November 22, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Friday, November 22, 2002

Dear family and friends,

"I don't know why the song is 'Jerusalem of Gold'", remarked one of the women in the waiting room to her neighbour. "They should have called it Jerusalem of Blood."

I had just been getting ready to leave for Jerusalem when radio anchor Arieh Golan interrupted an election campaign interview to report on that morning's bus bombing in Jerusalem.

We drove down Highway 443 listening to the macabre mix of news on the radio, the sickening reports from the atrocity interspersed with traffic updates about which roads were closed as a result. One station was already back to election news.

In the opposite direction a long line of vehicles snaked back from the Makkabim checkpoint, the soldiers carefully checking each one as it weaved its way through the huge concrete blocks, strategically placed to slow down traffic. Recently they were repainted to look like dice cubes, presumably by someone with a wry sense of humour. The gambling theme seemed oddly appropriate. Driving the highways, riding the buses, going shopping every day we take a chance with our lives.

By the time we reached central Jerusalem the death toll was up to nine. The nurses at my doctor's office had the news on in the background. Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi was praising the "self-martyrdom operation". Rantisi is a physician, a paediatrician no less. One nurse stood staring at the radio. "He praises this," she muttered in disbelief.

At the pharmacy a woman commented that two boys had failed to show up at her son's school that morning. No one knew what had happened to them. She feared the worst.

In the centre of Jerusalem all was as usual. That day's bombing had occurred in faraway Kiryat Menahem, a sleepy neighbourhood in southern Jerusalem. Once again it struck me how large a city Jerusalem really is.

As we returned to the car only about 3 hours after that morning's bombing the radio was reporting on the reopening of Mexico Street, where the bus was blown up. Over fifty buses have been attacked these past two years, including over twenty suicide bombings, so Israel is now quite proficient at cleaning up after them. Before long, life on Mexico Street will take on a semblance of normality. But the residents, cleanup crews and rescue service personnel will carry the horrors with them forever.

I walked up King George Street, pausing in the remodelled hat store to look for a winter Shabbat hat. They didn't have what I was looking for. Next door I stopped in the renovated bakery to get some rolls for lunch. Then I remembered why they had been refurbished: the bomb that had shattered this street only about six months ago.

By the time I arrived back home the death toll was up to eleven. Mothers and grandmothers, children on their way to school. The afternoon headlines brought the first names to be released. By the evening, funerals were being held. The late night news had photos to go with the names: six women, two girls, a little boy, a teenager and a young man.

The terrorist's father was interviewed praising his "heroic" son and proclaiming his desire that his other children follow in his footsteps.

There was a panicked message on my answer machine from a relative who was positive that I had been on that bus. She remembered that last year Thursday was my study day in Jerusalem and she thought I took the number 20 bus to class. Unable to reach me at home or on my cellphone (the battery was drained) she had concluded that something had happened to me.

This morning, a neighbour held a pre-Hannukkah craft fair. A friend stopped by and a few of us chatted for a bit, while business was slow. She is close to the parents of Chana Nachemberg, the young mother from Modi'in who is still in a coma after being wounded in the Sbarro pizzeria bombing in June 2001. She gave us an update on Chana's condition, how she is now off the respirator, how she gives the tiniest of responses, a flicker of the eyes, a movement of the hand in response to someone's touch.

Most of all though she reminded us of the family, the parents who spend every day at their daughter's bedside, the husband left alone to look after his little four-year-old daughter, and hold down a job and schlep to the long term care facility in Tel Aviv to visit his wife.

Sometimes in the first reaction to a terror attack we focus so much on the dead and their families that we forget the others whose lives were shattered by the blast. With nearly 5,000 wounded in over 15,000 acts of terror, sometimes we don't remember the Chanas, and their parents, spouses and children, those struggling with a slow climb back to health, a lifetime of disability or a relative who will require care in an institution for years to come.

The raw figures for yesterday's bombing were eleven dead and 56 wounded. The real casualties are far, far greater.

Shabbat shalom,


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.