There is no “normal”

November 20, 2012 by

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Sarah Mali writes to her friends in Toronto’s Jewish Community, after having recently returned to Israel following several years as their Shlicha (Jewish Agency Emissary).


“Wear pretty pajamas for bed just in case something happens and you need to leave the house in-flight.”

This was the advice my aesthetically-conscious nana (bubbie) gave me when I was a little girl living in North-West London. I had always giggled when she told me this knowing it was silliness but not really sure why.

Last night when my children asked how to prepare for another siren I recalled this advice to them hoping they would giggle like I once had.

It is hard to imagine a military siren in Jerusalem especially since only a few minutes earlier the shrill shofar-sounding call for Shabbat had been heard above the city. During dinner my theologically sensitive 8 year old invoked the phrase from Grace After Meals on Shabbat and asked defiantly: but we say that God looks after us particularly on Shabbat? We praised her for her Talmudic thinking but realized that the question hadn’t really been directed at us to answer…

Here is the most absurdly-sounding thing of all: we Jerusalemites have it easy: we have 1minute 45 seconds to get to a place of safety – that is compared to Ashdod (40 seconds) or Sderot (15 seconds) under a constant barrage of rockets. But it isn’t the drama of the 15 seconds itself – it is what these 15 seconds do to the space in time that lies between them.

To me, that has been the strategic sensitivity behind Toronto Jewish Federation’s continuous funding of Sderot despite intermittent periods of quiet.

Let me illustrate this: My sister-in-law lives with her husband and four little children next to Ashdod. Her oldest is the same age as my 8 year old and suffers from a severe genetic disorder; she cannot eat properly, talk or walk. This past summer when my husband took the kids for a visit he had his first encounter with her existential situation. Behind her in his car with our kids, as the siren went off he saw my sister-in-law slam on the breaks, stop her car and begin to try and get her children out. She quite literally threw her little baby at a passer-by who was just about to turn around himself and run for cover and then proceeded to untie her four year old and then her 6 year old. Then she reached for her beautiful first born daughter and tried to release her from her seat at the back of a specially designed van and lug her out of the back towards safety.

The siren by this time had long since passed – danger had subsided, everyone could continue as normal.

The problem is that there is no ‘normal’ for my sister-in-law: she lives with the reality that she won’t make it.

That is worth repeating: My sister-in-law knows that 40 seconds by herself is simply not enough to save her family.

And therein lies the heartbreak.

In synagogue this morning, with many men missing as they had been called for reserve duty, Israeli cynicism prevailed. Friends commented to me with a smile; ‘welcome back to Israel.’ We all muttered something like ‘yehiye beseder’ (all will be ok) and continued on.

Eric Yoffie wrote beautifully in Ha’aretz, that Israel was established to protect our children.

The truth is that Jewish sovereignty is about that and more: it is about the two sirens getting mixed up in my mind, about the cell phones and army uniforms in shul, about the question of a child wondering about Divine justice in a place she regards as home and, maybe most significantly, the fact that I am writing this to you straight after Shabbat out of dual feelings that I need to tell you and I need you to hear.

This for me is Zionism and this is why I am here.

Shavua tov from Jerusalem, Sarah

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