Israel under fire: First-person account describes what you don’t see on the news

Israel under fire: First-person account describes what you don’t see on the news

Melody and Avi Coven
Melody and Avi Coven

The date is July 11, 2014. The truth is, I don’t even really know how to start this, and finding the energy to write down my thoughts is a challenge enough. I’m not sure exactly what to feel or which of my feelings to accept and which to reject, let alone what to make of it all.

I’m living under fire. I guess that’s a good place to start. Even in writing that, I ask myself, “Am I really living under fire? We don’t have that many rockets coming to Jerusalem … just some.” A bizarre question. When you find yourself comparing how many rockets your city is being hit with to another city, you’ve got to realize there’s already something, should we say, “off.” But the mentality here has become so used to it.

I’m still new. I still have trouble distinguishing between the sound of the Code Red siren and a truck that drives by outside. I still don’t know how I feel about it, but “not feeling scared” isn’t quite it. I’m tired just — all the time. I don’t know if that’s normal. I feel so drained. Sleeping is hard. Every night I wake up in the middle of the night and check my phone to see if any major developments have happened.

Last night, I was checking to see if we had begun a ground operation. Don’t even get me started on trying to fall asleep. And waking up, that’s a pretty bitter feeling. Right now, I feel like the only real break I get from the security, political, war-ish situation (or whatever  we can or should call it) is when I’m dreaming. Dreaming is a breath of fresh air, where I get to imagine or even really believe that I’m somewhere else. But then I wake up, and the heaviness sets in of where I really am.

I feel guilty admitting that I’m having a hard time. I feel embarrassed. Feeling scared or being phased by rockets, especially when it’s just one siren every two days, is not the Israeli way. For some, it’s because they’re used to it. For some, it’s because it’s nothing to be in a safe room compared with being out in the field on the border with Gaza. For some, it’s because that’s what the terrorists want, and we can’t let them win. So I feel ashamed having a hard time. I feel awkward that the day after the first Code Red siren I’ve ever heard, everyone was operating like nothing had happened, and when I mentioned to someone that it was my first siren, they kind of shrugged as if that wasn’t significant at all. I feel guilty for being scared because I know how much worse others have it.

I know that one of my beloved teachers is waiting by his phone, waiting to hear if he’s going to get called up to the reserves. I know that my friend’s husband might have to go, that another friend’s husband is already down there, that the friend I made on the plane to Israel serves in the Iron Dome unit. She must be so tired and I hope she’s doing OK, but she very well might not be, and what about the rest of her unit?

I’m spoiled that I live in a building with a safe room on every floor, and I’m spoiled that the two times so far that I’ve heard the Code Red,” I’ve been inside with others and had a place to go. I’m lucky that I’m not the person in the pictures of the Tel Aviv highways during rush hour, in which people had to pull over to the side of the road and get onto the ground and cover their heads. I’m lucky that my husband isn’t waiting by his phone to hear if he’s being called up.

This week I watched my cousin’s bat mitzvah turn into a war zone, interrupted by rocket sirens, people running, my cousins herding as many of their children as they could to a safe place and trying to fill in by herding the rest of them myself. I watched them swiftly but calmly do this, because it’s not the first time this has happened. I saw the follow-up email the girl’s mother sent out explaining that the event was lovely despite “a few annoyances” and imagine with a bit of amusement and bit of horror how my friends in America would handle it if their bat mitzvah was interrupted with terrorist rocket fire.

I’m trying to process the first time I heard the Code Red without my husband by my side and his story that he sought shelter with some children in bathing suits, dripping wet, whose summer vacation hadn’t gone according to plan. I’m trying to process that one of the kids told his mom, “Mommy, I hate this.” I’m trying to process the panicked phone call I got from my husband during the siren, from the comfort of the safe room, yelling at me to go inside because he knew that an hour earlier I was having a picnic with a friend.

I’m living under rocket fire. And sometimes, all I want to do is go to the United States to spend a week with my mom and go sit outside the Starbucks in our local mall and get our “chocolate of the month” from Godiva and take a huge long breath before I come back to this crazy place. I could drink my coffee and eat my chocolate and maybe even check out the sale room in Anthropologie with absolute certainty that no terrorists would be firing rockets at the mall. I wouldn’t have to listen for the siren. I wouldn’t have to think twice about taking my shoes off when I got home because I wouldn’t have to be ready at a moment’s notice to run to the nearest shelter. I wouldn’t have to think twice about the timing of when I walk my dog and wouldn’t have to take a different route so that I’m closer to a safe room if, G-d forbid, I need it.

In no way does this make me want to move back or give up on making Israel my home. Not at all. I don’t think anything could. But it’s hard. And it’s hard in this weird psychological way that’s difficult to explain and embarrassing to admit, but it’s there.

Here’s what they don’t show you on the news: You see the pictures of the people on the side of the highway in Tel Aviv, but you don’t see that right now I have to sleep with a skirt next to my bed in case there’s a siren in the middle of the night and I have to leave my apartment for the safe room. They don’t show you the ever-so-sweet and deeply sad posts in Facebook groups by moms giving tips to other moms about how to cheer their children up when they’re in the bomb shelter. You don’t see that a young, naïve, sweet couple in their early 20s now want to check out the safe rooms in any apartment that they might rent or buy. They don’t show you the way my heart races every single time I hear a big car drive by or other loud sounds outside my window. They don’t show you that we’ve started leaving our windows open more to make sure that we can hear the siren. They don’t show you life in between every Code Red.

I’m almost beginning to prefer the sirens over life in between them. When the siren goes off, assuming that you’re in a safe place with a safe room or shelter, you know what to do. You go to the shelter, you make small talk with your neighbors, and you wait for 10 minutes. It’s the in-between time that really kills me — knowing that a siren could go off at any second or not for two more days, but either way you have to just keep listening and waiting for it and pretending that you’re not waiting for it and attempting to go about your “normal life” and “routine.”

It’s breaking into tears the second that your three-hour class ends in Herzliya because you’re so afraid to drive home on the highway where you know sirens have been going off today. It’s the struggle of trying not to think about it and only being able to think about it and wondering if your brain is the product of a terrorist victory, and if it is, if there’s any way you can help it. It’s the feeling of warmth in your heart when someone you haven’t heard from in a while comments on your Facebook post that they’re praying for your safety and finally seeing from the other side that those prayers and well wishes actually give you more comfort than you ever could have imagined. It’s trying to craft a text message to your family explaining what a Code Red is, that you just heard one, that you’re OK, and the absurd “don’t worry” line — as if that won’t worry them.

It’s trying to stay strong when you talk to your parents. Trying to seem strong and stay strong when you see people in the street. It’s trying to remind yourself to go outside and not just stay on your couch, where you do nothing aside from incessantly reading the news and being prepared to run to the safe room. This is life under fire.

Melody Mostow Coven recently made aliyah from Pittsburgh.