Waiting for the Siren


First Person

A letter from Jerusalem.


Photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, via Flickr

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.

What I’d missed was the siren. The siren is always a moment away. I think about it all day, waiting for it to run up my spine. And when it comes, I feel a dark satisfaction, something akin to the satisfaction in recognizing a friend’s betrayal. I look forward to these moments as much as I fear them. Because what I crave, what I have learned to crave, are the few seconds of clarity that each siren brings. All day, every day, we labor over pointless decisions. When to eat, where to eat, how much. Answer or ignore this phone call? And this one? The banality of the day-to-day. But when you hear the siren, the world cracks open and everything is clear. You know the answer: find a safe place. There are no qualifications. I do not have time to consider that few people in Israel (as opposed to those in bleeding Gaza) have been hurt, that in Jerusalem (as opposed to the battered south), the rockets don’t hit, that ninety seconds (as opposed to fifteen in Ashkelon) is a fairly long amount of time to find cover. I only think about the answer: find a safe place. Things are falling from the sky. There is only an imperative.

On my way home from work, the siren went off. I froze for a few seconds and then ducked into the stairwell of a nearby building. There was a Russian Israeli woman, her two children, and someone’s grandma. After the siren and the booms—four—we said a standard, awkward goodbye: “Have a nice day, good luck.” Then we all hurried back into the late, fading daylight. The world we stepped into is gray and unclear. Boys murdered in tit-for-tat revenge. Babies buried under buildings in Gaza. Hamas is using human shields. Children in southern Israel cry under their desks. When I listen to those who are certain about what’s right for Israel to do, for Hamas to do, what’s the right way for the world to respond, I feel even more adrift. But for a horrific moment, everything was clear. We ran, we hid, we waited. As soon as it was over, I began to wait for it again.

Rebecca Sacks is a writer and graduate student at work on a book about being inside out in Israel.