Courage Under Fire: Perspectives Of An Israeli Mother

Not long ago, on a really bad day, I told someone that parenting a child with autism was like living in a war zone. When I look at what’s going on in the world around me, I realize that that is a ridiculous and insensitive comparison. I mean, I have the privilege of living in Canada – one of the richest places in the world, a country teeming with opportunity, that truly believes in peace and human rights. There are people who are parenting their children in actual war zones, like my friend and fellow writer Susie Newday. She lives in Israel, and she has graciously agreed to share her perspectives here on my humble blog. Please read, and share, because this is a story that really needs to be told.

courageisfireSometimes I manage an unplanned escape from the reality around me. I manage to forget about the reality in which air raid sirens are going off and depending where you live in the country you have between 15-90 seconds to get to a safe room or a bomb shelter before a rocket might hit. Most of the time we’re lucky, the Iron Dome Missile Defense System blasts the rockets in mid-air and all that’s left to worry about is shrapnel. Not that shrapnel is safe, it was deadly enough to kill a Thai worker today.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m not an old person who can’t run to shelter. I’m not a parent of a special needs child who has a hard time coping with change. I don’t live in the south where there has been a massive barrage after barrage of rockets. There, a whole decade of children have grown up with unexpected yet consistent rocket attacks, even after Israel displaced 10,000 Israeli citizens in 2005 and withdrew from Gaza.

Like many people in Israel, we didn’t really understand what our fellow citizens from the south were living through, until the rockets starting raining down on Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Herzilia, Haifa and many more cities. Just imagine New York City, Paris, London or Ottawa being fired upon with even one rocket, let alone multiple non stop rockets. Would the governments of any of those countries go even one day without trying to wipe out the terrorists responsible? I think not. But for years Israel has not responded, because we don’t want to go to war.

In less than a month, there have been over 2000 rockets fired at Israel from Gaza by Hamas terrorists. Terrorists who hate us more than they love their children. They shoot the rockets from schools and hospitals while their children watch and are being unwittingly used as human shields. They build extensive tunnels originating under mosques, schools and residential buildings. Tunnels that cross underground into Israel with openings right near playgrounds and houses. Tunnels that have been used for terror attacks.

It’s odd how in just two weeks time, sirens and running for shelter or crouching on the ground with your hands over your head, have become routine for me, even when a rocket, not shrapnel lands less than a ten minute drive away. Because I have the luxury of 60-90 seconds to find shelter, when a siren goes off, I am not in a hurry or panic, the way the citizens of the south are.

“I was shaking from fear.” my 8 year old daughter told me about her first experience with a siren. They were rushed by their counselor in summer camp into a safe room and read psalms together.

She started refusing to go upstairs by herself because “what happens if there is a siren.”

And when we finally convinced her it was okay, while she was taking a bath one evening, the siren went off and my husband ran to yank her out of her bath and run with her to our safe room. As soon as we closed the door there were a few loud booms. You are supposed to stay in the safe room/shelter for 10 minutes. We waited impatiently, everyone checking their cell phones for news hoping that there were no casualties or damage. Then my husband remembered that he forgot to shut off the bathtub and he went upstairs to close the water.

And I wonder what kind of world we live in that I need to have a special concrete and metal fortified safe room.

Sometimes when the TV and radio are off and I’m not on Facebook, I can forget the collective unbearable pain of my country and its citizens. So far my heart has stopped 32 times, with the announcement of the death of each soldier.

My second son is in an elite urban warfare combat unit as is my nephew. My other nephew is in a tank in Gaza. But even if my son and nephews weren’t soldiers, the pain would be no less unbearable. I cry for the loss of tomorrow, for the future that will never be. I cry for the over 150 soldiers who have been injured and for the families who will never be the same. I cry for the innocent civilians on both sides who are being injured and killed because of extremist Islamic radicals who only know hate. They don’t care about their own people, all they care about is killing Jews and wiping the State of Israel off the map.

