is by remembering the story of one. I think of people who resemble skeletons, starving and freezing to death. I think of choking gas filling their lungs. I think of desperate eyes, seeking salvation. I think of what a twisted and sick world we live in, and how evil man can be.
When I hear the siren on Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Terror Victims, I think of this photograph, one that I took at the Acco Prison, where Jewish fighters were kept hostage and later hanged by the British.
I think of each war Israel has fought through, and each country that has sought its destruction, year after year. I think of countless names of heroic soldiers now buried on Har Herzl. I think of that uniform, and what an honor it is for our soldiers to put it on each morning (even though from what I’ve been told, doing so is a hassle). I think of a restored pride to a people who have been continuously massacred throughout history. Finally, the siren on Yom HaZikaron makes me think about how Israel’s soldiers are its civilians and that there is no distinction between the two terms, because we are one people with one heart.
Earlier this week, I heard that same penetrating sound in a very different context for the first time. The siren that I formerly associated with my people’s difficult yet miraculous past is the same siren that is heard today, when a rocket from our terrorist neighbors is aimed toward homes, parks, schools (day cares – universities), malls, beach shores, cafes, airports, synagogues, and just about anywhere else the civilian population of Israel chooses to be. Although that siren sends chills to my bones each time it sounds, both on days of remembrance and during times of war, it unifies the Jewish people. We are together when we commemorate our ancestors’ suffering and sacrifices, but also when we have to run to bomb shelters at any hour of the day or night. The siren is a constant reminder to our people that the rest of the world has not, does not, and will [probably] not be on our side. We must break down the barriers that separate all of us, whether they are different political ideologies, sexual orientations, religious affiliations, or countries of origin. None of these things matter because at the beginning, middle, and end of the day, our enemies strive to wipe us off the map (G-d forbid). Why they seek our destruction is beyond me, and frankly, I don’t ever want to understand their logic because it is a mindset filled with hate, lies, and injustice. After three young boys, Eyal Yifrach z”l, Gilad Shaar z”l, and Naftali Frankel z”l, were kidnapped and murdered on their way home from school, Rabbi David Milston profoundly stated, “As I walk and cry, I will walk with pride that I am a Jew living in Israel, that I belong to a people that is often the victim… when the victor is so evil, so drenched in the blood of the innocent, then be proud that you are nothing to do with him, be proud that you represent the Image of G-d.” Similarly, I take pride in not having anything in common with Hamas. I’m horrified by how little they care about life, whether it is the lives of Palestinian men, women, and children, or for the lives of Israeli citizens. Despite the world’s inaccurate accusations claiming Israel is an aggressor, an apartheid state, a genocidal regime, or all the other illogical titles it has apparently earned for itself, I support Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. Contrary to common claims by the media, this country is filled with a populace that prays and longs for peace, including myself. The only reason so many Israelis take pride in their army service is because they have been given the opportunity to protect the lives of those they cherish most, against an eternal adversary. We are a nation that loves life. When making a toast, most people say “Cheers” or “Salute (to health),” but Jews exclaim “L’Chaim (to life).” This intrinsic saying among our people extends to our army as well. The primary goal of the Israel Defense Forces is not to engage in war and then have more graves to dig (G-d forbid), but rather to ensure that the Jewish people are able to continue living. As Golda Meir said, “We owe a responsibility not only to those who are in Israel but also to those generations that are no more, to those millions who have died within our lifetime, to Jews all over the world, and to generations of Jews to come. We hate war. We do not rejoice in victories. We rejoice when a new kind of cotton is grown, and when strawberries bloom in Israel.” So please, stop comparing our soldiers to Nazis, stop burning our flag, and stop spreading anti-Semitic garbage. We’re sick of it and we’re here to stay. The siren going off will not make us leave our home.
Since this mess broke out, I’ve had to rush to a bomb shelter six times in the span of three days. I’ve been fuming with confusion and frustration as to why rockets are flying over my head and the lives of everyone I care for are at risk. Nonetheless, my pride for this country and in the decision to build my future here has never been stronger. During the sirens I will be here, in the land promised to me by my Creator, with my people. To prove that we don’t stop our lives because of Hamas, I still celebrated three friends’ birthdays by going out on Thursday night, regardless of how scared I was of being on the road, a siren going off, having to lay down on the street and cover my head in case rocket shrapnel fell near by. I also traveled to visit my grandfather in Tel Aviv, even though the thought of a suicide bomber coming onto my bus was ingrained in my mind. I made it a point to stop at the beach, despite the fact that two Hamas terrorists attempted to come into Israel through the coast only a day earlier. If Jews didn’t move on and continue their lives, the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Crusaders, Inquisitors, Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, and all the Arab countries that are anti-Israel, would win. By continuing to build vibrant and colorful Jewish lives, we fight back. So yes, when that siren goes off on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, I will remember how they longed for the demise of all Jewry. When it sounds during a time of war, I will run to a bomb shelter, help a struggling person reach safety, listen to my Israeli neighbor’s sarcastic jokes as he attempts to comfort me, take a bomb shelter selfie, try to find the humor in the situation, and upset our enemy tremendously by protecting that which is most precious and sacred to us, life.
