Wednesday, February 11, 2004

All Shook Up

When the house shook this morning, I thought: oh no, not again. Not another café blowing up five minutes from where I live.

But the shaking didn’t fit the usual pattern. It lasted too long (20 seconds) and I didn’t hear a boom. There was no smoke rising, no sirens in the air.

Within a few minutes, the news was already reporting that an earthquake had hit Israel and could be felt as far away as Jordan and Syria. Centered just north of the Dead Sea, the quake measured 5 on the Richter scale.

No sooner had the momentary panic subsided then I marveled at how ironic our day to day reality has become. There are new terror alerts sometimes hourly, the last two weeks has seen the entire country thrown into chaos by striking local authority workers, and the world media continues to vilify us even as anti-Semitism rises to levels not seen since the 1930s.

And now we have earthquakes. What’s next? Frogs? Boils? Darkness? How much more do we have to take?

For most Israelis, though, the thought of an earthquake may be a little scary but it’s still more of a novelty. If anything, it’s a chance to think about something other than the regular news.

The media tried to make the most of it.

“Yaron, you’re in Ramat Aviv, in one of Israel’s tallest buildings, right?” the radio announcer intoned in his most serious voice.


“How did it feel to be so high up.”

“Well, I only live on the third floor.”

“Oh…well you must be scared. Have you evacuated the building yet?”

“No, I’m talking to you from my living room.”


“We turn now to Assaf in the Emergency Room at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Assaf, are you seeing any injured, any people suffering from trauma?”

“No, not really.”

Click. Click.

My wife Jody and I have a very different relationship to earthquakes than the average Israeli. We both moved to Israel from California – the center of earthquake country. Coming to Israel was supposed to be a relief.

You see, growing up, earthquakes were our terror. We lived in dread, maybe not on the same level as we do now in Israel, but the worry was always there, underlying our daily concerns and activities. Still, it wasn’t until 1989 that we experienced The Big One. The Loma Prieta quake topped 7.1 and caused extensive damage: buildings were condemned, freeways needed to be torn down.

Jody and I were living in Berkeley at the time. On the day of the quake, we were supposed to get together with friends across the Bay in San Francisco. I planned to meet Jody there a little late since I was working and Jody had the day off.

When the earth started to move, I knew that Jody was probably already on her way. She should have been, by my calculations, about half way across the Bay Bridge. I headed out from the office, though I wasn’t even sure if the roads were going to be open. That’s when I heard the news: the center of the Bay Bridge had collapsed. Cars had gone tumbling down, there were reports of deaths.

I was beside myself. What if Jody was crossing into the City at that exact moment? This was in the days before cell phones, so there was no way to be in contact. Not that the lines would have worked anyway.

I raced home. No Jody. I really started to panic now. Indeed, I had done a real number on myself and was convinced that my wife of only a little more than a year, the mother of my children-to-be, was gone.

For some reason, I decided to drive over to the synagogue. Maybe to look for consolation.

Now, one thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that the quake occurred during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot during which Jews are commanded to eat their meals in temporary outdoor "booths." We had planned on dining with our friends in San Francisco, but Jody decided she was too hungry and so she stopped by the shul’s sukka to wolf down a quick sandwich.

When I walked into the synagogue, there she was. A little shaken but with all her limbs intact. It was as poetic a reunion as you can imagine. To this day, I credit the Jewish calendar with delaying Jody’s journey onto the bridge just long enough to save her life.

While this morning’s earthquake in Israel was nowhere near as dramatic, the geologists warn us not to get too complacent. We’re due for a Big One of our own. The last major quake in Israel in 1927 registered a sizable 6.3 on the Richter scale and wiped out nearly the entire Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Safed in the northern Galilee.

It’s been several hours now since the quake and there have been no aftershocks to speak of. By tomorrow, it will be business as usual: the garbage men are threatening to join the strike that has paralyzed much of Israel, Jewish schools in Paris will be burned by new antisemites, and there will of course be more warnings of terror attacks.

But for a brief moment, an act of God - not men - took our minds off our more prosaic concerns. For that, I suppose, we ought to be thankful. Not enough to wish for more earthquakes. But enough to recognize the unique dynamic that is life in Israel.

Not to mention being reminded of the importance of the Jewish calendar!

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