April 29, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Monday, April 29, 2002

Dear family and friends,

I realise I've been writing a lot lately. I'm sorry if I've been overloading you all. If I'm overdoing it let me know.

Today I was in Jerusalem to meet a friend for coffee and take care of some errands.

We went to a little out of the way café off Jaffa Road. Its glass walls bring back memories of Café Moment, blasted to smithereens last month by a suicide bomber. The cosy atmosphere made us feel as though the place existed in a time warp, the staff welcoming customers as they would guests to the family home, appearing oblivious to the everpresent danger all around.

The Jerusalem municipality is doing its best to cheer up terrorised Jerusalemites, sticking huge bright cardboard cutout bouquets along the main roads, and garishly painted lions in squares and on street corners. The festive colours lend a bizarre carnival atmosphere to an otherwise tense city.

Despite the tight security, despite the guards checking bags at most shops and cafes, despite the many stores which have closed down, somehow there was a feeling of renewed hope in the air.

The streets were more crowded than I've seen them in weeks. Many pedestrians seemed to have a new bounce in their step. Israelis are buoyed by the fact that we're finally striking back at the terrorists who've struck in this city's heart so many times. They know that even with the current military successes, terrorism is still a very real threat, but at least the Israeli army has finally done serious damage to the terror network.

We feel that we are no longer helpless in the face of the bombers' onslaught. The whole world may condemn us for defending ourselves, they may threaten us with all manner of sanctions and investigations, but on a day to day basis what Israelis notice is that terrorism is down.

It is a relief to wake up each day, turn on the radio, and to hear of "only" one or two attempted attacks instead of daily suicide bombings. It is incredible to hear each day how many terrorists have been caught, planned attacks foiled due to Israeli military and intelligence operations. It is heartening to hear other mundane news stories, about the economy, about a bank employee embezzling funds - anything that sounds like the normal news of any other western country.

Following Saturday's carnage in the Israeli village of Adora, the Israeli army finally went into Hebron today to track down the terrorists there. In the fighting one of the gunmen responsible for the Adora murders was shot, and several others arrested. As elsewhere in the Palestinian Authority, large quantities of weapons and explosives were discovered, including another car bomb ready for dispatch to central Israel.

For tonight, though, the news and international politics are far from most Israelis minds. Stick your head outside and you'll get a pall of smoke and the wintry scent of burning wood. The air is so heavy with the smell of burning that my clothes reek of it, even though I've hardly been outdoors tonight. It's Lag Ba'Omer, Israel's national bonfire holiday, and it feels as though the entire country is out tonight, camping out by giant fires.

Kids have been planning the festivities for weeks, piling up huge pyres of wood, from tiny twigs to old cabinets. You'd hardly notice that the moon is almost full tonight; the skyline glows red from the fires set up on nearly every patch of open ground.

Lag Ba'Omer is one of the more esoteric Jewish festivals. There are several traditions regarding the holiday's origins.

The date is the anniversary of the death, roughly 2000 years ago, of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, traditionally held to be the author of the Zohar, the key text of Jewish mysticism. The bonfires may symbolise memorial candles, or the light of the insights into creation found in the Zohar, or the sacred glow of the highest levels of holiness. Scores of thousands make a pilgrimage to Bar Yohai's tomb in northern Israel, holding huge festivities in the rabbi's honour.

Still another tradition maintains that the holiday commemorates the Jewish uprising against Roman oppression during the period of Roman occupation of Israel, roughly 2000 years ago. According to this, the bonfires hark back to the signalling fires lit on the hilltops to carry news of the revolt.

According to another tradition this is the date on which the students of another great sage, Rabbi Akiva, stopped dying of a terrible plague. Many attribute the traditional period of mourning observed at this time of year to the death of Rabbi Akiva's students. For many Lag Ba'Omer marks the end of this period of mourning.

Those who aren't out with the bonfires tonight are probably at weddings, which were prohibited for a month during the period of mourning.

We were also at a wedding tonight, albeit a movie, not the real thing. We aren't big bonfire fans and we figured the cinemas would be empty tonight, so we went to see "Monsoon Wedding".

With all the cultural differences, it's amazing how at home most Israelis felt watching this film about an Indian wedding. The big family with many members flung halfway across the world. The henna ceremony, common amongst many Jewish communities as well. The dusty streets and alleys of Delhi, the concrete, hole-in-the-wall shops, reminiscent of any number of Israeli towns, say Ramle or parts of south Tel Aviv. The invigorating, pounding, drenching rain at the start of the rainy season. The mix of Western modernity and ancient tradition.

On TV tonight the usual live Israeli music show was broadcast from an army base near Bethlehem. Like Vera Lynn entertaining the troops in World War II or Geri Halliwell performing for the anti-terror coalition in the recent Afghan campaign, Israel's songsters were out there singing for our boys and girls in khaki. Here, though, you don't need to fly thousands, or even hundreds, of miles to the front. It's less than an hour away from nearly every major Israeli town and city.

The repertoire included a few "golden oldies" from the early Seventies, in many ways a similar period of attrition, a grinding struggle for survival. The same songs continue to inspire and offer comfort.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.