notes from a (sort of?) war zone

by Leah Bieler

Last week I got a request from my local Connecticut Jewish paper for an account of my "summer of sirens." I didn't want to wade into the politics, mostly because if I had a solution, I'd be looking to share it on a slightly larger platform. 


So here, instead, is a collection of thoughts about what it's like living in this land of contradictions, if only for the summers. You can read the piece here, but as the site is confusing, and you have to scroll all the way down, here's the article in it's entirety. 



I'm driving home from dropping the kids off at day camp. The radio is on, playing an old pop tune I recognize but never loved. I consider turning off the radio, then think better of it. I tuned in to drown out my kids on the way there, who were gratingly singing the same two-line song over and over in the backseat. Now, on my way back to the house, the radio is my only company in the silent, empty car.


The music ends and the DJ is talking in that upbeat morning voice that I have never been successful in cultivating. He gives a quick traffic report just as I find myself in a mini-jam a couple of minutes from home, not big enough to make the news. I'm only half listening, watching the dance between the driver a few cars ahead and the man standing at the crosswalk. He stares down the car in a look I find all too familiar because I make it myself daily. It dares the driver not to let you cross even as two feet are planted firmly on the sidewalk, on the off chance the driver takes you up on it.


The DJ's tone changes slightly. “Listeners, if you hear a tzeva adom (red alert) and you're in your car, pull over to the side of the road. If there's a wall or a building you can get to in time – depending on where you live this is between 15 seconds and a minute and a half – run to it. If there's no time, lie on the ground behind your car, face down, arms over your head. Be safe, everyone.”


And the first thought that runs through my head is, how do I know what “behind the car” means? Doesn't that depend on which way the missile falls?


Then the traffic clears and I arrive on my street and my thoughts turn to what I need to buy for Shabbat.


I've spent most summers of my life in Jerusalem. My kids go to camp here, where they speak only Hebrew and develop a fleeting interest in the Mondial. They love the freedom they have in Israel, not like in the suburbs where we drive everywhere. There, when the kids try to walk to a friend's house, or to the store, strangers roll down their windows asking if they're okay. My younger daughter comes home from camp and asks if we need milk, because she loves going to the store by herself and doing the shopping for me. If we have enough milk, I tell her to get some seltzer. As a result, we have a pantry full of seltzer.


And while the kids are in camp, I walk around the city, planting myself in cafes where I can write for hours over a single cup of coffee, enjoying the breeze and the light bouncing off the Jerusalem stone. But this summer is different.


My two older kids are spending a month at sleepaway camp in the states, so my husband remains in the U.S., waiting for them to come home so they can jump on a plane and join me and their siblings. Oh, and the bombs.


I've been here in wartime before. I've had the police yell us back into our house so that they could explode a package someone left in front of our gate. I've been locked in the supermarket for an hour while they subdued a terrorist outside. And with so many other things connected with the security situation here, I know the drill.


But this is the first time that an air raid siren siren sent me (and my children) into our double duty laundry room/bomb shelter. I'm not sure what I was expecting. I was very calm and sure that the kids weren't at all frightened.


But I must have been more flustered than I realized, because when my good friend, who lives down the street, sweetly called me in the shelter to see if I was alright, I forgot to ask if her son, who a couple of minutes earlier had been babysitting at my house, had made it home in time. (He had not, and ran the second half of the way, sirens blaring.)


And the kids went to bed easily, but the next day, they had a battery of questions. “What if I'm in the shower when the siren sounds?” “How far away is the bomb shelter at camp?” “What are the chances we could get hit?” My daughter jumps every time she hears an ambulance, unable to entirely distinguish the sounds.


But then, they giggle at the top of their lungs in the pool, or I have a hard time pulling them away from their friends at the end of the camp day, campmates yelling at them in Hebrew as we walk towards the car. And they annoy me from the backseat. And it all feels so normal.


There's an episode of “The West Wing” where Josh Lyman can't stand to hear music because in his head the sounds turn to sirens, reminding him of when he was shot, during a foiled assassination attempt by white supremacists. I remember thinking what a clever literary device that was, if a bit unrealistic.


But last night, the kids in bed, the news on low, banners going across the screen every time a missile was fired, the house was eerily quiet. And then I heard a sound, like a wave, with an ebb and flow that I would have sworn was a distant air raid warning. I heard it again. And again. They weren't mentioning anything on the TV about a warning in Jerusalem, so I opened the door to the balcony to check.


There's a haredi yeshiva down the street. They exist in a bit of a bubble, barely interacting with the more liberal community that surrounds them. They were having a celebration of some sort, seemingly unaware of the war going on all around. They were singing the same tune over and over, and it washed over me like waves. I went to bed to the sound of those crashing waves, which any other night would have grated on me, as they sang loud and strong, way past midnight. But this week it seemed apropos, a contradiction within a contradiction. I'm sure there were mothers in Gaza at that same moment, silently wishing for a bit of my good fortune. Serenaded, I slept better than I have in weeks.