A surreal Friday night in Jerusalem

It’s not often that I get to pray next to a Nobel Prize Laureate, but as we filed into the packed Yael street shul in the capital’s Baka neighborhood at 4:30pm on Friday as Shabbat came in, I noticed that Israeli-American Prof. Robert Aumann, Nobel Prize winner in Economics in 2005, was sitting nearby. Prof. Aumann would later lead the maariv prayers in the service.

It was the end of a difficult week in Israel which saw three people killed from a direct rocket hit in Kiryat Malachi and rockets falling near Tel Aviv for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War, but in Jerusalem everything seemed peaceful and calm. We understood that Jerusalem was beyond the range of rocket fire from Gaza, and in any case no Muslim group would dare shoot at the city and risk destroying a sacred Muslim spot such as the Al Aqsa mosque or the Dome of the Rock. I’d been to a friend’s birthday party the night before and to a restaurant for lunch on Friday and felt slightly guilty about it, as I knew that many Israelis in the south were hiding in bomb shelters.

We were in the middle of the Kabbalat Shabbat service when the Tzeva Adom (code red) warning siren sounded. Everyone paused for a moment, not sure what to do. Some started to walk towards the exit, while others stayed in their seats and continued to pray, proclaiming that it must be a false alarm. All eyes turned to the rabbi in front, who ruled that as we were in a building with extremely thick walls made of Jerusalem stone, it was probably the safest place to remain, and so we resumed davening. No explosion or additional warning siren was heard and for all we knew at that point it was indeed a false alarm.

When the rabbi stood up to give his dvar Torah comments on the week’s Torah portion of Toldot, I wondered whether he would mention what had happened. Surprisingly he didn’t at first, launching straight into the story of Isaac and Rebecca and the birth of their twins Jacob and Esau. I thought this showed how Israelis remain unruffled and just get on with things in their tough, direct, no-nonsense style. But eventually the rabbi pointed out that Isaac quarreled with the Philistines in the story, who were envious of Isaac’s success and covered over his water wells, before the two sides made a truce. The rabbi reminded us that in the biblical period the Israelites lived in the inland regions while the Philistines, their bitter enemies, occupied the coastal regions including Gaza, where Hamas now rules.

When we left the shul, an Anglo immigrant told us that his son had just received his call-up for reserve military service, while his daughter was busy serving in an intelligence unit. Thousands of Israeli families are having that same conversation, when a son or daughter, brother or father quickly leaves home to report for duty, perhaps to fight in an eventual ground invasion of Gaza.

When we arrived at our Shabbat-observant hosts’ house for dinner, we found the television had been turned on to the news channel before Shabbat in the family’s fortified basement, which served as its bomb shelter. When we asked about the warning siren, the hostess told us that a rocket had fallen in the Gush, which I automatically took to mean Gush Dan, the central region around Tel Aviv where rockets had already been aimed. No, not Gush Dan, but Gush Etzion, just south of Jerusalem, had received an incoming rocket. The TV news called it a hafta’a g’dola, a big surprise, as it was shocking to think that Hamas would actually fire towards Jerusalem and areas where they might not only destroy Muslim sights, but also indiscriminately kill Muslim and Christian Arabs, who make up one-third of Jerusalem’s population.

All seven dinner guests sat glued to the TV in the bomb shelter until our hostess had enough. “Come on upstairs, it’s Shabbat, we’re having our normal Shabbat dinner, we’re not sitting in front of the television. Let’s make kiddush.” And so we filed upstairs to the beautiful dinner table set with Shabbat candles and challot and kiddush wine, and started singing the traditional song that Jews all over the world sing to welcome the Sabbath, Shalom Aleichem, with its lyrics: “Peace be upon you, Come in peace, Bless me with peace, May your departure be in peace.”

About the Author
Gavin Gross, a New York City native, was a commodities trader in New York and London before serving as Director of Public Affairs at the British Zionist Federation (ZF). He has appeared on BBC TV and radio, Al Jazeera English, and Iran's Press TV discussing Israel issues. He has an MBA from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS, University of London, and now lives in Israel.