Thursday, 16 April 2015

My First Siren

This is my third year in Israel. It's my third Yom Hashoah siren. But this year, for the first time, the Yom Hashoah siren affected me in a deep and irrational way. 

Sure, I have learned about the Holocaust. I have cried for it and mourned for it and fumed over it. Please don't think that I am immune to the suffering of our grandparents and great-grandparents. It's just that the Yom Hashoah siren, the timing of it and choice of date and (thank G-d) my distance from the Holocaust, meant that I would pause in my day to think sad thoughts for a moment. As I would stand waiting for the siren to finish, I would work to pull up memories of stories and images of the Holocaust to try to feel a connection. And when the moment finished, I would carry on my day. 

This year was different. This year, I didn't have to try. Because this siren is the first siren after my 'first war'. 

There's a saying that when you make aliyah, you're an olah chadasha until you've had your first war. Last summer's Tzok Eitan was my first war. But it ended more than half a year ago, and (thankfully) Beit Shemesh only experienced about a dozen azakot all summer. Yes, for months afterwards I (like the whole country) would pause for a split-second on hearing certain noises, waiting to be reassured that it's just a police car, or a bus slowing down for the bus stop, or a neighbour vacuuming her home. But I really didn't think it left me much affected, and didn't entirely understand why people said that having experienced my first war had converted me to Israeli.

It turns out that it converted me to more than that. It turned me into a survivor*.

As soon as that piercing wail started at precisely 10am, my adrenaline shot up. My legs heard the siren and began to run to the mamad. My arms heard the siren and began to reach to grab my children to bring them with me. My rational brain had to fight my instincts to keep me standing still, nerves jangling, tears running down my cheeks, till the siren ended.

I did not expect this kind of reaction. I like to think of myself as someone who has control over her responses, but this was way out of my control. Even as I write this, my nerves are still on edge and my heart is still pounding. Because for that minute of standing still, listening to the siren without running to the safe room, I felt vulnerable. Even as I knew that this siren doesn't shout of death approaching, deep inside me it was that wail that I heard. I felt that I was in danger, that my family and my children were in danger. And I thought, this is what the Holocaust was. This feeling of vulnerability. This feeling, as I force myself to stay on my unprotected mirpesset while the siren wails, this is only a small taste of what European Jewry felt for six years of far greater terror. And I am standing out here through choice. I have a safe room to run to. European Jews of the time did not. 

And as I stood for a trembling minute of wailing vulnerability, thinking of shaking mothers in Poland who clutched at their children, and of trembling fathers in Germany who waited for inevitable torture, I thought that maybe my first war did not just make me into an Israeli. It taught me what it is to be a Jew in exile. It made me into a survivor. 

Now, we have an army, and mamadim, and an Iron Dome. We have ways to fight and ways to defend ourselves. But to be a Jew in time of exile is still to feel that visceral fear and vulnerability that I just tasted for a moment during the Yom Hashoah siren. To be a Jew in exile is to carry the post-traumatic, instinctive responses of a survivor. It's to know

"Ain lanu al mi lhishaein elah al avinu shebashamayim
We have no one to rely on, but our Father in heaven."

*I'm not, G-d forbid, comparing my small experience of running to a safe room with the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust. Simply that my experience was enough for me to feel a glimmering of awareness of their greater horror, pain and suffering, and the way that while it may be buried deep, the suffering never ends for them.

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