It was late morning Tuesday–nightfall in Israel–when I phoned my cousins in Rishon Lezion, Israel’s fourth largest city. I’d just returned home from a marathon family visit six days earlier, and I wanted to check in amid the escalating Israeli-Hamas conflict.
“A bomb went off about 10 minutes ago. It was very, very loud, something very close,” cousin Haim told me, no panic in his voice. Of course the basement of the cozy townhouse he shares with his wife of more than 40 years contains the requisite safe room, complete with gas masks and other survival gear.
But at 75, and with ailments that keep him tethered to a large tank of oxygen, he couldn’t scamper down into the deepest protective recesses. Instead he took refuge in the stairwell leading to the cellar, joined by his beloved Carmela, and Kumar, the Indian-born, live-in home care aide who is now fluent in Hebrew.
“We don’t know exactly where it hit. Sometimes they tell us a few minutes after, but sometimes they won’t say,” Carmela noted, implying she’s fine with any news blackout that protects Israeli security. I gave them all my love, as each insisted, “we’ll be all right.”
I fervently hope so. Even as we spoke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had peeled off President Obama’s Asia trip try to get Arab and Israeli leaders to craft a cease-fire, to get Israel to stop the retaliatory pounding of its foes from the air, or worse yet, opt for a ground war while Gaza militants aligned with Hamas launch rockets into Israel.
This time last week, I was your basic clueless tourist on my third Holy Land trip in four years. Through the dumb luck of early bookings, I enjoyed a few peaceful days in Tel Aviv before the first rockets landed, then passed a pleasant weekend in Jerusalem and left the country right before a barrage of Hamas missiles sent millions to shelters in both cities for the first time in decades. (As a total wimp, I’ll admit that when the end comes, I’d rather give it up in my own zip code and my own native tongue).
I had gone to Israel this time do more research on what I’ve taken to calling my alleged memoir, including first-hand stories from a dwindling number of Polish-born cousins in their 70s and 80s from our once-large clan of Jews wiped out by Hitler. We are the fortunate ones, my parents and others of their kin who managed to skirt everything from poverty and what they deemed a constricting Orthodox upbringing to murderous Nazis, collaborationist Poles and/or Communist oppressors. The surviving cousins managed to leave Warsaw before, during and after World War II, and I remain riveted by their long-ago tales of luck, pluck, loss and hope.
Politically, I didn’t know what to expect on this trip. Since the cousins range from hawkish right to dovish left, I try never to discuss Israeli or American foreign and domestic affairs with them, despite occasional goading. But things were heating up in this volatile region. Five weeks before I left Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was at the United Nations with his “red line” warning, exhorting this country to take a hard line against Iran. There was talk of an Obama snub in New York, and White House denials of same.
I hit Tel Aviv the day before our own elections, in which as many as 80,000 absentee votes were cast by Americans living in Israel, most of them for Republican Mitt Romney. With Obama’s decisive victory came speculation of who might run against Netanyahu in January, and whether his support for Romney would cost him dearly with this White House, or even cost him reelection altogether.
I tried to go about my business divorced from the seemingly insoluble, age-old conflict inside this tiny country where I do not speak, read or write three of the four main languages — Hebrew, Arabic and Russian — though English is widely, if not universally spoken.
I hopped buses and trains to interview the handful of relatives who could still tell me about life in the Old Country and their new homeland. I came too late for others. Once voluble cousin Shuka was close to silence at 88, so all I could do was hold the hand of the man who at age 10 was put on a boat alone to Palestine (it was 1934, well before Israeli independence) to live with relatives until his widowed mother arrived to reclaim him a year later. I went to Rishon LeZion three times to see Carmel, Haim and his older sister Hava, and to re-visit the Tiv Tam, a supermarket with quite the senior citizens’ singles scene at the dance club in the bar and cafe in the rear of the store.
I was eager to hang out with sculptor-writer Richard Shiloh, whose father had fought the Nazis as a Red Army officer in the Soviet Union, resettled for a time in Warsaw before taking his family to Israel in the 1950s. But Richard, whom I’d only discovered in 2009, died tragically six months ago in a motorcycle accident at age 65. His widow Ilana took me to several towns to see his work — from a dramatic Moses and a soaring athlete in Ramla where they lived — to whimsical animals at a children’s park in Holon. (His most famous work might just be the “Ophir,” Israel’s Oscar).
Other cousins took me to see Richard’s giant bronze roadside Elvis in Neve Ilan on the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and I went alone to view “Struggling Man” in the garden of the presidential residence in Jerusalem. Now home to Shimon Peres, the compound is five blocks from the apartment of cousin Lihi, a psychology professor. It was she who e-mailed me last Friday after scrambling to avoid injury from an incoming missile. “So now we had a siren announcing a rocket in Jerusalem and had to go down four floors to our shelter :) I am not really worried but this means escalation.”
Shortly after I got off the phone with Haim and Carnela yesterday, she sent me this follow-up: “Check your cousins in Rishon. There was a terrible hit there. A rocket ‘shaved’ 2-3 stories off a huge building.”
All the cousins insist they are fine, though. For now.
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com reporter and columnist who writes about politics, culture and design. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Town & Country and More. And she is still at work on her alleged memoir.