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Heartbreak Hell

Celebrating in Israel while terror struck in Boston: The whole world was upside down
LEFT: Fireworks over the Knesset in in Jerusalem, April 15, 2013 (photo: Flash 90) 
RIGHT: Spectators and runners flee from explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, April 15, 2013. (photo: AP/WBZ TV)
LEFT: Fireworks over the Knesset in in Jerusalem, April 15, 2013 (photo: Flash 90) RIGHT: Spectators and runners flee from explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, April 15, 2013. (photo: AP/WBZ TV)

I don’t think any place in the world will ever feel like home to me the way Boston does. As much as I love living in Israel, there is something about a place you spent the first 26 years of your life that no love of a new country can replace.

We grew up on a small street off of Commonwealth Avenue, a beautiful boulevard that stretches over eight miles between Boston and its suburbs, and an iconic staple of the marathon route. Walking to the top of our street to cheer on the thousands of marathon runners was a yearly family tradition that never ceased to excite and exhilarate us, both as children and as adults.

We lived by mile 19, near an intersection nicknamed “Heartbreak Hill” – so called for its critical ascent late in the race, making it one of the most difficult challenges. This was the point where many runners would be forced to slow to a walking pace.

I remember feeling, from a very young age, how important my job was to cheer on these runners and keep them going over the hill. My friends and I would stand for hours by the sidelines, shouting the same encouraging slogans over and over, cheering and clapping our hands, hoping our energy would replenish the depleting supply of the passing runners’. Many runners would wear their names on their shirts, and we would scan the crowd for someone with a name, decide who it would be, count to three, and shout: “Come on Susan! You can do it Susan!” And when her eyes would momentarily flit in our direction and she suddenly picked up the pace, I felt a surge of joy – that I was helping people accomplish their dreams, in however small a way.

One of the most shocking images from Monday’s tragic event, for me, was the image of the thousands of diverted runners crowded in Kenmore Square. I just could not wrap my mind around anything stopping the Boston Marathon in its course – it was simply unreal. Things like that don’t happen in Boston. Scenes of chaos and terrorism are almost to be expected from time to time in the context of Israel and the Middle East, but Boston… Boston just seems much too organized, too safe, too normal, for a thing like this to happen.

When I found myself out at a bar celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut with Israeli friends on Monday night, and the text messages from friends and family began bombarding my phone, I felt like I was living out one of my nightmares, but in reverse. Ever since the first time I saw a photograph of a suicide bombing in Israel from a newspaper on our Boston doorstep, I have harbored a deep-seated fear of terrorist attacks. When I first made aliyah, my heart would race every time I boarded a bus. Even when I do feel completely safe, such as sitting at home in my living room, there is always that small question in the back of my mind – what’s going to happen with Iran? With Syria? With the rockets from Gaza? Are we ever totally, truly free of fear for our safety as long as we’re in the Middle East? These are questions that just don’t exist in my subconscious when I’m in America.

But on Monday night, as the fireworks crackled in the sky around me and Israelis popped champagne and shouted in the streets, I couldn’t stop hearing the sounds of the bombs in my hometown, and realized that I had completely misunderstood the meaning of safety in my world. I told myself I shouldn’t let the terrorists “win” and keep me from celebrating Israel’s happiest day of the year, but as much as I struggled to focus on the party, my mind kept sinking down into Boston’s grief.

The stuff of my nightmares had happened, and everything was backwards. Friends who would check up on me when a rocket hit Tel Aviv were now posting on Facebook that they were OK. Israeli police chiefs and heads of surgery were shipping off to America to offer what help they could. Suddenly, all the questions I was struggling to answer about why I want to live in Israel seemed to not matter anymore. The whole world was upside down.

In the midst of Israel’s festivities, my husband tried to comfort me with the oft-repeated quote: “You cannot banish darkness with darkness, only with light.” He is someone who grew up witnessing terrorist attacks, and I know that he’s right. I know that my city will continue on as normal. Boston won’t turn into Tel Aviv – they won’t start checking every bag as people enter a movie theatre or a shopping mall. But I wonder if Boylston Street will still feel as “normal” to me as it always has – the street where I have spent countless hours enjoying its bars and restaurants, browsing its boutiques, walking its wide, green, clean sidewalks. What happens to a place when it’s touched by terrorism?

I suppose the only thing to do is look to those toiling runners on Heartbreak Hill as an inspiration. Sometimes the end goal seems too distant, too bleak, too hopeless. The mountain too high to climb. But if we band together, and harness our communal energy, it can make all the difference in refueling our hope and our strength.

We are the ones with a beautiful goal. If we can help each other finish a marathon, we can shine some light into the darkness.

About the Author
Libbie Snyder manages a freelance writing and editing business from Tel Aviv, serving high tech and startup companies across Israel. She earned her BA in English Literature from Montreal's McGill University. Originally from Boston, she made aliyah in 2009.