Letter from Tel Aviv: Love and Rockets


First Person

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. I had been told no rockets could reach Tel Aviv from Gaza, and so when I first heard the long, rising wail, I really did start singing the “Venga Bus” song to myself. Then I saw the other patrons moving to the back of the café, away from the windows I suppose. We stood there a bit awkwardly—a few old people either didn’t hear the alarm, or were way too unflappable to get up from their meals. Then it stopped, and that was it. Here are the basics of siren protocol: you have about ninety seconds when the sirens go off to find shelter—ideally a subterranean bomb shelter, and, alternatively, a windowless interior room. That is, about ninety seconds between sighting and impact. That said, Tel Aviv is incredibly well protected, and as I understand it, the army can tell if the rocket is going to fall in a nonpopulated area (the adjoining Mediterranean Sea, for instance), then they just let it hit. If it’s headed for a populated area, the Israeli antimissile defense system hits the rocket with another rocket, so it detonates in the air. This system is called, in English, the Iron Dome. In Hebrew it’s ברזל כפת—Kipat Barzel, the Iron Kipat (or as I call it, the Ironic Kippa). A kippa is a yarmulke, but don’t tell the person who wrote this piece, and thinks that learning two words of Hebrew makes him fit to analyze the unruly elements of Israeli religious identity.

By now, a few days into the rockets, I have developed my own Code Red rhythm. In case you were wondering, ninety seconds is the time it takes for Ghostface to do his first verse of “Run,” as well as the chorus up until he goes, “if you see me coming, get the fuck out the entrance.” (Lots of sirens in that song too!) In the south, by the way, like at Ashod (near the border with Gaza) where they just get hammered with these things all the time, it’s fifteen seconds between siren and impact. That’s “Happy Birthday” once, without the “how old are you now” refrain. After most sirens, we hear a “boom”: the rocket hitting the ground or, more usually, being detonated midflight by the Ironic Kippa. After the boom, it’s over, and then everyone goes back to shopping on Shenkin Street or walking Rothschild Boulevard, which is Tel Aviv’s very passable Berlin impression. I live right on the boulevard, which means I share my stairwell, come the sirens, with whomever happens to be on the promenade when the alarm rings out. We all avoid eye contact during the siren out of mutual embarrassment, but for some reason we all look up at each other at the moment of the boom, kind of nodding, and raising our eyebrows. “You heard it too, right?” I think that’s what we are nodding. The preternatural calm of Tel Avivians is pretty well documented. I see dick-looking British journalists practicing monologues in front of the big arts center near my apartment, and asking passersby if the sirens have interrupted their beach plans. (It’s kind of cold for the beach, but whatever.) But the moment of the alarm itself are little tears in the fabric here. Moments when these tough, graceful people flash frailty. We mill at the back of shops or in the stairwell of my building, everyone shy. It is a bit like a dignified man farting or a seeing a woman’s slip when she adjusts her purse. I get the uncannily casual IDF Twitter alerts sent to my phone, and usually after the boom, there are a series of tweets: whether the rocket hit, or was detonated, and, sometimes an hour later, that the site the rocket was launched from has been disabled (blown up). The technological elements of this war deserve their own article. From the catty tweets between the Israeli Army and Hamas, to the weird, threatening mass text that Hamas sent to thousands of soldiers’ phones. (“We will turn Gaza into a cemetery for your soldiers,” one said. I was talking with a friend in the army about how I would respond to that text if I got it. I suggested ערה, which is the standard bootycall message from a guy to a girl: “Awake?”)

