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Height of Holiness Comes in a Haifa Bomb Shelter

September 7, 2006 By:
Lori Schneide
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An Israeli makes her bed in a boxing ring set up in a bomb shelter in the northern city of Nahariya. Long stays in shelters brought forth existential questions on life and death.

 I was sitting in a maklat -- a bomb shelter -- in Haifa one breezy morning in July, when a young American woman next to me stopped crying long enough to say with the cadent punctuation of youth, "Why is everyone so calm?"

In that moment, the light in the windowless room seemed to change. People sat in clusters, handing out tea and biscuits. Some of the students spent those hours making plans to leave the country, some kept their noses in their books, resolute to affirm their personal goals of study despite the threat of disruption.

I considered the emotional response of this young woman similar to the role of the prophet. There is nothing sane about rockets falling from the sky, and sometimes, it takes a young woman with eyes reddened from tears of fear and love for her worrying parents to remember just how outside of reality are acts of war. As we sat in this anti-Sabbath -- a break from our life to consider our life -- her simple question made me wonder why everyone was so outwardly calm, and even more deeply, to question what this entire experience of war was all about.

Shabbat asks us to witness with awe the acts of creation; war destroys creation. Shabbat asks of us to find community; war reduces us to consider our personal well-being over others. While camped in a room lit with buzzing fluorescents, the literal notion of a transcendent light is extinguished. There is no sense of the rising of the sun or the emergence of the stars; there is no delight in a night's sleep when a siren calls -- even the ability to breathe is disrupted by fear.

On the first Shabbat following the cease-fire, with travel restrictions lifted, I was drawn to visit friends in Tzfat. My rabbi spoke to his lunch guests: two young religious men wearing streimels in the summer heat, with their pregnant wives; his son, a guitarist working with autistic children while attending yeshiva; his young daughters, who kissed the mezuzah every time they walked through the doorway, and asked me if I liked the actress Lindsay Lohan; his wife, who struggled with her guilt at having left the town they loved so much during a time of war; and myself, a student at a progressive rabbinic college in America.

"Hezbollah is not afraid of the Israeli soldier driving a tank or flying a fighter jet," the rabbi raised his voice, "You want to know who Hezbollah is afraid of? Hezbollah is afraid of the old man with a gray beard sitting in Mea Shearim studying Torah!" While the rabbi and I might have different interpretations of what this means, I find this fact -- and his Shabbat table -- the entire point.

Choice defines the American experience, and is -- for better or for worse -- our most popular export. Being Jewish in America means being able to celebrate our identity in whatever way we choose.

The war in Israel this summer was a war of choice -- of freedom of expression, which allows an elderly man to rise before the sun in order to read an ancient text, and his granddaughter's freedom to kiss a mezuzah and then log on to Lindsey Lohan. The war fought on Israeli and Lebanese soil was less about land and more about how we live on this land. It was a war that asked us to consider the meaning of kedushah, of holiness, and freedom for all races, colors and creeds. It was a war that challenged our perception, and heeded the cry of the young American woman: "Why is everybody so calm?" when bombs were falling from the sky.

Not long after leaving Haifa, I was in a Jerusalem coffee shop when the young woman who'd been in the shelter with me walked in. She told me that she had returned to the States, but decided to come back -- even before the cease-fire.

Sitting across from me studying modern Hebrew, she represented the gray-bearded man in Mea Shearim, choosing life -- a soldier in the war of freedom.

Lori Schneide is a third-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

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