Monday, September 15, 2003

How We Do It

I was interviewed last week on the Steve and Johnnie Show, the overnight talk slot on WGN Radio in Chicago. Steve and Johnnie wanted to get more details on last Tuesday’s terrible tragedies – the suicide bombings at Tzrifin and Emek Refaim’s Hillel Cafe.

But their questions were of a more personal nature.

“How do Israelis cope with such events?” Steve asked. “I mean, how can you wake up in the morning and go on with your daily routine?”

“Good question,” I responded and I told Steve a story about how the next day I got up just before 7:00 AM as usual, made the kids their sandwiches, and kissed them as they went off to school.

“How do we go on with our normal activities?” I parroted back his question. “We just do. Israelis have become famous for their ability of moving on. Of not letting the terror stop us.”

But my answer, I realized, was superficial. Because I had only addressed what we do and not how we do it.

And frankly, after a week like last, I realized I had no idea.

Oh, I can sport all the usual platitudes about not letting terror win, about the strength of our people as they overcome years of Diaspora mentality.

I can cite the fact, pointed out this week in some of the local papers, that because so many Israelis have been in the army, there is a sense of calm and orderliness after an attack that might be missing elsewhere.

And I can repeat back what my friend Heidi said to me when I literally bumped into her during my morning run today: that we are put on this earth for a purpose and we have to live our lives as fully as possible during the time we have.

All fine and well, and maybe these explanations provide some theoretical, theological consolation.

But still: how do we do it?

Then on Sunday, Jody and I paid a shiva call to the Appelbaum family. By now everyone knows the incredibly tragic, dramatic story. Renowned ER physician David Appelbaum took his 20-year-old daughter Navah to Cafe Hillel to impart some last minute parental wisdom before her wedding the following evening. The blast killed them both.

We knew the Appelbaum family. Not well, but well enough. We were neighbors for five years and our kids used to play together in the local park. We would see the David and his wife Debra at various events, especially weddings, and we once spent Shabbat together. As I recall, David was called out to the hospital in the middle of the meal.

Shiva is the Jewish way of mourning. Following the funeral, there are seven days where the family receives visitors. There’s no expectation of going back to work, or back to one’s normal routine. Family members sit on low chairs and wear the clothes that were symbolically torn at the funeral itself.

There were close to 100 people jammed into the Appelbaum’s modest apartment for the shiva the day we went. A friend who had come to the shiva every day told me that the crowd was light today. In previous days, there had been people streaming down the steps, waiting for their turn to slowly file in and sit with the family.

Pictures, photo albums were passed around. Cookies and burekahs came out of the kitchen at regular intervals.

What struck me the most was Debra Appelbaum's poise and decorum throughout. She sat quietly in her space, greeting everyone with a nod, sometimes even the slightest of smiles. Her children on the couch were similarly restrained.

And it occurred to me that the shiva process demands such decorum. By putting the family in such a public position, and so immediately after the funeral with all its concomitant emotions, the shiva forces the mourners, for lack of a more tactful expression, to get their act together. To play the unexpected and unwanted role of party hosts.

Surrounded all day, and well into the night, by friends and well-wishers, it’s near impossible to retreat into that bottomless pit of private grief, to wallow in the terrible misery of it all, alone. The public persona by its very nature is unnaturally showy, strong beyond all expectation. That doesn't alleviate the grief one iota. But it puts a spin on it.

All Israelis – whether they are religious or not – observe more or less the custom of shiva. And that custom, in turn, becomes an integral part of how Israelis move on. How we can continue to move forward, to live that illusive normal life, despite it all. At least in public.

But there's even more to it than that. Debra Appelbaum lost her husband and daughter. But she still has five other children with needs that only a mother can attend to. Despite the best caring efforts of friends, family and even strangers, no parent can turn away from the responsibilities of one’s children, even in a moment of supreme pain.

And Israel, more than any other place in the world that I’m familiar with, is like one big family. You see it when Israelis give you unsolicited advice or return a lost child in the park.

Debra's kids are all our kids. And our kids are hers. We take care of each other. Because we have to. This place is so small that when terror strikes there’s no escaping it. No turning a callous eye. It’s in your face. For better or worse.

We imagine ourselves or our spouses at Cafe Hillel with our sons and daughters. The horror grips us because it is so possible. And we feel the pain – all of us – like family, not strangers. Deeply, internally, personally.

And then we move on. Because we have no other choice. Our children need us.

That’s how we do it.

The next time I’m interviewed in Chicago, I guess I know what I’ll say.

Thanks to radio journalist Dave Bender for arranging the interview with Steve and Johnnie. Click here to check out Dave's website and latest recordings.

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