I was shopping for boots when I heard the second alarm. All the incredibly handsome men here wear these great hiking-equestrian-motorcycle boots. It’s probably consistent with what we know about displacing desire that I became obsessed with these boots. Anyway, I was trying on a pair while my two Israeli friends—Rotem and Hadar—waited, and bargaining with the shoplady over the price, when the siren went off, and we went to the back of the store to wait it out. I couldn’t take them off after (like, emotionally, not because they are too small) and so paid the slightly inflated price of five hundred NIS and left. My rocket boots. After the alarm, Rotem, Hadar, and I continued to walk down Shenkin Street, looking for hangers or something. I kept scanning the faces of people, searching for signs of distress or any indication of fear. Nothing. Each shop we went into I quickly assessed for the safest place to stand during an alarm, hoping neither of my girlfriends noticed what I was doing. I also began cataloging things that sound like a siren: buses accelerating is a big one, so are little kids imitating the sound.

On Friday, I went to my friend’s for Shabbat dinner. He’s an intelligence officer in the army, so I can’t use his name. We’ll call him Max. His parents were hosting. They are very religious; he is not, and so he picked me up in his car after sundown. (Religious Jews won’t operate an automobile from sundown Friday through Saturday.) The Friday night kiddush—sanctification of the Jewish day of rest—will involve, in a religious household, a ritual washing of hands, prayers, and a ton of delicious food. It was all new to me. Among the guests were several of Max’s boyhood friends: all having parted ways with their religious upbringing, all still serving in the army beyond their mandatory enlistment. We talked about the food; I amused the table with my broken Hebrew; one of the guests, a girl from China, explained the tenets of Buddhism to polite confusion (including mine: who knew there were hungry ghosts!). A fair part of the evening was dedicated to marveling over my rocket boots, which I take are uncommon on women. (At one point, Max removed a boot from my foot to marvel at its smallness.) We did not talk about war, bombs, Hamas, or Gaza. The only time it had tangentially come up was when Max told me the day before that there was a chance he would be sent on an intelligence mission and have to call off our plans. As opposed to a gentile prayer over food, which takes place before the meal, the Jewish prayer for thanks is after. Max’s father and grandfather speedily and almost inaudibly incanted the Hebrew—I did not understand a word. The young men joked around and checked their cell phones under the table. But what I noticed was how Max’s grandfather kept looking over at him as he prayed. I looked at him too.

Later, when he drove me home, Max told me that he was heading directly to the south: to the kibbutz where he was born, and where his grandmother still lives. It’s less than ten kilometers from Gaza. I don’t even know if they get a full fifteen seconds there. As he pulled away, I watched the car and felt a strange electricity. As if something was about to hit me and I had to move: that I was standing in the wrong place. Why did it feel like part of me was still in that car, on the road to Gaza? After sleeping through my alarm Sunday, I received a Hamas wakeup call at ten-thirty A.M. almost on the dot. I recited Ghostface to myself while stumbling around my room, looking for my rocket boots, trying to figure out how long the sirens had been going, and if I had enough time to change out of my nightgown. (If you get to “bounce if you a good kid, bounce,” which is sixty seconds in, you should just go in your pajamas.) What I thought while I stood in the stairwell in my nightgown, pulling on my other boot and nodding curtly to the passersby, was about hiding. The wail of the sirens like some animal scratching at the door, reminding me of life in the south of Israel, on the border with Gaza, which is hammered by attacks all day, day after day. Attacks where the rockets actually hit, like, a lot. For a moment, when the alarms go off, everyone in this city is reminded of what it feels like when your life is overtaken by the machinery of clashing ideologies.

There are many different kinds of violence. One I am becoming familiar with is the annihilation of the individual into a theoretical framework. I think that is why—sorry, Mom—I keep feeling pulled toward the south, the site of a destruction and violence that is coded by two very opposing sides very differently. I would be useless down there—I can’t treat injuries or organize people; I can’t fire a gun, and I barely speak Hebrew. But I want to undo some kind of larger damage. To look at people in the face, right in the face, and see them as individuals with their own lives and their own voices and their own stories and their own small, scared songs that they sing to themselves during the fifteen seconds between alarm and impact.

Rebecca Sacks is an MA candidate in the Jewish Studies program at Tel Aviv University. She previously lived in Brooklyn, New York, and she really is fine, Mom.