July 11, 2014 | by Rebecca Sacks
A letter from Jerusalem.
The rockets are back. It wasn’t two years ago they were falling over Israel. Things progress, they regress, they explode, and then you find yourself where you first began. With the rockets come all the accompanying nightmares about the endlessness of this war. We mutter darkly about escalation, look at pictures of the brutal deaths in Gaza. This is what comes when the rockets fall again. But the truth is, I missed them.
In Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, when the rocket siren goes off—a rising and falling pitch, kind of thin, actually—you have a recommended ninety seconds to find shelter. I use a method I’ve written about before to keep track of time: I sing Ghostface Killah’s “Run” to myself, as I run around the apartment looking for my boots. You’re supposed to go to a shelter or a safe room, if your building has one. If it doesn’t, as mine does not, you go to the stairwell, because it’s a reinforced area without much glass. Then you wait, nodding politely to four or so of your neighbors, whose names you still don’t know; smiling sympathetically at their children, who are posting fallout selfies.
The siren stops and you hear the booms of the rockets being detonated midflight by the Israeli defense system—the Iron Dome, love of my life—or hitting open areas that the anonymous geniuses manning the Iron Dome have determined to be okay to hit. They say to wait ten minutes, but nobody does. A few minutes after the booms, you all go back to your apartments, or step outside to catch a glimpse of the wispy, white puffs—all that remains of the rockets. Read More »
May 27, 2013 | by Rebecca Sacks
They commute with guns. A lot of Israeli soldiers live at home while they do their mandatory service, and, like me, they take the bus to work every day. I’m a student so for me that means carrying four different translations of the Qumran wisdom texts to the university campus. They carry what I think are semi-automatics. We all take the bus together. There is a language to the army uniform that I cannot read. If you know these things, you can tell what part of the armed forces someone is in by the color of his or her beret. The red ones seem tough, I know that. The uniforms themselves are different colors too: a standard green, a nappy white, a khaki. The grey-blue ones tend to have broad shoulders and handguns tucked into their pants. It took me a long time to realize they had holsters under their trousers: I thought the guns were being held in by their underwear elastics, and could fall any moment. From this information, a literate person lays the bones of their expectations for the soldier they see, if she sees them at all. I think most people don’t even notice them. One thing I cannot get used to in Israel is a kind of suspension of horror: that the mechanisms of danger and violence are laid bare and become mundane. Through what I'll call a willful innocence, this is something I resist fully. I notice every soldier, every gun. Guns they tote indifferently on the bus, in the mall, getting ice cream, at the beach. Obviously they can't spend several consecutive years (required service is two for young women, three for men) having anxiety attacks about whether or not it’s emotionally damaging to develop a familiar relationship with weapons. Luckily for them, they have me to do that.
The exception to the soldiers’ invisibility is during a series of memorials, which occur in Israel over a period of two weeks. First is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is a day of ceremonies: candles are lit, and you will hear testimony from the dwindling population of survivors. This year it was on April 7 (holidays here are kept by the lunar Jewish calendar). It is marked by a one-minute siren at ten A.M. For a memorial siren, everyone stands. No matter where you are, you stop and stand. The entire country has this really effective PA system. It reminds me of that scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before Earth is bulldozed, when every physical object becomes a transmitter. The memorial siren is similar to the siren that sounds when there are rockets falling but it is one single tone instead of a falling and rising pitch. This is so that if rockets fall during the siren, you know to seek cover.
A week later is Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day; this year on April 15. It is in remembrance of Israelis who have died in war and terror attacks. The year’s dead are added to a list. The day starts the evening prior (in accordance with the Jewish calendar), marked with a two-minute siren. At this point, the entire nation gives itself forty-eight hours to focus on the soldiers. The TV stations play a continuous loop of short documentaries on the lives of the dead—heartwrenching tributes with interviews and blurry home-videos. The radio stations play only sad, traditional music. At 11 A.M. on the day-of, there is a second two-minute siren. There are ceremonies that evening and, at the end of the memorials, Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) begins immediately: whiplashing the nation into July Fourth mode. Opinions on this model, and the sudden change in attitude (grievance to celebration) are mixed in Israel.
My friend just left the army, after six years of service. He asked that I call him Ido instead of using his real name, and who am I to argue. So: Ido. This was Ido’s first post-army Yom HaZikaron. He said this year he was in his car, driving, when he realized the siren would go momentarily. Perhaps they said something on the radio. He pulled over, with every other car on the road, got out, and stood by his car, with the door open. He probably ended up in a Reuters photograph. He said it was strange to be in civilian clothes, to be a civilian, on that day. When you are a soldier, everyone looks at you on Yom HaZikaron: you are at the center of something that now he felt slightly peripheral to. In the past, during the siren, he has raised his hand in salute (a gesture exclusive to officers during the siren); this year he has stood with his hands folded by his car. I asked where he would look (I was never sure where to look during the sirens) in those days. “At the flag,” he said. Read More »
November 21, 2012 | by Rebecca Sacks
It’s prime rocket-time in Tel Aviv and I have to pee. This is a totally legitimate concern, but one which I am still not able to bring up to my Israeli friends: bathroom timing. The last place you want to be during a rocket is the bathroom, I hear. The tiles and glass make it really, really dangerous. We only get one, maybe two sirens a day in Tel Aviv. So the chances are pretty slim. But can you imagine how embarrassing it would be to explain that to someone? “These scars I earned during the bombing of 2012, while I was on the can.”
The first time I heard a bomb siren all I could think was “The VengaBus is Coming.” I was in a café in the north of Tel Aviv, trying to read a menu upside-down. (I’m learning Hebrew.) There had been news of escalated bombings in the south, but that was all very far from Tel Aviv. Well, nothing is particularly far geographically in Israel, but Tel Aviv is a world away. The city has a way of blocking out the din of conflicts within Israeli society, as well as pressures from the antagonistic forces surrounding its borders. The pathological determination of the Tel Avivi not to let anything fuck with their shit is hard to underestimate. It’s a bit like the way girls look straight ahead when they don’t want to acknowledge some creepy guy doing the “psst, psst” holler from a moving car. Read More »
May 1, 2012 | by Rebecca Sacks
In 2006, the great book-blurber and novelist Gary Shteyngart called Etgar Keret’s The Nimrod Flipout “the best work of literature to come out of Israel in the last five thousand years—better than Leviticus and nearly as funny.” Keret may indeed be the most loved and widely read Israeli writer working today. He is known for his very short short stories, which are often described as “surreal” and “absurd.” It’s certainly the case that they do not adhere to the laws of the physical universe.
In his most recent collection, Suddenly, a Knock at the Door (published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a talking fish grants wishes; a woman unzips her boyfriend to reveal the German gentile inside; a middle-aged man is kidnapped and taken to his childhood. But at the heart of Keret’s writing is a deep compassion. His characters may be enmeshed in paradoxes unique to Israel—with its fraught borders, fragmented populations, and newly ancient language—but it’s always their humanity that shines through.
Keret is also a filmmaker. With his wife, Shira Geffen, he directed Jellyfish (2009), which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and has had his work adapted to film, including Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006). Over the course of two weeks, during which his father passed away from cancer (he has written about his father for Tablet), Keret generously corresponded over e-mail for this interview.