Thirty years ago on a Thursday morning, I got up, got dressed, took my gas mask, and went out to downtown Jerusalem to get a few things for Purim, which was that day. My friends and I were actually celebrating Shushan Purim, which didn’t start until that Thursday night, since we were learning for the year in Jerusalem, a city which celebrates Purim the day after most Jews around the world. We had a lot to celebrate, but I didn’t know how much when I left the apartment early that morning. The English date of Purim that year almost matches this year. It was February 28th, 1991.
As I walked around downtown Jerusalem on Ben Yehuda street, which had been largely empty for the last six weeks, I found out what happened in a roundabout way, because in Israel, people like to mind your business, too- we are all one big, nosy, family. I don’t remember what I thought when the first person told me, but I think almost every other person I met that day just had to say to me, “Why are you carrying your gas mask? The war is over!” Yes, Purim day 1991 was the day the Gulf War ended. [It would eventually turn out to be only part one, but Go Know, as they say in Yiddish.]
In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and that somehow became Israel’s problem, as these things do. So Damn Insane (our nickname for Saddam Husein) threatened to burn half of Israel, with missiles pointing at our tiny country. It was akin to the start of the original Purim story, which would become appropriate later. There was really no reason to get Israel involved, but there we were, threatened again.
I was one of many students from abroad who had planned to go to Israel for the year after high school, before starting college. Many students changed their minds that August, or their parents decided for them that they weren’t going after all. My parents let me go- I only found out during my visit home for Pesach (from other friends’ parents) just how worried my parents had been. I understand why they let me, but only after I had my own children did I understand just how hard it must have been for them.
So I went off to learn at a small yeshiva, where we started the year with 40 girls instead of the planned 60 or so. We learned, and hung out, and went downtown, and tried not to think about the threat over our heads even as they came in to distribute gas masks (in adorable personal cardboard boxes with plastic carrying strap, wow!) and showed us how to use them.
Then January rolled around, and the threat became real. We went from a school of 40 down to 15, some girls having left in the past few months already, others just before the war started for us. We were told we had to have a sealed room in each of our homes; Iraq’s Scud Missiles were supposed to be armed with poison gas (hence the gas masks). Israel’s apartment buildings and homes had always been built with underground safe rooms, with reinforced concrete that could withstand shelling. We are a people that has had to fight for its existence over and over, having to prove our worthiness to live since our first exile from Israel thousands of years ago, and that didn’t change when we got our country back. We fought for our country since before it was reborn in 1948, and even before we took our first breath that year, the surrounding states had been trying to smother us.
But this time it was a different kind of war- the poison was supposed to be worse to be on ground level. So every home, every apartment, had to have a sealed room- a room where we had to tape heavy plastic over every window (only in that room), put enough food and water for all those in the apartment, and have towels ready to dampen and line the inside of the door once we closed ourselves in, just in case.
As it turned out, my room in our dorm apartment was the sealed room. My roommate and I have pictures where we are smiling as we seal up the windows. Ah, to be that innocent again. By the time we took that plastic off, we had a big patch of mold growing on the wall, which I think we named Fred.
The first siren sounded sometime during the night in the middle of that January. Our apartment mates crowded into our tiny room, sharing our beds and sitting on the floor, as we waited nervously for the all-clear siren for our area. The government divided Israel into Zones, and the army would give the all-clear to each zone depending on where the missiles were headed/landed, once they knew. I still have a t-shirt that shows a lot about the Israeli mindset. It has a map of Israel with the different Zones depicted in color and the Hebrew letter code on each area, with dotted lines around the whole square as if it was something you could cut out and post in the sealed room. As if by putting in on a t-shirt you could make light of the situation, take it less seriously. But that is what we Jews do as a people- we try to bring light into dark situations. I guess that explains why I bought the shirt, too.
During that first week they kept attacking at night, waging a mental war as well as physical, exhausting us, draining our energy. But Jews don’t seem to know the meaning of stop, or how to give up. Which is a good thing, because that’s a big part of why we are still here.
