The sun had just set on a warm, August evening when we pulled up outside my parents’ house in Johannesburg. We had spent all day walking around a home interiors exhibition with our 11-month-old daughter, and were looking forward to a good meal and the chance to rest our aching feet.
We waited a minute or two for the automatic gates to open, and drove up to the front door. I stepped out of the car and turned back to un-strap our baby daughter from her seat. And then I saw them — two men with guns cocked, creeping stealthily through the shadows toward us.
It was the moment every South African dreads most. There was no need to ask myself what was happening. Instead, I knew with sickening certainty, that it was happening.
I just had time to duck my head back into the car and hiss urgently “There are guys with guns,” and they were upon us. “Get out the car! Get out the car!” the carjacker nearest me shouted as he pointed his gun at my head.
South African security consultants regularly hold seminars on how best to react in a hostage situation. “Keep completely calm,” they advise. “Don’t make eye contact with your attacker as he won’t want to be recognized.” And, most important of all, “Don’t, under any circumstances, scream.”
Very sensible advice, but it fails to take into account the fact that, at a time like this, you’re likely to completely take leave of your senses.
Unable to comprehend that this was really happening, and paying scant attention to the fact that I was staring down the barrel of a gun, I looked my attacker right in the face and screamed and swore at the top of my lungs.
A deafening gun shot rang out. Seconds later, the gunmen inexplicably turned and strolled back down the driveway, before slipping out of the open gate. No more than a minute or two had elapsed since we’d driven in, and it was only then that I realized that the yelling I heard was no longer the sound of my own voice.
“I’ve been shot! I’ve been shot!” roared my husband while my baby wailed hysterically in unison.
I quickly lifted her out of a car seat filled with shattered glass — the shot was fired through the window right next to her — and ran inside to alert my baffled parents. Even then we knew better than to call an ambulance that almost certainly would have taken hours to arrive. Instead, my father pushed my bleeding husband into the passenger seat, and raced to the nearest hospital.
The bullet, shot at point blank range from a .45-caliber pistol, had torn through my husband’s back. X-rays clearly showed that it had been heading directly for his heart when it hit a rib and was deflected right through his lung.
“You’re so lucky,” enthused well meaning family and friends.
Funny, I’d never thought of a bullet lodged in your lung as being particularly lucky.
Exactly one year after we were attacked, my 25-year-old cousin was held up in virtually identical circumstances, but was killed outright.
“My son wasn’t as lucky as yours,” sobbed his hysterical mother at his funeral as she clung to my mother for support.
I guess “luck” is relative.
“How are you after your unfortunate incident?” everyone asked solicitously.
Just as the word “cancer” is whispered in a sotto voice — or euphemistically referred to as “the big C” — it’s considered bad taste to actually specify the crime. Carjacking, armed robbery, mugging, pistol-whipping — as long as no-one actually died, unfortunate incident will do nicely.
I quickly learned to give the expected answers.
“Life goes on.”
“These things happen.”
And, everyone’s favorite and most reassuring response, “We just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
There is an unwritten rule in South Africa that dictates the time period in which you are free to talk about your experience of violent crime. Exceed this unspoken limit, and people react as if you’ve farted in public. There is an awkward silence, and then your listener very deliberately changes the subject. Knowing this, I did what was expected: I got on with my life.
We went on to have another child, I opened my first cookery school, and we justified the cost of putting an electric fence around our home by telling ourselves that we were increasing the property value. I rarely thought about that nightmarish night. Only occasionally, when the scent of August sweet-peas once again hung heavily in the air, would I see two ghostly figures lurking in the shadows of the dark driveway.
However, while I was physically unhurt, something died in me on that warm spring evening, and I knew I’d never be the same person again.
I’d fallen passionately in love with Israel as a starry-eyed 14 year old, and had visited as often as I could ever since. Now my annual pilgrimages felt like a lifeline, and it was only when I was back in Israel that I felt completely safe.
(Don’t think I fail to see the irony in that statement.)
On my last, life-changing trip, I visited Israel with one of my closest friends, and she was astounded to see how being here totally transformed me. With her as my sounding board, I tentatively began to explore the thought of relocating my family to the country of my heart, and I returned to South Africa filled with a steely determination to make this long-held dream a reality.
We made aliya at the end of June 2006 — and Israel went to war with Lebanon just days later.
“Why did you bring us here?” cried my daughter, traumatized at the talk of bomb shelters, and the constant thuck thuck of IDF helicopters heading north overhead. It was only then that we gently revealed the real reason why Daddy had a raised, red scar the size of her palm on his back. She never asked again.
The Lebanon war ended five weeks later, but the battle continued on the home front.
Fast-forward one year. My husband and I had divorced, and he had returned to South Africa, leaving me to add “24/7 single parenting” to my to-do list. Building a new life for ourselves without Hebrew, social connections, or the support of immediate family, has been challenging at times. However, I can honestly say that I haven’t questioned the decision to make aliya even once in the past six roller-coaster years, and I know with absolute certainty that, in Israel, I’ve found my “true love.”
I am well aware that my Little-Miss-Israeli-Sunshine diatribe won’t sit well with everyone — especially since my last piece, which offered an equally rose-tinted view — and I’ll bet that there are some readers out there who’d like nothing better than to pelt me with greasy falafel balls right now.
I promise that I’m not always so nauseatingly saccharine, and ask that you indulge me.
It took a long, and at times painful, journey to reach my destination, and I’m therefore that much more grateful for life, and especially the life I lead here.
Le’Chaim… to life.