The Wandering Jew: Cookies In The Bomb Shelter
When my husband and I went to buy groceries last week, we wandered around the mall first, people-watching and window-shopping. We passed by a large store I had never seen before, bereft of merchandise. There were three long tables in the middle of the room, where people formed lines, apparently waiting for something important.
“What are they selling there, folding tables?” I quipped.
My husband, Tomer, looked over to where I was pointing and smacked his head. “Oh, that reminds me! Do you have your ID with you? We need to pick up our gas masks.”
Right. Add that to the grocery list: Milk, bread, eggs … gas masks.
After getting over the initial shock, I found myself smacking my own head. I had momentarily forgotten where I was living: a tiny country surrounded by less-than-friendly nations who want nothing more than to see it destroyed. And with news suggesting that Iran is closer than ever to building a nuclear weapon, compounded by recent strikes on Israeli embassies in Asia, it would seem as though Israel is (once again) teetering on the brink of total destruction.
But it’s business as usual in the Hummusland.
We are nothing if not prepared. There are bomb shelters in every neighborhood, and every residence built within the past 20 years is required to have its own cement-and-steel-encased “safe room.”
At my in-laws’ house, theirs doubles as the laundry room and pantry. So if we were ever in a situation (God forbid) where we had to move in there, we would have enough cookies, dried fruit and snacks to last us a few years. Plus, our clothes would always be clean.
History and circumstance have forced Israel into a state of perpetual bipolar disorder; our Prozac is our determination to survive. And although a cure exists, it’s unlikely to be on the market anytime soon.
“We live in a bizarre reality,” affirmed one government official, in response to recent rocket fire from Gaza. “We switch from emergency and then back to routine. We’ve lived like this for many years.”
These thoughts flooded my mind as we stood waiting for our government- issued gas masks. I looked at the other people in line — some on their cell phones, others glancing at their watches impatiently. No one seemed the least bit disturbed — the strongest emotion I saw was mild annoyance at the wait.
And then I saw a man trying a gas mask on his baby. The baby fussed a little but not as much as I would have expected given that the mask resembled something out of a sci-fi horror flick. I still can’t shake that image from my mind. When I tried my mask on, I was freaking out, trying not to hyperventilate. The baby, for its part, seemed to be handling the situation with a lot more finesse, making me wonder if perhaps reacting calmly to crises was an inherently Israeli trait.
How is it that Israelis can go on with their daily routine, seemingly inured to the constant threats around them? Israel is an incredibly determined little country, like the ‘Little Engine that Could’ in the classic children’s story, if that little engine were constantly being fired upon with missiles. We try to be positive, while vacillating between hope and horror. It’s a weird seesawing of drastically opposing emotions that grips this nation, and it’s been going on for so long that it’s commonplace.
Of course, this stoicism comes with a darker side. When life is a battlefield, you cannot afford to show any signs of weakness. And when you painstakingly built a country up from swampland with blood, sweat and tears, self-reliance becomes a cardinal virtue. But sometimes you can take it too far. Close-knit relationships are built on trust and sharing vulnerabilities, and Israelis don’t like to depend on others. As a psychologist might say, “Israel has trust issues.”
Despite all that, I feel pretty safe here. With my gas mask and husband in tow, and a bomb shelter stocked with cookies, I have all I need. When you live in a place that is constantly threatened with annihilation, you learn to appreciate life more, but you also learn to just deal.
What can you do? Stop going to work? Keep your kids locked inside all day? It’s like the old saying about the meaning of all Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us, we survived … let’s eat!” Except in the case of Israel, they’re still trying to kill us. And we’re still surviving. And eating. And going shopping and waiting in line for three hours to go skiing at Mount Hermon.
When all is said and done, you can’t stop living … you have to keep chugging along, hoping against hope that everything will eventually work out OK. Yeah, we’re a little bipolar over here. But we’re working through it. In the meantime, would you please pass the hummus?
Lauren Meir is a Metro Detroit native who lives and works as a freelance writer in Israel.