Imagine every car on a main street suddenly screeching to a stop and all the passengers running out, with only a siren wailing in the background.
When the first siren went off, we thought it was a test. It took us 10 seconds to realize that it was the real thing. We hurried to our safe room, where the washing machine was rattling along, indifferent to the laundry room’s entirely new designation.
When the second siren sounded, I was driving with my daughter, who recently finished her military service as an officer, in a car full of shopping bags. It was midday Friday, always a bustling time in Tel Aviv. We left the car in the middle of the road and took off for shelter. The clock was ticking; we had no choice but to crouch down on the sidewalk and wait for the boom. We were surrounded by quiet, obedient people, except for one little girl who burst into tears. For a moment I thought it was Remembrance Day or Holocaust Memorial Day — the only dates on the Israeli calendar when sirens bring our daily routine to a standstill.
Since the First Gulf War, there have been no sirens in my hometown of Tel Aviv, the city whose legendary mayor, Shlomo “Chich” Lahat, first called it “The City That Never Sleeps.” The city whose slanderers refer to it as “the bubble.” Tel Aviv has shifted to a lower gear, but it has not stopped moving; its frenetic pace has just slowed down a little. I know from experience that the city won’t become a ghost town so easily.
We Tel Avivis are well versed in suffering. Years of exploding buses and suicide bombers have taught us to live life to the fullest while always glancing over our shoulders. We are a unique urban species, having evolved to possess a “third eye” of sorts — not on our foreheads, like the New Age kind, but on the backs of our necks. In Hebrew, incidentally, the word for “home front,” oref, means “nape.”
Tel Aviv seemed tense on Saturday November 17, but the residents were out and about. In my neighborhood, people rode bicycles and took their morning runs in Yarkon Park. The cafes weren’t empty, weren’t overflowing. I thought I might be able to finally get a table at Benedict, a well-known restaurant where breakfast is served all day and where there’s always a line out the door. On Ibn Gabirol Street, people sat on benches, looking up at the sky — not to spot mushroom clouds, but to catch some rays of sun after an unusually rainy week. When I drove along the promenade, the beach was crowded. Later I would see the bathers on TV, sprinting out of the water when the third siren went off. They all looked up to watch the Iron Dome intercept a barrage of rockets from Gaza. If not for this ingenious system, developed by anonymous engineers at the military technology company Rafael, Tel Aviv might have responded differently.
As I write, another siren goes off — the fourth. My house cleaner, who came to Israel a few years ago from Bucharest, joins me in the safe room. The washer is running again. Zizi reveals no signs of panic, and I complement her: “You’re a real Tel Avivi.”
Yesterday, at the grocery store that’s open on Saturdays, I met my comedian friend Odeya Koren, a funny woman who recruited me to help her find a bottle of French wine while dictating a recipe for coq au vin. “When I’m anxious, I start cooking,” she explained. We paid for our groceries and gave each other a smile and a hug. When I got home, I found an email from two teachers in southern Israel, where sirens were going off with terrifying frequency and life had indeed come to a standstill. They wanted to teach some poems from “The Courage To Be Afraid,” a book of poetry for young readers that I published during the years of terrible bombings, when Tel Aviv was bleeding and counting its dead. The 100-year-old city had grit its teeth and, somehow, kept on living. Today the teachers are giving their students a “long-distance class,” and they will read my old poem, “The Missile,” which has suddenly become all too relevant.
If a missile had a brain and a heart
instead of a box and computer parts,
I would sit and write:
Hello, dear missile — you should leave at once.
Otherwise you’ll fall and crash.
Perhaps you could bring some flowers when you get here
— what a lesson that would teach the men who sent you!
If only someone in Gaza were to read that poem. I have no doubt that there are people like me there, who just want to live in peace, who oppose the barrage of missiles their despotic regime launches at civilians over the border. Meanwhile, my younger son, Neemy, packs his bags. He, like many others, has been called up for reserve duty.
My older son, Iyar, published an open letter to Hamas leaders on Facebook. He told them about his most recent visit to Gaza, nine years ago, during the hope-filled days of the Oslo Agreement. He was serving as an officer of the Israel Defense Forces in the joint Israeli-Palestinian unit at the time. Then he wrote: “You won’t break us with missiles, or with bombs, certainly not with hatred. There is a sizable public here that believes in our right to live, all of us, inshalla in two states: Israel and Palestine. So wise up and stop these war fantasies that turn into reality. We are all life-loving people! Those in the mosques and those in the synagogues, those who observe modesty and those who know how to celebrate Creation. Yalla, salamat. And don’t forget that the word ‘Islam’ comes from salaam — peace. Shabbat Salaam to all nations.” That’s what Iyar wished them, and us.
Nava Semel is an author and playwright. She was born in Tel Aviv, where she resides. Her novel, “Paper Bride,” was recently published by Hybrid. The novel takes place in 1930s Palestine, during the Arab uprising and the early days of terrorism.
A shorter version of this piece can be found here