4,600 Sirens

What started out as a simple evening babysitting turned out to be a game changer. I was at the home of an Israeli family on the moshav that I was living in. A couple hours into the evening, I heard a siren go off. Next thing I know, I’m sitting in a safe room in their house with three little children. I didn’t know what was going on and I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach. But I kept my cool. I was pretty sure it would turn out to be nothing. I had been living in Israel for about a year up to that point and I still had my rose-colored glasses on. Little did I know that this was the start of a new reality for me – an end to my naivety. It was the first siren of the first night of the first war since I moved to Israel. Tzuk Eitan, or “Operation Protective Edge”, lasted 7 long weeks. 4,600 sirens.

When the kids’ father came home from work, he was cool, calm, and collected (of course). Knowing that I moved here from Canada, he asked me in a joking tone, “Nu, I bet you want to go back to Canada now, huh?” His daughter (about 8 years old at the time) quickly turned to us and said, “What? There aren’t any sirens in Canada!?”

And I’ll never forget it. I was stunned.

To be honest, I don’t even remember what I said or what her father said. We probably laughed it off and said something about how Canada doesn’t even know what war is. But it stuck with me. And it was hard to digest. Should she know at this age that war is unique to Israel (the Middle East)? Or is it better for her to think that it’s what every kid goes through? Honestly, I don’t have the answer.

Sometimes life throws you a curve ball out of nowhere. A little girl’s innocent question made me think of something I never thought about before: growing up with war. It was so foreign to me.

With all the tension recently with Gaza and the rumors of another war looming, it is alarmingly clear to me that I am now in a new and radically different position. I’m a mother now, which means I have a life to protect.

So here we are. Many of us parents or future parents, Israelis or Olim, to children growing up in Israel. And I find myself asking, “How will I raise my children in a country with war?” How will I provide security in an unsafe environment?

Unfortunately, Israel and war go hand in hand. There have been eight recognized wars, two Intifadas, and over 235 publicly known operations since 1948. As we all know, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes as well. Whether we agree with it or not, war is a necessary evil in this country. It is what keeps our country a country, so to speak. We have this beautiful land to live in because the armed forces guard it. Me, personally? I’m simply waiting for the next “operation”. If history repeats itself, then it’s only a matter of time.

I believe that as humans, we have a need for control in such an uncontrollable world. This need for control can manifest in so many ways, from something as harmless as putting your kid’s toys in a box to serious disorders like anorexia and OCD. Although some things are manageable, the truth is we can’t control everything. We can’t dictate how the world turns. And we can’t contain war. So, can I make sure my kids will be safe? Is control at all possible? Or is it just an illusion to give us a sense of security in a chaotic world.

 …

During Tzuk Eitan, I noticed how calm Israelis were, even passive. Many don’t even run to a shelter when the sirens go off. They said that this is a part of life here. And, sure enough, the war ended, and things went back to “normal”. But I couldn’t help but notice how quickly things went back to ordinary. It is remarkable how short Israelis’ memories are. And when you think about it, they kind of need to be. Wars come and go. It is part of the fabric of this country. If everyone went around dwelling on the last conflict, how could we move forward? You can’t drive ahead if you’re looking in the rear-view mirror. And I must say, living in the “bubble” of Tel Aviv, sadly it’s easy to forget that wars occur within kilometers of this city.

Well, life indeed moves on. But things didn’t go back to normal for me. Things changed. I was now living in a “new normal”. A world where things can end in the next minute. And I had to figure out how to absorb it.

I used to think the difference between Israelis and North Americans is that Israelis live for today, and North Americans live for tomorrow. Considering all the tension, I’ve noticed that Israelis tend to appreciate the here and the now. It was one of the reasons I would give when people asked me why I moved here, from Canada! It was, and still is, something I admire about this country. But although I admire it, I don’t necessarily feel it. I mean, is it really possible to live for today, every day? One thing I learned about myself is that I strive for balance; a happy medium. I want to appreciate the moment while still having goals for the future.

So then what is it about Israelis that makes them live for today? What do they “get” that I (and I believe many North Americans) don’t? Do they have some sort of mental Teflon that helps them wipe off all the stress and turmoil? Well, sort of. One word: resilience. Israelis tend to have the ability to recover quickly from difficulty. Now isn’t that precisely what a country with war needs of it’s people?

“It’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself that determines how your life’s story will develop.” – Dieter F. Uchtdorf

In Israel, there is a Middle Eastern mentality of seeing the “evil” in the world. That is, they choose not to see it. They don’t look. They say “Rak tov. Hacol tov. Hamsa hamsa” (Only good. Everything’s good). Okay, sure. That’s one way to see it.

But maybe there’s another way. Maybe instead of denying the bad, it’s better to see it for what it’s worth; to recognize it and accept it. Instead of avoiding it, aim to have the ability to deal with it. Let’s face it: adversity is unavoidable. But it’s how we respond to adversity that counts. If we accept it, we can frame it in a way that is digestible, and then work through it. It is with resilience that we progress forward. Onward and upward. That is what Israel has taught me. It takes resilience to overcome the tragedy of war and move forward. And it is with pliability and spirit that we remain strong and undefeated. Just look at this country. We are in an oasis in the middle of a dessert! We wouldn’t be here if the people of Israel were defeatists.

We are only human and can only do so much. No, we can’t lock our kids in shelters for weeks or months. But we can control how we react. We can give our kids a soft place to land. We can help them find the strength, courage, and the ability to deal with adversity. We can help them build confidence to handle difficult situations. And most importantly, I think, we can teach them resilience.

“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” – Maya Angelou

One day, my daughter might ask me if there are sirens in Canada, and I will have to answer her. By then, maybe there will be rockets in Canada and then we’re really in trouble! But seriously, I will have to think about how to answer that question. I will need to find a way to frame it, at least until she’s old enough to judge for herself.

I know this much is true: that I don’t want her to have the fear that I have when sirens go off. I don’t want her to tense all her muscles, close her eyes her hold her breath until it’s over. So when she’ll see me doing that and ask me “Mommy, are you scared?”, what am I supposed to say? Because now, whenever the wind blows just strong enough, or whenever a motorcycle drives by, I hear a siren. But that’s a whole other story…

About the Author
Alva Yaffe was born in Israel but raised in Canada. She now lives in Tel Aviv. She made Aliyah in 2013, when she was 27 years old. Since then, she has married an Israeli, lived in over five places across the country, worked, studied, graduated with an MA in Art Therapy, and recently became a mother.
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