The most memorable siren I ever heard was also the most shocking. It shrieked at all of Israel on the morning of the most somber day of our religious year. It was 1973 and the day was Yom Kippur.
Our family was living on Rehov Etzel on French Hill in Jerusalem. My husband and the four little kids were in the shul across the street. I was sick in bed with a fever and strep throat. The phone rang. No one calls on Yom Kippur. And at a time when many Israelis didn’t even have a phone at all, caller ID was unheard of. Fearing some awful news I rushed to answer. It was my sister calling from Herzliya to ask whether things seemed normal In Jerusalem. From my sick bed they did but she told me that reservists were being called out of their shul services. Something was very wrong.
Soon after the phone call, when my family was taking a shul-break, the peace was shattered. This siren blast was the beginning of war. It was unmistakable. And we needed to go down to the miclat. Now!
The residents of our entire apartment building gathered in the shelter. No one knew what was happening. A heated discussion took place. Should we turn on the radio? There were opinions in both directions. Some maintained that Israel did not broadcast on Yom Kippur so what would be accomplished except to desecrate the holy day? We need to know if anything is happening argued others. Finally someone turned on a radio. Yes, there was broadcasting by then. And yes it was military music. No doubt. We were, as we all thought, at war.
Parenthetically we made several trips to the miclat during the Yom Kippur war but what was so striking, and so symbolic of life in Jerusalem, was that, the next day, the sukkot went up as if all were normal. The war was fought as if it were not soon to be Sukkot and the sukkot were built as if there was no war. Soldiers went to battle. Many never came back. Life was anything but normal. But the tradition was carried on.
And through it all the sirens… screaming at us… to keep us safe.
It’s inescapable. The siren is disconcerting. That’s what it’s supposed to be. You need to stop whatever it is you are doing, urgent or otherwise. Please do not drop the baby or interrupt the surgery. But, just about everything else yields to the sound of the siren.
As a kid growing up in the Weequahic section of Newark we heard sirens too. All those years ago in the 40’s and 50’s. There were the ubiquitous ambulance, police and fire engine sirens. But the sirens that were the strangest were the air raid sirens. These were practice sirens in the heat of the so-called cold war. Were they testing us or the sirens? I don’t know. But, those of us in school had to respond in one of two ways, both pretty useless. Either we had to put our heads on our desks, which would not do a lot if an atomic bomb hit New Jersey. Right? Or we were marched into the hallway where we’d sit on the floor. Maybe that made slightly more sense since though it offered no protection from nuclear radiation, at least we’d be shielded from broken glass. We kids enjoyed this latter activity since it took us out of the classroom with its air already contaminated by chalk! And we missed whatever the lesson of the moment was.
My parents, already quite advanced in years, lived in Herzliya during the Gulf War. This was the time when scud missiles were raining down on Central Israel. Their sleep was often disturbed by the sirens. Go to your safe room they screamed. Hurry! My aged parents followed instructions. Their safe room was their bathroom which had no windows. My mother had fashioned a bed in the bathtub My father a chair. I begged them, from my New Jersey perch, to ignore the sirens and stay in bed. I thought falling was a greater risk than the scuds. They didn’t fall and the scuds didn’t fall on their house either. But wartime makes for tough choices.
In these spring days we hear sirens again. Last week we stopped our country at 10 a.m. on Yom Ha Shoah. It is an unforgettable experience. In this small nation where everyone is always rushing about, trying to get in front of the line or pass the cars ahead of them on the highway, abruptly we freeze. We all stop and stand still. No one speaks. Drivers stand beside their cars. The whole country is paralyzed for two minutes that seem endless. It is a time for us to remember those millions of our brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers and friends who died because they were Jewish. No one standing in the streets of Israel moves. No one is unmoved!
And then we do it again for Yom Ha Zikaron,. We remember all those thousands of young lives sacrificed so that we might be free to stand in our streets and elect our cantankerous governments, and drive our motorcycles like maniacs, and build, and boast, in this amazing country. We stand in tribute to our heroes, our chayalim, who lost their lives and gave us this precious gift of Eretz Yisrael. May they rest in peace, buried in the soil of the blessed land they loved.
So, the sirens are speaking to us, loud and clear. It’s up to us to listen.