Having to schlep from Givat Shmuel all the way to the American Embassy to renew my soon to be expired passport sounded unpleasant in every sense of the term, but I sucked it up and was on my way. I had to take three buses in the rain, and deal with angry Israeli bus drivers who had no patience for my many questions asking for directions in Hebrish. Another factor that contributed to the frustration of this day was that the American Embassy was only opened from 8-11am. You would think an American institution would make its hours a bit more flexible, but nope, they've unfortunately embraced the Israeli bureaucratic system. Now, with the transportation itself taking over two hours, that meant I had to wake up pretty early if I wanted to make this work, and I'm very much so not a morning person. As I always say, "good morning is an oxymoron." Once I finally made it to the embassy the time was 10:35. I thought, "Yes! 25 minutes to spare. That's plenty of time!" I approached the guard, told him why I was there, went through security, and was inside. There were many charadim in line in front of me, so that was a bit nerve wrecking considering it was 10:47 at this point. Finally, my number was called and I told the teller that I needed to renew my passport. He asked for a passport picture, which I gladly handed to him along with the rest of my paperwork. He said it's not the right size and to go across the street to take a new one. With 8 minutes to spare I ran out of the building, across the street, took the ugliest picture I've ever seen of myself (and yes, I'm taking into account the multiple hideous snapchats I've sent to some of my closest friends), and ran back. Security stopped me this time, claiming that the office was closing. I assured them that it wasn't and that I had a few minutes before the dreaded 11am struck. They let me through, and I got back to the window I was previously at. The employee expressed his aggravation about me making it back on time because he couldn't go home yet. "Come on man," I thought, "you work for three hours a day, four days a week. What's another ten minutes?!" Finally, my info was processed, all was paid for, and the passport was to be shipped and received within 8 business day (still haven't gotten it, but that's besides the point).
My next destination was the office where one purchases a gas mask, which was on the other side of TLV. My overly paranoid mother had been nagging me to buy this life preserver for over two months, and I had had enough of her semi-justified badgering. I looked up the address on Moovit, and found that getting to this office involved another two buses and lots of walking. After waiting for twenty minutes in the rain, the correct line came and I hopped on. A few minutes passed before I realized I was going in the wrong direction. I got off, trying to maintain a positive attitude, and found the right bus stop. Luckily, the wait there was only five minutes. I got on, transferred, and found my way to the gas mask building. When I got to the office, there was an old man holding a motorcycle helmet blocking the door. He asked me what I wanted. I told him I needed to buy a gas mask. He said that this wasn't the place and there's no where to buy one. I told him to please let me in and to stop being difficult and giving me false information. He finally got out of my way, and I walked in. The secretary greeted me with a warm smile and asked what she could help me with. "Finally," I thought, "some pleasant customer service." I told her what I was looking for, and she said they do sell them. Upon handing me the box, her smile turned into a confused pitiful expression. She asked where I was from, if I live here now, and if I knew what the product I was asking for symbolized. I responded with a proud, "Los Angeles, yes, I do live here, and I do understand." She asked me why I would move here. She said, "all the Israelis want to escape this place, and you come here? Why would you move to a place where you need a gas mask?" I was taken aback by her questions, mainly because of how blunt they were, but also because my first impression of her was that of a simple and accommodating employee... how wrong I was. I just said, "I believe very strongly in the Jewish peoples' right and need to live in this country, and that it is where we're meant to be. I feel at home here. I guess the grass is greener on the other side." She looked at me with an expression that read, "Oh, you poor stupid American. You don't know what you have gotten yourself into. Go back." I couldn't bare her lack of understanding and the discomfort stirring in my gut. I handed her the 400 shekel, took my gas mask, thanked her, and walked out. In the elevator I started crying because her remarks hit a sensitive spot in me. Even though I have heard from just about about everyone how hard financially it is to live in Israel, how ill mannered the people here are, and plenty of other disadvantages that come along with the move, none of them ever affected me the way this woman's comments had. The issue was no longer regarding how expensive it is to live here, the smell of body odor on bus rides, having to hear constant honking while on the road, or how just about every sign is misspelled. Rather, she made the issue one of life and death, and it was the first time I felt the negativity take a toll on me. It's not that I had never thought of war, terror attacks, or the likelihood of being killed by our surrounding enemies. I had just never experienced such a straightforward questioning as to why I want to be here. I understand the danger, I read the news, I know people who have been affected by terrorism. These thoughts did not go away, thus paranoia and regret began to set in.
Once I got outside and was finally on my way to my Saba's apartment off of Dizengoff, it started pouring down so hard that even the Kinneret thought it was a bit much. As I was walking, semi-crying, and trying to find directions off of Google Maps while my phone was getting drenched, a smiling young woman stopped me and asked if I wanted to walk under her umbrella with her to where I needed to go. After a day that really made me start questioning why I moved here, this angel with an umbrella reminded me that although Israelis might be difficult to deal with, at the end of your awful day, they do care. Based on my experience in Los Angeles and New York, people do not stop to help out a soaking wet and miserable stranger, rather they do everything in their power to avoid eye contact with struggling individuals. This woman's small, yet great, act of kindness gave me sudden reassurance and reminded me of what had slipped my mind throughout the earlier parts of my day.
I find that mercy and sympathy are of greater value than manners. Israelis have proven time and again that they posses such characteristics, even if they lack the latter. Further, among the many reasons why I came to Israel, one was because I felt like there were people here working to build up a country that ultimately benefits the entire Jewish people. I found no justification in sitting back and reaping the benefits of someone else's blood, sweat, and tears. So, to the woman who asked why I left my comfortable life in America, there's your answer, and trust me, only in Israel will you find people who will offer you their umbrella during a storm.