When the television and radio are turned off I can sometimes pretend that I’m not living in limbo and uncertainty. When the sirens don’t go off at work and I don’t have to round up my oncology patients hooked up to their IV chemotherapy and escort them to a safe room, I can sometimes forget the reality that I’m living in a tiny country hated so much by so many. The only democratic country being condemned over and over by people who claim they are pro human rights. As Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of UN Watch said on July 15, 2014:

“If in the past year you didn’t CRY OUT when thousands of protesters were killed and injured by Turkey, Egypt and Libya, when more victims than ever were hanged by Iran, women and children in Afghanistan were bombed, whole communities were massacred in South Sudan, 1800 Palestinians were starved and murdered by Assad in Syria, hundreds in Pakistan were killed by jihadist terror attacks, 10,000 Iraqis were killed by terrorists, villagers were slaughtered in Nigeria, but you ONLY cry out for GAZA, then you are not pro HUMAN RIGHTS, you are only ANTI-ISRAEL.”

And he is right. As Dennis Prager said: “As hard as it is for modern, rational and irreligious people to accept, Israel’s Jewishness is a primary reason for the hatred of it. ”

Yet even with all the pain and uncertainty and fear, I feel proud. Proud to be an Israeli, proud of my sons, daughters and countrymen. I am proud of the ethical and compassionate army we have, the only army in the world who puts their our own soldiers’ safety at risk in order to minimize civilian casualties. The only army that spends days warning civilians to evacuate, dropping leaflets in Arabic and making phone calls. They do all this at the expense of tactical surprise. Bombing strikes are called off when there are civilians in the vicinity, called off leaving the units on the ground with less support than they should have.

I want evil wiped out. I want peace, real peace, not one sided concessions. I want to be able to raise my children in security and without fear. And sadly it seems like a far fetched dream. If someone hates you for your religion or country, how will they ever see past that hate to get to know you as a person? How will they ever see that you are a mother or father like they are?

I pray in my heart that one person at a time can bring about change. I pray that one connection at a time with people different than myself will bring about an ever growing ripple that can and will change the tide of hate and war.

I pray for the day when no nation will want to go to war against another because we will all live in peace.

Susie Newday is a happily married mother of 5. Born in the USA, she moved to Israel at age 21 when she was pregnant with her second child. By profession she is an RN, and now works in outpatient oncology after 15 years as an ER nurse. For fun she loves to take photos, write, drive people crazy on Facebook and of course to write. You can find her musings in many places including on her blog New Day New Lesson as well as World Moms Blog.


Why I Can’t Eat Mangoes Even Though They’re Yummy

Whenever I’m at the grocery store with George, the first thing we have to do is get a pineapple. In the earlier days of the pineapple obsession, he would take the pineapple home and stick Mr. Potato Head parts into it. He doesn’t do that anymore. He just likes having a pineapple to carry around.

Weird, I know, Other people’s kids carry cuddly teddy-bears around. My son carts around a piece of fruit that could take someone’s eye out.

Anyway, a couple of days ago when we went shopping, I allowed him to pick up the obligatory pineapple. And because fair is fair, I had to allow James to select some fruit as well.

“I want a big, juicy mango,” said James.

No, no, no, no, NOOOOOOOO.

Much to James’ chagrin, I cannot let mangoes into my house. I’m afraid of them. I won’t even walk past them in the grocery store.

“Anything but mangoes,” I said to James, who sulkily selected some pears instead.

I was never really exposed to mangoes until I went to Israel in the early 1990’s. When I had been in Israel for almost a year, I found myself working for a farmer in the Golan Heights, right in the north. For several months, I was a real farm-girl, doing real farm work. I would be up and in the fields by four in the morning, driving my tractor, spraying crops with pesticide, repairing irrigation systems, hanging bananas, you name it.

The pay wasn’t great and the hours were long, but my employer treated me and his other farmhand well, kept us stocked with beer, and allowed us to knock off at lunchtime on Fridays. Best of all, he allowed us free rein to eat the crops we farmed whenever we liked. As a result, most of our breaks were taken under the trees with mango juice dripping from our fingers as we consumed the delicious fruit.

Let me pause for a moment to say that Israel produces fantastic mangoes. They are big and juicy, and oh-so-sweet-and-delicious.

One frightening day, however, my mango-eating heyday had to come to a screeching halt.

