Monday, June 16, 2003

The Waiting

The hardest part is the waiting.

After last Wednesday’s suicide bomb attack on the 14 bus in Jerusalem, we went into waiting mode. Waiting for news. Waiting for names.

The 14 is a particularly emotional bus line for us. It travels from the center of town to the center of Southern Jerusalem via Emek Refaim Street, continuing on into the Talpiot Industrial Zone. Amir would have taken the 14 to junior high in the fall if he had continued on at the school where he is now (as you may recall, he was accepted to Hartman which is within walking distance from home).

As the news filtered in, I tried to imagine who I knew who might have been riding home to our neighborhood at 5:30 PM, the hour chosen by the bomber and his handlers to be the most destructive. Did any of our friends work downtown? Go shopping in the Mahane Yehuda market specifically on Wednesdays?

By now, of course, we’ve perfected the ritual: the ambulances arrive within minutes. So do the Zaka volunteers who begin searching for body parts in accordance with Jewish law. Within hours the families will be notified and the funeral times announced on the radio news.

The morning paper will already have prepared a small passport photo of each of the dead, along with one or two paragraphs trying in vain to sum up an entire life. Just waiting for all the names to be officially released.

The radio stations play their own waiting game. After any attack, they switch to their “sad songs” playlist, which consists of old Pioneer songs, vintage Shlomo Artzi and Sting. At some point, a judgment call is made that says it’s now OK to go back to the usual raucous rock and rap. The waiting period seems to have gotten shorter and shorter. Have we become insensitive after so much pain? Or just that much more resilient?

Waiting used to have such different meanings.

We'd wait to hear test results: Did I pass or not? Is it a boy or a girl? Benign or malignant?

We'd wait for a response: Did I get the job? Will she marry me? How long will the flight be delayed?

Waiting is what I remember most when Marla died.

I had just returned from a month in the States and a few days stopover in Amsterdam. After my redeye flight landed and I had collected my luggage at Ben Gurion, my cell phone rang. It was my father-in-law.

Marla, he said, was missing.

Missing, why?

Hadn’t I heard? There was a terror attack at Hebrew University the day before.

No, I hadn’t heard. I had been frolicking in the sweltering humidity and decadent haze of the Netherland’s wickedest city.

“The State Department called asking for her dental records. It doesn’t look good,” he said.

That had already been hours ago and Marla’s family had been waiting, living with the uncertainty since the day before.

It was 6:00 AM when I arrived home. I had carefully scripted a plan to sleep a few hours before heading back to work after a long absence.


I tossed and turned, hoping, praying. And waiting.

When I got out of bed, less refreshed than when I climbed in, I mounted the stairs to my home office, sat at my computer and logged on. There was her name. In the scrolling updates bar at the top of the Haaretz website. Just like that.

The wait was over.

But it never ends. Not really. This country is so small, so close-knit, that no matter if the next attack (and there always seems to be a “next” attack) is in Jerusalem, Netanya, Mombassa or Mumbai, there is always the heavy potential for personal connection.

Ironically, it’s one off the things we love the most about this place.

When I go on a plane out of Israel, I always know a few people. It’s uncanny: six million Israelis and I invariably bump into someone I know at the airport or two rows ahead.

When an Israeli driver passes you on the highway, he’ll always turn his head to look at you, to check you out. I used to think it was intrusive, the kind of invasion of privacy you’d never imagine from North Americans, where the etiquette is the polar opposite: always stare straight ahead.

Now I know the Israeli is just looking to see if he knows you. And the chances are pretty good.

Up until fairly recently, I used to take the kids out for pizza every Friday. We'd hold court at our regular table on the sidewalk and greet what seemed to be an endless stream of friends and acquaintances.

Marla was almost always among the passers-by. We waited for her, and I'm sure she just as eagerly looked forward to our weekly high-five.

The notification this time came early Wednesday evening. Via the Internet, just like with Marla. An email arrived informing us that one the members of our synagogue, Alan Beer, a recent immigrant from Cleveland, was among those killed on the 14 bus. Now our community had been hit twice directly. And many times more indirectly.

It has always been one of my most sanctified beliefs, my most clinged-to defense mechanism, that lightning never strikes twice. That once you’ve lost someone close, it can’t happen to you again. Or to your community of friends and worshippers.

But that, apparently, is not the way it works.

Two days later, as I was busily slathering the lachmaniyot with margarine and tuna (not together) for the kids' lunches, the 7:00 AM news carried a report that the army spokesman was warning the coming week would be a “very difficult one” due to the sheer number of terror warnings.

And so we continue to wait. For the next time.

And pray. For the last time.

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