June 11, 2001 Update

Letters from Israel

Monday, June 11, 2001

Dear family and friends,

I must say that I almost laughed out loud the other week when I read the new safety advisory for US diplomatic personnel and other citizens living in Israel. They were advised to avoid public places, crowded places, buses, shopping malls, markets, places of entertainment - the list went on. The whole thing seemed to be so ridiculous. Not that there aren't any risks, but how on earth were these people meant to leave their safe embassy compound at all without breaking the advisory rules?

Despite the Palestinian campaign of terror and despite the possible dangers, most Israelis find the US safety recommendations impractical if not absurd. Yes, there are some people so frightened that they haven't left their homes in months, but they are few and far between. Instead, everyone has his or her own "safe zones", places where they feel comfortable, generally places connected with their own routines. For some people this includes the whole country. For many it excludes only those areas most often targeted by the terror war, such as Gaza, Hebron or even Netanya. For some it means staying very close to home and perhaps avoiding shopping malls or buses when possible. Still, with all the dangers and all the anxiety, Joe Israeli is living an almost normal life.

You may be asking how this is possible. After all, I'm always writing about bombs and shootings and miracles and murders. Yes, it is hard to just go on as usual. There are days when you just feel like curling up at home and going into mourning. Days when the sorrow, the horror and the pain make it seem obscene to just go on with life, to work, go on a hike, visit friends and chat about trivialities. Nights when the horrors of the day invade your sleep, when the day's funerals are replayed in your head and masked terrorists assault your dreams. You wake sick to the stomach, paralysed by grief. And yet you can't give yourself over to despair. You know that if the whole nation were to retreat into itself and put life on hold, the terrorists would have won. The only way ordinary Israelis can fight terrorism is to live as normally as possible.

Take Hebrew Book Week, which ended tonight. This annual event is almost as old as the State of Israel itself. Israel is one of the world's highest per capita consumer of books. All over Israel, in big cities and small towns, book fairs were set up featuring everything from ancient sacred Jewish texts to recently published romance novels. Every Israeli publisher from the professional heavyweights to the amateurish one-author operations participates, offering a huge selection of books at discounted Book Week prices. As at a more conventional fun fair, parents bring their children and food vendors sell popcorn, falafel and cotton candy.

Scheduled to open Saturday night June 2, the festival was postponed two days as a sign of mourning after Friday night's horrific terrorist bombing at a Tel Aviv disco. Twenty youngsters were killed at the Dolphi Disco, and people were in no mood for festivals for the next few days. By the middle of the week, though, tens of thousands were flocking to the Book Week fairs. On Friday the organisers announced that a record numbers of visitors had attended, defying both terrorism and an economic downturn.

The sight of throngs of Israelis crowding into the fair was a treat for the eyes and the soul. Yes, security was much tighter than in previous years, but it didn't spoil the atmosphere. All around the People of the Book were busy feasting on the lavish selection.

Browsing a stall belonging to one of the university presses I found a long curl of hair bobbing up and down over the book I was holding. Looking up I noticed that its owner was a Hassid, eagerly surveying the Jewish history section. On my other side a pair of fashionably dressed young women searched for discounted textbooks for a Jewish philosophy course while they flirted with the young salesman manning the stand. Behind me a child enthralled by the glossy animal photos in the new nature encyclopedia begged his mother to buy him the twelve volume set - on special for Book Week at only 550 shekels, down from 1400. An elderly gentleman elbowed his way through the people crowding the stall, looking for a copy of his brother's long out of print book. A foreign student with a heavy southern United States accent inquired about Hebrew-English dictionaries.

It took two visits to one of the biggest events, the book fair held in Jerusalem's Safra Square, to convince me that I'd adequately browsed all the stalls of interest, and even so, time permitting I would have liked to go again.

Jason and I left the fair weighed down with our purchases, having found almost everything on our shopping list. We returned to the nearby Russian Compound car park, the site only a few weeks earlier of a large car bomb which fortunately failed to cause any injuries. Tonight the parking lot was filled with the cars of book shoppers. No, the crowd wasn't ignorant of recent events. We were there despite recent events. These days even parking your car or going shopping can become an act of resistance, albeit a small one.


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Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.