Sunday, April 14, 2013

Yom HaZikaron

This past Friday, a picture of my mother-in-law appeared in the front inside page of the daily newspaper, Yediot Achronot. In the picture, snapped several days ago, she is shown wearing casual work clothes and latex gloves, bending over a grave whose headstone is clearly visible in the shot. At her side is a blue scrubbing brush.

My mother-in-law had not wanted the picture to be published. An incredibly private person, the capture and distribution of this highly personal moment is quite possibly the last thing I would expect my mother-in-law to approve of. But when she asked the photographer to please delete the photo for which she had not willingly posed, he refused. His assignment had been to capture just such a shot, the cemetery was quiet that day, and this was the only appropriate picture he had managed to take. After several minutes, she finally acquiesced.

The caption under the photo reads: "Mother of combat soldier Hillel Rosner (Z"L)*, who fell in Lebanon, tidies his grave in advance of Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day)"

*(Z"L is an acronym for the expression "May his memory be a blessing")

My husband's oldest brother, Hillel, was killed in action in Lebanon in 1995. He was nineteen years old.

Yesterday, during a leisurely Saturday afternoon walk, I laughingly remarked to my husband that Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) is just about the only time I'm not afflicted with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). I couldn't possibly be any closer to the center of things than I am once a year on this particular day.

Tomorrow morning, I will join the tens of thousands of people streaming into the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery. At the entrance, youths in khaki shorts with green bandanas tied around their necks will offer us flowers. No one in our family ever takes any, except for my husband's grandmother, who will place them not on her grandson's grave, but in the vase on her coffee table in Jerusalem. Despite the shade trees, it will inevitably be scorching hot, and packed between thousands of other mourners, I will sweat through my light clothing. My husband and the other male members of his family will stand to the side, apart. Their status as Kohanim prevents them from approaching the grave of their brother and son. I will stand next to the grave of the brother I will never meet, next to his mother, his sister, his grandmother, his aunt, his friends. We will chat, catch up, talk about anything else. And then at 11:00 exactly, we will stop in mid-sentence as the wailing of the siren reminds us that there is a time for silence. My sister-in-law will hand me a tissue (she is always prepared), and I will wipe my face awkwardly under my dark sunglasses, holding my elbows close to my body to hide the wet marks under my arms, as over the loudspeaker the Chazzan chants the El Maleh Rachamim, and the Yizkor prayer for the dead.

This year, like every other, I will feel like an intruder, standing next to those who were closest to Hillel, and whose loss of a loved one entitles them to a legitimate grief which I hope I will never earn. Long ago I was told that every Israeli has "Their Soldier" whose death shapes the link between private and national grief, makes the day personal, relateable. Hillel is "My Soldier", but I did not lose him. I was nine years old and six thousand miles away when he was killed. Tomorrow, Hillel's death becomes public property, part of a larger picture, blurred into a complex culture of nationalism, collective memory, and sacrifice.

For my husband and his family, 18 years now after Hillel was killed, private and real grief is reserved not for Yom HaZikaron, but for the anniversary of his death, later in the summer.

After the ceremony, we will make our way back to my in-laws' house. Over the next few hours, the house will fill with friends and family. I will hide in the kitchen and try to make myself useful by preparing food for the guests. The same food is served every year, and once again I will stuff what feels like a hundred pitas with hummus, turkey breast, and pickles. My in-laws and my husband's older brother will sit in the living room, while my husband and his younger sister each retreat to their own childhood bedrooms, in an unintentional mimicry of the week they sat Shiva for Hillel. Their friends will join them in the rooms, sitting awkwardly on chairs and beds, filling the small spaces with their now adult bodies.

As the day wears on, the house will gradually empty. After the last guests have gone, exhausted, we will lie down sleep for an hour or hopefully two. I will wake up as evening sets in, and Yom HaAtzmaut will begin.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Surreal Life

I have been meaning to start this blog for a very long time. Since the day four years ago when I made Aliyah, to be exact. I don't know why I feel so compelled to write, and I'm not particularly confident that I have something especially interesting or unique or insightful to contribute, but ever since I packed up my life and awkwardly plunked it back down in this place, I have been recording little vignettes and half-composing posts in my head and promising myself at least once a week that today's the day I actually sit down and write. Well, you know how these things go...
Better late than never, right?

Four years in, and I'm still not quite sure where I stand.

In so many ways, I am proud of the strides I have made and the Israeli I have become. I have swallowed my healthy dose of reality, and the ideals I came off my ELAL flight with have long since disappeared into a haze of bureaucracy and the daily grind of trying to make it work in a country where salaries are laughably low and the cost of living is steadily rising. I can crack Garinim with my teeth and spit out the shell intact (usually). I know almost all of the words to one or two Shlomo Artzi songs, I can insult your mother in both Arabic and Hebrew, and when I order a slice of pizza, I now know to ask for a "meshulash", and not a "chatich"* (true story).  I have argued my way out of tickets, eaten Chumus as a meal, and pushed my dirty sponge-ah water out to the street below. I no longer wonder why the residents of my building in the yuppie Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem don't gather after work each evening in the lobby to join hands and dance the Hora. I can't remember the last time I patiently waited my turn in line for something. I have learned to go with the flow because most things here can't be controlled, to value the non-material things in life because here we live with less, to take less offense because most people here will tell it like it is.

[*For my non-Hebrew speaking friends, "chatich" translates roughly into "hunk" or "hottie"]

And yet...
They tell me this is my homeland but I know that I am still a foreigner, a stranger in a strange land. How many countless Israelis have remarked to me about "how American" I am? And its true. I keep a good firm grip on the bonds that tie. I watch American TV religiously, check only American news sources, rejoice when I find diet Dr Pepper in the makolet. No, really:

I know all about the Elmo sex scandal.

