March 19, 2003 Update

Letters from Israel

Wednesday, March 19, 2003
Shushan Purim

Dear family and friends,

Sunday afternoon I saw a four-foot tall Scud missile running down the street chasing a large white two-legged rabbit.

No, I hadn't been drinking.

During the course of the same bus ride through Modi'in, I also passed: three angels, a three-foot tall Statue of Liberty, an 11 year old boy in a miniskirt and knee-high kitten-heeled boots, two really big butterflies, some very short policemen, an American Indian chief hand in hand with a cowboy helping him cross the road, and a strawberry munching on a bag of chips.

I had by chance timed my journey just as Modi'in's children were returning home from their school Purim parties.

A few hours later, I heard crowds cheering in the street below. Latin American percussion bands were starting up frenetic carnival beat. A peek from my balcony confirmed: The annual Modi'in Purim parade was underway!

I scurried down to the main street just in time to see a giant "Srulik" glide down the road on the lead float.

Srulik, a classic Israeli cartoon character, is something of a national symbol, the quintessential boyish Israeli kibbutznik in his shorts, floppy sun hat and open sandals. He shared the float with the Western Wall and the Temple Mount Judaism's holiest sites.

Behind him, in a sea of Israeli flags, frolicked a tall, beaming Israeli Declaration of Independence flanked by pint sized Israeli folk dancers, dancing orange trees and motley farmers.

Israel may be an urban, hi-tech society, but at heart we're still hora dancing pioneering horticulturalists making the desert bloom.

The theme for Modi'in's parade this year was the brotherhood of nations. Each school, youth group or club had chosen a country or culture, marching along with floats representing the different nations.

Hard on the heels of the Israeli float came a squadron of pre-adolescent belly dancers and a local Flamenco troupe, towered over by a 15 foot matador.

Behind them came entire schools - complete with security guards - each decked out in the costume of another nationality: Hula dancers, South Pacific warriors brandishing spears, Italian bakers carrying pizzas, Mexican mariachis in giant sombreros accompanying a float in the shape of a reclining Mexican farmer, Russian peasants and a life-sized Chinese dragon born aloft by pupils and teachers from a local primary school.

One religious school decked out all its pupils and teachers in the traditional white and rainbow striped robes of the Ethiopian Jewish community, in honour of several recent Ethiopian immigrants who've joined the school.

In the spirit of Middle Eastern co-existence, three actors on stilts were dressed up as an Arab in flowing Bedouin robes, a Christian priest replete with giant cross and a black-garbed Hassid. They ambled down the road waving sparklers, pausing now and then for photos with spectators, most of whom were most interested in having their picture taken with the "Bedouin".

The dreamy utopia of a rosy, lovey-dovey Middle East was quite popular. There were hordes of oriental dancers in every shape and form: Turkish, North African, Iraqi, Bedouin inspired and Hollywoodesque genies with diaphanous gauze veils. On the Egyptian float a bride and groom embraced between the Sphinx and the Pyramids.

With all the delirious escapism of Purim though, reality still intruded on the parade.

Police and soldiers, so much a part of everyday life, were also popular costumes. This year though it wasn't just Israeli security forces - I noticed a couple of kids dressed up as American marines.

Americana is always popular here. Two schools chose the United States as their theme, most of them dressed up as cowboys, one bearing an enormous Stars and Stripes, the other accompanied by the Statue of Liberty and Mickey Mouse. The choice said something about what many Israelis admire most about America: on the one hand commercial success and popular culture, on the other self-confident belief in liberty and democracy coupled with unabashed patriotism.

We couldn't escape from Iraq either. A pickup truck carried a makeshift float with a mock scud missile and Saddam himself riding astride it waving at the crowd. Better to laugh at the man than to fear him.

We've spent the last couple of days living with this strange juxtaposition of Purim festivities and news of the impending war. Local radio stations switch between Purim songs and comedy routines with reports about the latest from the Gulf and the latest directives to civilians on how to protect themselves in the event of an Iraqi strike.

The whole thing still feels unreal. The Iraq war scenario has been hanging over us for so long that it's hard to believe it might actually happen.

Today IDF Home Command called on Israelis to prepare a sealed room in case of chemical or biological attack. I just sat there stupidly looking at the TV newsreader and then it hit me. They mean me too. Some jerk in Iraq might decide to lob something at my home. That's crazy. We're so far away from Iraq. It must be a Purim prank.

Most people seem pretty calm though with experts doubtful that Iraq even has the capacity to attack Israel anymore. At the festive Purim meal with relatives, discussion of the looming war only cropped up a couple of times. The main concerns were a) whether Saddam would decide to launch Scuds at us and b) whether he would manage to before the Americans or their allies take western Iraq, the only part of Iraq from which Israel is within missile range. A cousin of mine noted that yesterday's dust storms felt oddly protective, as though no one would be able to find Israel through the high winds and swirling sand.

For Israelis the last Gulf War was the war of masks. It took place during the run-up to Purim, the festival on which Jews wear fancy dress to celebrate how the tables were turned on an enemy who sought to destroy them and was in the end destroyed himself.

In 1991 the war came to a timely end on, coincidentally, Purim eve. Israelis breathed a collective sigh of relief, put away their gas masks and took out their clown suits.

This time round it appears that we'll put our costumes away just in time to take out our gas masks. God willing we won't need them.

Happy Purim!


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Copyright 2003 by Leiah Elbaum.