On the morning of that fateful day, I noticed a strange-looking mark on my wrist. It was roughly oblong, and looked a bit like a railway track. It was as itchy as hell. I didn’t think anything of it: me and my fellow farmhand, Alan, were always getting cuts and scrapes without really noticing. So I ignored the mark and went on my merry, crop-spraying, mango-eating way.

That night I felt a little under the weather – that feeling you get when you’re coming down with a cold. Assuming that I was, indeed, coming down with a cold, I took some headache pills and went to bed early.

I woke up with a jolt at about midnight, with the nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It didn’t take me long to figure out the problem: I wasn’t breathing. No matter how I tried to expand my lungs, I just couldn’t get any air past my larynx. And so, perhaps understandably, I started to panic.

I realized that somehow, I had to get the attention of Alan, my coworker and room-mate. I would have screamed, only this would have required me to draw breath and that was a problem. So I did the only thing I could think of: I raised my fist and pounded on the wall.

I was aware of Alan stirring and groggily using some colourful language. My persistent banging forced him to get up, though, and he only had to look at me once to realize that something was seriously wrong.

What happened next is a blur, but I know involved a lot of frantic rushing around and a trip to the hospital, where I was diagnosed with a serious and potentially life-threatening allergy to mangoes. I was treated and released the following day, and given a life-long ban on anything to do with mangoes.

I cannot eat them. I cannot touch them – those marks on my skin turned out to be burn marks from mango juice. I cannot even inhabit the same airspace as them, because inhaling their scent can be as bad for me as actually eating them.

Giving up mangoes was tough. Not only the fruit, but the fields. All of a sudden, I was deprived of the fields full of mango trees, with their mixture of hot sunshine and cool shade and of course, the fruits themselves. And I was banished to the banana plantations, with the oppressive overhead leaf coverage, the scorpions hiding in the bunches of bananas, and the fact that the bananas weren’t ripe.

And the fact that twenty years later, I would have to deal with a whining child who couldn’t get a mango in a grocery store.

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Kibbutz Yakum, Israel. In my tree.

This post is a continuation of the story of my time in Israel in the early 1990’s…

Moments after I had finally fallen into a fitful, uncomfortable sleep, I was jolted awake by the sound of a man speaking in a language I did not understand. By the time my exhausted mind had registered where I was, the Hebrew had morphed into accented English: We’re on final approach to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. Return to your seats, fasten your seatbelts, etc. etc.

This was it. The beginning of what would probably not be an entirely new life, but it would at least be a temporary escape from my regular life. I was more than a little anxious. Here I was, a shy, socially awkward person with recent trauma under my belt, in a strange new land with strange new people. What was I thinking? I didn’t know how to interact with other people at the best of times. I had a sudden fear that I would be way out of my depth here. I wanted to turn around and run back onto the plane I had just left.

There were about fifteen of us going into the Kibbutz program. We made a somewhat motley group, standing on the sidewalk outside the airport with our luggage, waiting for our transportation. Our huddle was thrown into disconcerted disarray when a pair of Israeli men who were walking down the sidewalk didn’t make efforts to circumvent our little group, instead marching straight through the middle of us, talking animatedly to each other and offering us loud, lively, incomprehensible greetings. Somehow their exuberant friendliness negated any sense of rudeness or intrusion. Our coordinator explained to us that this is just the way many Israeli people are.

After what seemed like an interminable wait in the cold and the rain, six of us were bundled into a minivan along with our luggage. Our coordinator said goodbye and wished us luck, and then the van door slammed shut and we were flying down the road. About an hour later we arrived at the place that would be home for the next several months: Kibbutz Yakum, near the coastal town of Netanya, about an hour’s drive north of Tel Aviv.

Once we had arrived at Yakum, we were divided into pairs and given rooms in the volunteer village. Lesley, a woman who ate scary quantities of food and yet remained impossibly skinny, was paired with Antoinette, whose claim to fame was that she was a distant relative of former South African president F. W. De Klerk. My roommate was tall Loren, with whom I struck up an immediate and lasting friendship. The only two men in our group were placed together: Alex, a gentle, kind-hearted soul with obvious developmental delays, and Wayne, who had sat beside me on the plane.

