Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Shabbat in Elon Moreh

With Shabbat (sabbath) swiftly approaching, and hundreds of religious pilgrims arriving in Elon Moreh, my host Chaim dragged me out of my room, his beard still dripping from his shower.
"There won't be room. We never have this many people."
Meeting up with Sasha on the way, I look out over Shechem, prominent in the Tanach, the Jewish Bible, but today entirely Arab.
"When we built the town swimming pool," Sasha tells me, "we hired some workers from Shechem. One day, during the construction, someone spray painted slurs where they were working. 'Death to Arabs' and such. Some of us were horrified. We grew up as Jews in Russia, and it reminded us of how the Goyim (Gentiles) used to treat us. A friend and I wrote an article for the town newspaper to explain how wrong this was. After all, we had even invited them into our village to work. Afterwards we went to the rabbi of our settlement, Rabbi Felix, to get his blessing for the article. We were in the middle of explaining our position to him when we froze. We both suddenly remembered that his daughter had been ambushed and murdered by Arab terrorists on the road to Ofra. We just couldn't ask him for this, not now, not so soon after his tragedy. Rabbi Felix asked us to continue, but we couldn't. So he finished for us. He told us that it was a mitzvah to write the article, that we had to write it, and gave us his blessing."
Arab workers don't come here any more. Security has gotten worse. It was at its worst on Pesach (Passover), March 30th, 2002. A terrorist infiltrated the settlement, entered the house of the Gavish family in the midst of holiday celebrations, and murdered four members of the family. The victims were taken from three different generations; Grandfather Yitzchak, parents David and Rachel, and son Avraham. Avraham's newborn baby daughter, Dariah, was rescued while the settlement security team killed the terrorist. After the attack, in what was taken as a sign of the triumph of life over death, it was realized that the name of the newborn, Dariah, was spelled Dalet-Resh-Yod-Alef, an acronym of the first names of the four victims.
That was during the worst of the dark days, the Intifadah. "During the Intifadah," Sasha tells me, "the shooting went on and on forever, every night, all night, for years. It got so bad that we would wake up suddenly in the middle of the night if there wasn't shooting."
Looking down the steep slopes, I see no fence. Which is strange, since every settlement has a fence. Right?
"Elon Moreh doesn't have a fence," Chaim says, "We thought about it. We brought it up with Rabbi Felix, but he was against it, and so are we. When Mosheh (Moses) sent the twelve spies into the Land of Israel for the first time, ten of them came back complaining. They said that the Canaanites had built walls around their cities. Our Torah sages tell us that this was a sign of weakness and fear. So there's no fence."
Pretty fierce words for a Russian shtetl Jew who looks like he walked out of a Chagall painting.
"How many soldiers do you need to protect this place?" I ask.
Chaim is amused at my startled look. Soldiers serving in the territories is one of the big gripes that many Israelis have about protecting such places. It's the "undue security burden" argument."We don't want soldiers. When a soldier comes here from Haifa or Tel Aviv, he's scared. He misses his mother. He wants to go home. We have a full-time security force of locals only. Eight men who live in the settlement, who believe in Eretz Yisrael. When a man defends his home, it gives him a greater fighting spirit."

When describing life on the settlement, specifically "relations" with the neighboring Arabs, I sense the same hesitance in my hosts that I have when discussing life in Israel with those who have never been here.
In my telecommuting job, using the same email address I used in the states, using a perfectly clear internet telephone connection at a local California phone number, most people have no idea I'm speaking from the opposite end of the Earth. Eventually, it comes up.
"Ok, Ephraim, I'll call you back at two this afternoon."
"I'm only in the office until noon.""How about two tomorrow?"
"No, I finish at noon every day."
"Whew! When do you start?"
"Two in the morning."
"What the? Wait a minute... where are you right now?"
"Jerusalem." Long pause.
"You mean like, in Israel? Not Jerusalem, Illinois or something?"
"The same."
Another long pause.
"Uh... did you go through any checkpoints today?"
From there, I have to take a ten minute break from being an engineer to take up my second job as a front-line reporter. No, I don't have a gun. No, I'm not afraid to ride the bus. No, I haven't heard any explosions. No shooting. No action. No, no, no... Sorry, but no.
At the same time, I can hear the level of anticipation in the caller's voice, and there is a natural tendancy to want to please the listener, to begin reciting a litany of terror attacks.
As a Pisgat Ze'ev immigrant from England put it, "Israel is a terrifying place when you're not here." To be honest, I have had my own fair share of close calls. I was once scheduled to meet a friend Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night, after Shabbat) at Kikar Tziyon (Zion Square) downtown, until he cancelled. When I returned home and turned on the television, a kamikazi Muslim had set off a bomb right in the square, exactly when we were supposed to meet, murdering dozens of innocents. My roommate's parent's coworker was murdered in a train bombing in Nahariya. But really, I've never seen anything too exciting, thank God, and I've never felt afraid to live here.

And in Elon Moreh, quite contrary to the nail-biting, code-red, Phillistines-at-the-gates atmosphere you might think would permiate such a place if you listened to the news, It's actually quite peaceful. Returning from our Shabbat prayers, Chaim tugs at my sleeve, making me stop at an overlook. The lights of Elon Moreh, and further down of Shechem, twinkle below us.
"I like to listen to the sounds. It's like music," he says.
Children's laughter, screams of playful toddlers, Shabbat songs, all drift over the hilltops on the breeze.
"You can see at least fifteen settlements from here," Chaim says, pointing out at evenly spaced rows of brown chloro-iodide street lamps crowning the hilltops. Easily differentiated from the jumble of buildings in Shechem below, thrown down at random. The eye searches through Shechem for the straight lines of freeways, overpasses, avenues, but everythign is skewed and crooked, as if somebody set off a bomb in their minds.
"You enjoyed the davening (prayers,)" he asks me.
"Yes." It had been crowded. Hundreds stuffed inside and even more overflowing outdoors. A hurricane of power in the room, "The man standing next to me davened very strong. I felt like he had a lot of energy."
"That was Rabbi Felix."
It's a terrible price he had to pay for this place. He, the Gavishes, and too many others. But the mere existance of such a place is a miracle of blood, sweat, and faith.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for very vivid and riveting narratives, Cousin Blogger. Keep them up.

Your cousin,
Larry Schooler
Austin, TX

Ephraim said...

Thanks Cousin.

Doin' my best to keep the world up to date here.