Monday, March 03, 2003

Chicken Little Syndrome

Last week it was the snow. The heaviest in twenty years, according to the weather man. Schools in Jerusalem were closed for three days; I got stuck in a two-hour traffic jam just trying to get out of the city.

Then two days later, heat wave! Temperatures butting up to the low-70s in the middle of March.

And the following night, rain and cold again.

Hey God, having a bit of fun at our expense, are you?

The thing is, with all the uncertainty we’ve been having in the political, economic and military arenas, at least we could always count on the weather. Especially in Israel where we really only have two seasons: cold and wet in the winter, hot and dry (or humid depending on where you are) in the summer.

But lately, I don’t know what to expect anymore. We’ve been having a drought for years; we’re finally getting ready to import water from Turkey. Then the government in Istanbul changes and suddenly we get a record wet year. Is this an example of heavenly protexia (special protection) or a practical joke?

But then the skies have always been a source of humor. One of my kids’ favorite children’s books is
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
by Judi Barret which tells the tale of the quaint coastal town of Chewandswallow, where meals rain down from the sky three times a day.

It would pour with soup and juice one day, then snow mash potatoes the next, and the wind would sometimes blow in a storm of hamburgers, complete with a light ketchup drizzle. It all worked out fine until the food got larger and people started getting hurt. Gargantuan pizza, two-story pickles, doughnuts the size of cars.

Though the authors never say it outright, it’s clear they were inspired by Jewish tradition: the manna, that is, coming down every morning (except for Shabbat of course) for forty years, mixed up with the occasional quail and tofu chewy bar.

The text, by the way, doesn’t mention what would happen if you got caught out of doors in the middle of a raging manna storm.

And how about that movie Magnolia, where at a crucial scene, it rained frogs, providing much-needed comic relief…also certainly inspired by Jewish tradition.

In our contemporary reality, though, the skies are no longer so fun…or safe. All over the western United States, fragments of the space shuttle came plummeting to earth. A year and a half ago in New York, millions of pieces of rubble from the Twin Towers streamed steadily downward in a torrent that temporarily obliterated not only the sun, but our expectations for an entirely different future.

In the pre-industrial world, the sky was a source of wonder. God dwelled in the heavens above. Giants ruled the clouds and every once in a while a little boy would climb a beanstalk to visit.

Warfare, when it came, arrived overland. The worst you had to fear from above, aside from the weather, was getting pummeled by a bird with an ironic sense of timing.

And now our greatest fear is the sky.

We wait in dread for the siren that will indicate the missiles are heading our way.

As I drive past the airport and see a plane taking off, I sometimes wonder if this will be the time it comes crashing back down, the horrible spectacle unfolding before my commuting eyes.

There was a report not long ago that the Palestinian Authority had ordered hundreds of remote-controlled toy airplanes, which they planned to fit with bombs, maybe even chemical or biological weapons, and fly into West Jerusalem.

And before that, when the war with the Palestinians broke out two and a half years ago, I couldn’t sleep at night because of the sounds of gunfire from nearby Gilo. That was invariably followed by the low-pitched, but ever present whirring of helicopter blades directly over our apartment. If there were helicopters in the sky, we knew that an “operation” was taking place in nearby Bethlehem, only a few kilometers from our supposedly safe home. And that soldiers and innocent civilians might be killed in the crossfire.

If Chicken Little had lived in the Middle East, he just might have received a more welcoming reception from the King.

This isn’t how I want my kids to relate to the sky above, as a source of fear and a threat of imminent devastation. I long to return to those more innocent days of awe, when we were younger and lying out on a warm summer night gazing up at the stars was as much a rite of passage as serving in an elite unit of paratroopers or infantrymen. When the sky was a place for rainbows, not satellite-mounted laser weapons.

At the very least, can we have meatballs instead of missiles?

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