There were miracles throughout the war, with very few people hurt or killed from the missiles. At some point they seemed to think there wasn’t really poison in the missiles, or they weren’t aiming correctly, or something, because none of the attacks had gas, as far as I remember. But (most of us, especially the visitors) went on carrying around our gas masks, going into the sealed rooms when the siren blared, and at the same time, going on about our lives, mostly. This doesn’t mean we don’t carry the memory with us; when I went home for Pesach that year and heard a fire station siren, I got chills. I still do, thinking about it.
There’s a picture I took of Jaffo street in Jerusalem, a very busy place downtown. In the picture, you can see a couple sitting in a bus stop holding their gas mask boxes. When I looked through all my printed photos (this was 30 years ago!) at the end of the year, at first I thought that the reason I took the picture was because they had the gas masks. Then I realized- I had taken that picture on a Friday morning. Usually, Jaffo street would be packed at that time, with people and traffic and just generally hectic. That Friday was the first Friday of the war- and the street, aside from that one couple, was empty. Little by little things revived, got “back to normal” even while it was far from normal, but in Israel, you learn to live with “not normal” almost as much as normal.
So even though we didn’t know what was going to be, we prepared for Purim that year, to celebrate as best we could. And then we got this amazing Purim miracle- on Purim morning, hearing that the war was over. I went back to the apartment, we ripped down the plastic, and let Fred air out finally. I don’t remember if I had another costume planned, but in the end, I wore a colorful skirt, two different shoes, sunglasses and some other crazy stuff, and also the plastic from our wall. I said I was dressed up as “confused”. But maybe I was dressed up as relieved and happy to be able to truly celebrate.
* * *
As I write this I am sitting here wishing I could have my coffee, because it is Taanit Esther- the Fast of Esther- and tonight is Purim. I don’t have to tell anyone in the world that this year’s Purim will be Nishtana- different. Last year we had almost a regular Purim, just ahead of all of the difficulties that we didn’t know were coming, for those who have lived through the year. It is now a year since our new normal is lockdowns and zooms, a new schedule almost every week, and no end in sight just yet. In order to hear megillah tonight, as some in our family can’t yet be vaccinated and some are in the middle of the process, we will stay home and watch it on Facebook live from our shul. And even the atmosphere for those inside our shul won’t be the same- the number of people is limited, and the reading where we should hear “shush” will instead actually be quiet. This is the one time of year where everyone can put on a mask and be silly, but all costumes this year will include at least one mask that is the same- the face mask to protect people from a different kind of poison we don’t want to spread.
I am thinking about how Esther asked everyone to fast while she waited in trepidation for the outcome of her visit to the king, and how her prayer to the King was truly her request to live through that time. We can all connect with that feeling, with the worry and with the loss we have experienced, of all different types. With the vaccines, we can see a light, but we still can’t make light of this situation. We are all doing what we can to make the best of things. I will miss my community tonight, miss seeing everyone in costume and in joy.
During this past year, though, one change has been uplifting for me. Between our apartment building and the next, there is a parking lot, and there has been an almost daily minyan there. We have joined them from our mirpeset, and sometimes gone outside. While we didn’t have a shul for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we had a minyan right outside our door. When it’s been too cold, we have been able to just open a window and join them from the kitchen. Often before corona, I wanted to go to shul on Friday night, but I was too tired, or not ready, or something. But I have learned that the only worthwhile thing about regretting your actions of the past is if it helps you change your future. So now, every week, I enjoy being able to open a window and join the people who are so dedicated that they even had a maariv minyan last week during the snow!
These are the kinds of things I look for. It is not easy- it has been really hard sometimes. But we make our day what it is. Sometimes we don’t have control over the big things, and other times, it’s just the small things that get to us, especially when there are so many big things out of our control. But the truth, which shines its own light, is that even before all of this “not normal”, we really didn’t have control over most things except for the way we chose to act or react. I try to remember this when life is challenging.
Many people have had to go into isolation this year, some families multiple times. They had to close their doors and stay inside. Many other people did whatever they could to help, baking, shopping, whatever was needed. This past year has had a lot of challenges for all of us. When we have to live through difficult times and events, it helps to remember that if it’s in six weeks, or six months, or longer, we will hopefully be able to come together and celebrate again. And whether it’s in the kitchen or on a computer, when God closes a door, somewhere, He opens a window.
Wishing a healthy and happy Purim to everyone, and an easy and meaningful Fast, and a fast recovery to those who need it. B’shannah haba’ah in shul!