I’m no stranger to crowds. I’ve waited for the subway in rush hour in Midtown Manhattan, been in the center of Superbowl victory parties that turned into riots in Pittsburgh, and battled the crowds at Mahane Yehuda every Friday morning for months.
After nine months of living in Israel, I thought I was accustomed to Israeli pushiness in group settings. I’m experienced – I’ve waited for customer service in Hot stores, and made the mistake of going to IKEA with the rest of the country on Saturday night. But waiting in line for a gas mask, with what seemed like most of Jerusalem, was different from all of that.
The urgency is here. The frustration is here. But unlike every other time, when I had the option to leave, the option to laugh it off, this time, I was stuck.
I spent nearly 24 hours running around Jerusalem looking for a mask. I went to multiple places, spent hours on hold with the post office, and sat for over 8 hours yesterday and 3 hours today waiting for my number to be called. Yesterday, there was a sense of order (for Israel). As I sat, making friends with my neighbors and waiting for our turn, I felt a sense of solidarity with my fellow Israelis. We were sharing news updates, watching each other’s stuff, and translating the few announcements that we heard.
Today, everything was different. We gathered outside the distribution center, over 500 people, in the hot August sun. As police officers yelled at the crowd to move back, it just kept pressing forward. People holding tight to numbers from yesterday jostled for places with the newcomers, all equally frustrated and determined to succeed. There was pushing, shouting, demands to see numbers, and pleas to the guards to let us out of the sun. The crowd grew, moved closer together as we made room for the truck to come through, and got more desperate.
Around the tenth time I got elbowed by someone trying to get through, thinking that they could convince the guards at the door in a way that none of the rest of us had thought of, my desire to just give up and go home reached an all time high. In any of the other crowd situations, I would have. I started justifying it to myself – I could try ordering one. I’m going to New York for two weeks, maybe everything will be over by the time I get back. I’m actually going to pass out standing here.
But none of those were options. I’m an Israeli, with a mother in New York who worries, so I need a gas mask. And I need it now, before there’s any real danger, because there’s no reason to risk it. Because I live in a country of contradictions, where it seems like everyone is racing to these lines, but at the same time reassuring each other that there’s nothing to worry about, all the while pushing forward, reaching for the small brown boxes.
Standing in the line makes us feel like we’re doing something. We’re protecting ourselves as best we can while we wait for the government, the army, and the world, to decide our fate. I wanted to go back to my apartment, back to a cafe, back to bed, but instead I braced myself, pushed forward, and got what I needed in order to feel safe.
Once I finished, I got on a bus, came home, and went back to work. Today, that’s what being Israeli is. Doing our best to be prepared, fighting in lines, and then coming home and continuing as normal, because in this crazy country, that’s the only way to survive.