Three Weeks of War: Living in the New Reality

Israeli radio stations broadcast an alert when missiles are launched from Gaza or Lebanon into Israeli towns and cities. It goes like this: 

Dededum (dramatic drums) 

Alert: (name of city, town or area)

Enter a protected area. 

Then, the song, commercial, or DJ chatter continues as usual. These days this will likely happen several times during a drive. The synthetic drums have the intended effect of an immediate surge of adrenaline and intense focus, even if you were only half tuned in before. 

If the alert is for your area, you have a varying number of seconds (depending on your location in the country) to seek shelter. If you’re on the road with no available shelter you’re supposed to stop the vehicle, lay face down some distance away, and cover your head.

The dark comedy of scrambling for cover to a soundtrack of a song you love (or hate) while the rest of the country breathes a sigh of relief and sings along makes me chuckle and makes my heart hurt. 

We’re now three weeks in. Three weeks since Black Saturday, as it’s begun to be referred to. Politicians and army generals repeatedly prepare the public for a “long, intense” war. School is intermittent depending on location and in the country and availability of shelter. Attendance is not mandatory. Universities have delayed the beginning of the academic year until at least early December, as a large portion of students are on reserve duty. Almost 400,000 people have received enlistment orders, taking a huge chunk out of the working population. 200,000 Israelis have had to evacuate their homes and are now living indefinitely in hotel rooms, volunteered apartments, or in newly constructed tent cities. 

Essentials like supermarkets, clinics, and garages are open. Leisure/entertainment based businesses are closed. The streets are still mostly quiet, and people are still mostly staying home, especially in the evening when rocket fire seems to be more frequent. Everything is related to the war; every TV commercial, every billboard, every conversation. Eretz Nehederet, Israel’s SNL style skit show aired its first episode since the start of the war, poking fun at politicians, BBC faux pas, and Hamas bandwagoning by passionate, yet ill informed college students. Most of the jokes were not funny, yet. 

The country is collectively holding its breath for what’s to come, while still processing what’s already happened. 24 people are still listed as “missing”. They might be one of the still unidentified bodies, or they might be hostages in Gaza. 

At this point, the evacuation flights have come and gone, and the boat that took Americans away to Cyprus has long since left the dock. Whoever is here has decided to be here. 

In our building, we have become the de-facto caretakers. Our other neighbors are elderly or are Colombian foreign workers that lack the language and cultural experience to know how to manage the situation. Tamir and I tidied the bomb shelter and moved the chairs closer to the middle of the room where it’s safer and stocked it with water and crackers. Yehuda, the son of Rachel, has my number and calls me each time there’s a rocket siren to make sure his 80 year old mother made it down the four flights of stairs in time. She always does, but her brother Haim never does. He’s always a flight away when we hear the booms. 

Yesterday there were two midday rocket barrages within 20 minutes. One rocket fell at the tennis courts down the street, with shrapnel landing around 200 meters away from our building. Even at this distance, the blast shook the walls in the underground shelter. Buildings that were closer had broken windows. The shock sent one of the Colombian women into a panic attack. She sat with us in the living room and explained through her tears she’s only been here three months. 

In Israel, we’re living in a strange twilight zone. Every day is tinged with sadness, despair and fear. Sadness at all of the hurt and pain already inflicted, here, in Gaza, the West Bank, and in the alarming awakening of vitriol worldwide towards Israelis and Jews. Despair at our helplessness in preventing more death and pain in an impossible situation we know is far from over. Fear of what more is in store, for the hostages in Gaza, my friends plucked from their families to serve in reserve units along the borders, for myself and my neighbors, for Gazans trapped between a well equipped, determined air force and a manipulative, selfish terror organization, for Jews everywhere facing antisemitism not seen since WWII.

Over the layer of sadness and fear, life always continues, even if it’s different. Yesterday morning Tamir and I ate shakshuka at a nearby cafe where we discussed notable local cats with the neighborhood cat lady, and then traced our way home according to shelter locations. After the rocket barrage that left Diana in tears, we made Shabbat dinner and lit the candles as usual, before our new bedtime routine of laying out our clothing and shoes in case we’ll need to dash to the shelter.

The radio stations seem to be matching the mood of the country with their mix of mournful, melancholy Israeli songs and moments of welcome escape into uptempo, hopeful tunes. Between rocket alerts, and terrifying news updates, we turn the volume up and hum along.