Once we had dumped our luggage in our rooms, one of the other volunteers, a Swiss man by the name of Ollie, fetched us and took us to the dining hall. He led us to a table occupied by an ancient woman called Nurit, who turned out to be the volunteer coordinator. It was her job to schedule and post the volunteers’ working rosters. Most of the jobs were rotated weekly, but if a volunteer liked a particular job, he or she could request to be permanently assigned to it.

By the time Nurit had told us how everything worked and given us a tour of the place, it was dinnertime. At that point we were so exhausted that we barely registered anything about the food or the people who were sharing the table with us. We had all planned to have dinner and then go straight to bed for some much-needed sleep, but our fellow volunteers had other ideas. They took us to the clubhouse, where they had set up a welcome party in our honour.

It would have been rude to refuse. Despite the fact that we started the party feeling ill from exhaustion, we wound up having a fantastic time. We stayed up late, drinking and talking and laughing with our new friends until the small hours of the morning.

Thus began our new life as Kibbutz Yakum volunteers.


Taking Flight

This is a continuation of the series I started last week

The six weeks prior to my departure passed in a whirlwind of frenetic activity. I had never traveled internationally by myself, and I had assumed that all I had to do was book the tickets, pack a bag, and show up at the airport two hours before the flight was scheduled to leave.

I had not factored in things like getting my passport renewed, undergoing the requisite medical screening, obtaining foreign currency, getting travel insurance, and visiting with friends and family to say my goodbyes. I could barely find the time to pack.

Packing was an ordeal in and of itself. Cramming all of my essential belongings into checked baggage did not turn out to be easy. Of course, now that I am a seasoned traveler, my idea of what is actually “essential” has changed dramatically. But back then, the list of things that I just had to take was staggering (most of these items would end up getting jettisoned over the course of my travels).

My Mom tearfully helped me pack. Her sadness was, I think, twofold. There was the normal Mom’s angst about the prospect of saying goodbye to a daughter who was bound for a faraway land and didn’t know when she was returning. And there was the fact that the last time I had left home for any length of time, I had come back damaged and jaded. She implored me not to make any stupid decisions. If you get into trouble, she said, just get on a plane and come home.

Before I knew it, the day had arrived. My parents got me to the airport four hours prior to departure time. I was flying El Al: the Israelis, being understandably nervous about who and what they were letting onto their planes, had a rigourous screening procedure years before 9/11. They made me light one of my cigarettes (I was a smoker in those days), take a picture with my camera (using the flash), and make my alarm clock go off. I got questioned at length as to why I was wearing my blue fedora-style hat and whether I had purchased the contents of my luggage myself.

Eventually, me and my luggage were deemed fit to board the plane. I had a final cup of coffee with my parents, and then, when it was time to go, they hugged me fiercely and tried to fight back tears. I waved at them until I could no longer see them, although I knew they would stay at the airport until after my plane had departed. As I found my way to the boarding gate, I pictured my Dad with his arm around my Mom’s shoulders, comforting and being comforted. I felt my chest constrict with anguish at what I had put my parents through, and for a moment I had the urge to turn back.

I resolutely continued. I needed to do this. I knew it in my gut, and I believe that my parents knew it too. I had lost myself over the last few years, and I needed to spread my wings and give myself the space to find my way back through the woods.

In the departure lounge, I found myself chatting with someone called Wayne, who like me, was traveling on the Kibbutz program. He asked me what had prompted me to go, and I told him that I needed to get away from some bad stuff that had happened. “Same here,” he told me.

At boarding time, we joined the line at the departure gate. Further screening ensued (really ahead of the curve on airline security, the Israelis), and we got through the chaos of boarding only to discover that our assigned seats were beside each other. Neither Wayne nor I could possibly know, at that point, that this was the beginning of a wonderful friendship that would still be enduring almost two decades later.

At the moment of take-off, I pictured my parents standing at the big glass windows in the airport terminal, watching and waving, and wishing me Godspeed as the plane lifted into the air and disappeared into the night sky.

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