Who by Fire…

On Shabbat night, November 25th, I went to sleep wondering whether I would be woken by sirens and loudspeakers instructing me to evacuate my house. Fires had been raging through Israel for four days already and, living in a village in the forest, which has frequently experienced large fires in recent years, it was a real and legitimate concern. In the end, I slept through the night. But there are others who did not.

During those days of fire, hundreds of families were left homeless. But it was not only their homes that were lost. Beyond what can be replaced through insurance-company and government compensation (if one manages to slog through the bureaucracy), there are those things that can never be replaced – letters, scrapbooks, photographs – material memories. Losing a home is not only losing a physical structure and a roof over one’s head, it is losing a state of mind, losing a semblance of security. Losing one’s comfort zone. Think, for a moment, about what that means. Not having anywhere in the world where you feel completely comfortable.

Every year, on Remembrance Day, the radio broadcasts personal stories about the lives of soldiers who fell in the wars here, or victims of terror attacks. Somehow these stories of individuals, pulled out of the masses of numbers, one by one, make it more real for us, each one makes us better understand the magnitude of the all.

So here is one, individual story, of a family that lost its home to the fire that devastated Neve Tzuf-Halamish on that same Shabbat night that I slept soundly.

I know this story because it is about the childhood home of a dear friend. He and his siblings, now grown, no longer live there, having established homes of their own in other places. Their parents, now in their mid-seventies, still lived in the family house. The father had just completed a renovation, with his own hands, to move the kitchen and living room onto the ground level, for they knew that, as they aged, it would be difficult to negotiate stairs for various essential functions. He was preparing their home for their old age, for the “rest of their lives.”

Here it was:


And, during that night, it became this:


My friend, who is currently traveling overseas, wrote me about the details, adding:

“It is hard for me to understand how, at their age, they will be able to start over… it’s incomprehensible… Also, all my stuff was stored in my parents’ basement. What pains me most is the souvenirs, the photo albums, letters, journals, gifts I received, greeting cards. So all of my worldly belongings are now contained in my back pack here, and on a shelf and a half in a friend’s closet. But it is nothing compared with my parents’ tragedy. I am on my way home to help provide emotional and practical support, but in the meantime, I am keeping in touch with the family. Every day there are new dramas and heartbreaking situations.”

About one year ago, my friend’s mother suffered a neurological incident, something like a stroke. She has gone through a long and very gradual recovery and rehabilitation, and only in recent weeks had returned to her daily routine. To her normal life, which very quickly, once again, lost its normality.

My friend’s father, who had built much of the house on his own, had planned to spend his retirement busying himself with carpentry, constructing furniture and the like. His workshop and all of his tools were in the basement of the house and, like everything else, were destroyed.

The neighborhood that burned in Neve Tzuf held primarily wooden houses belonging to older, founding members of the settlement, all in their seventies now, including two widows. For over thirty years they have lived together as friends, sharing meals, joys and sorrows. They imagined they would grow old together. In one night, that all changed. It is not clear that all those who lost their homes will return to Neve Tzuf. They may decide to move to other places, perhaps closer to their children. The fire destroyed not only homes, but the delicate web of community.

One of the amazing things about Israel is that, during times of crisis, the nation crosses political, ethnic, religious and ideological divides in order to help. A Facebook page and internet-donation campaign to help the affected families of Neve Tzuf-Halamish were opened, and on them, people are offering to help in whatever way they can (moving, plumbing, painting….) and to donate everything from clothes to kitchen appliances. There are already caravans full of clothes and furniture on site. (If you wish to help, you can do so through the hyperlinks above).

So much clothing and equipment was donated to families in Haifa that, within two days following the fire, the municipality requested that nothing more be brought for lack of space. My Facebook news feed was flooded with posts asking where people could donate, or offering to be a collection point or to transport gifts. It is in times like these that we see the heart of our people. The worst conditions bring out the best in us.

This blog tells one family’s story. 18 homes were lost in Neve Tzuf-Halamish alone. Over 500 families’ homes burnt down in Haifa. And there were more… in Nataf (where the beloved restaurant, Rama’s kitchen, was lost), in Beit Meir (where, among others, the studio and life’s work of artist Yoram Raanan was destroyed — the campaign to help him out is here), in Zichron, and I’m certain that there were more. There were so many fires… Thousands of people experienced a living nightmare and, the next morning, were left with nothing. Thousands of trees, deer, foxes, jackals, turtles, birds, bugs and other wildlife were also burnt alive in a forest inferno.

As I sit, writing, the rain pours down outside. The blessed rain that came a week too late for all of them.

About the Author
Ruthi Soudack, originally from Vancouver, arrived in Jerusalem for a short visit three days after the beginning of the first intifada, and has been here ever since. She is a traveller, yoga teacher, writer, translator, editor, storyteller, musician, and occasionally, a stand-up comic.