I am terrified of falling behind, of not understanding cultural references, of widening the gap between myself and the place where I grew up, the people who I love so very much who live there. I am terrified of losing myself.

I live with one foot in each door, never fully managing to get myself inside either one.

And that is the story of how I happen to find myself at this moment, sitting in front of my computer, with the latest episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills open in one window on my desktop, and with a live news ticker with rocket alerts open in another.

On days like these, living in Israel but thinking and reacting as an American creates a situation that can only be described as absolutely surreal.

I don't know how describe the unsettling experience of listening to being glued to the radio for the past few days. On Galgalatz, (a popular station operated by IDF Radio) they are playing only song requests from residents in the South. A mix of Lady Gaga, Ehud Banai, and 80's rock, interspersed here and there with one of those heartwrenching songs usually reserved for Yom HaZikaron (The Day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers). It's a relief to know that I am not the only confused one here...

Every few minutes (or hours if we are lucky and there is a quiet stretch),  the music suddenly  fades out so that the announcer can ever so calmly and quietly inform us of where an 'Azakat Tzevah Adom' (a red alert) is being sounded at this exact moment. And although everyone is so very outwardly nonchalant about everything, I know that every person listening is straining their ears to hear exactly which cities and towns are being listed, where the sirens are sounding, so that they will know exactly which family, friends, loved ones, to call and check up on.

I can't believe that this is my life. I can't believe that this is where I live. This is the stuff of movies, of stories, of news articles about some other people somewhere else. This is not the life of a sheltered Long Island girl. I struggle to come to terms with this new (sur)reality, where school is cancelled because of terrorism and my friends get called off to reserve duty, and I arrive at work to find a plan of the building and instructions where to run in case of a siren waiting for me, as if its all just part of a day's work.

And yes, sometimes I wonder why I bother to stick it out. But really, that's another discussion for another time.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

November Rain

Friday, November 16, 2012

On the surface, Snow in August may not seem too apt as a name for my ramblings about life in Israel- this hot, dry, Mad-Max-esque desert country I call home. But like the phenomenon in Hamill's book, (which was assigned as reading the summer before my Sophmore year in highschool and which I admittedly didnt really like), so much of what goes on here is like the metaphorical August snowfall: it is either so miraculous or so ridiculously crazy that it defies belief.

Snow in Israel, at any time of the year, is a miraculous event in and of itself. This past winter, on a cold Friday, Jerusalem mustered up all its strength and managed one inch.

In a previous lifetime in New York, this would have meant waking up in the predawn hours to peer hopefully through the fogged up window next to my bed, praying that maybe somehow, (please please pleaseeee!) 4-6 inches of cold, beautiful, white goodness would somehow have managed to accumulate overnight. One inch would find me bemoaning the lack of justice in the world, reconsidering my belief in a benevolent God,  and rolling over in bed to try to catch a couple more hours of sleep before the big yellow bus arrived to schlep me off to another day of school.

But in Israel, snow, even just a paltry one inch,  is a whole other mischak kadur regel. Work cancelled for the day, my husband and I jumped out of bed to bundle up, buy a couple of hot coffees to go at the neighborhood kiosk, take pictures, go for a walk in the nearby park, build a snowman, and have a snowball fight; and we managed to get it all in before the snow turned to grey slush and melted away before 10 AM. 

That is, to date, the only snow day I have so far experienced in Israel in the four years (this past Sunday!) that I have lived here.

Until today. Snow in November. Well not so much snow exactly....

I am currently working on my MBA at the College for Management in Rishon LeZion, a city to where two rockets from Gaza managed to find their way yesterday afternoon. Yesterday, with the sirens blaring, a large part of the 12,000 students who study there found themselves in the bomb shelters. 

Last night, I found myself compulsively checking the school's website for updates about closing today, as  obsessively as I once might have called my highschool's hotline for news of a snow-day. And when the news came through last night at 10 PM that my finance classes were cancelled today, I'll admit it, I was happy. I could tell you that I was relieved, that I felt safer knowing that I wouldn't have to travel to an area that had, only hours before, been attacked. But if we're being honest here, I really just hate calculating mortgage rates. And my first thought was: Snow Day! 

Sick? Maybe. But this is the reality here. And this is my reality as an American living here. These are the associations I make because I know no other way of life. Because I have never lived through a war. Because the only way I know how to account for unexpected day off from school, involves pure white snowflakes falling from the sky, instead of Kassam rockets and Grad missiles.

For those who have lived here all their lives, the associations are different. My sister-in-law was in her car when the sirens went off in Tel Aviv and had to jump out and run for shelter in the nearest building. When she called to let  us that she was OK, she joked that she was going to start taking a mattress around with her, to cover herself with during sirens, as her parents used to cover herself and my husband in their bathroom-cum-bomb shelter when they were children during the Gulf War. (As if that would have added an extra layer of safety against Scud missiles)

But I have not lived here my whole life. And yes it is possible that when I think about my life in the USA it is never without strapping on those rose-colored goggles. So yes, I am worried, I am confused, and although it is difficult to write this knowing that I'm supposed to be a tough experienced Israeli by now, I'm scared. The Israelis I know seem to be taking everything in stride, and so I try to keep my cool as my husband explains to me that if the siren sounds while I'm at home, to run to the stairwell, if I'm at work to the bathroom, and if I'm on the road to pull over and crouch between my car and the barrier.

Sure honey, check out this poker-face, it's all good.