Letter from Israel: On Gas Masks and Belonging

- | 8

The cockroaches in Tel Aviv are nuclear-apocalypse huge. How adorable, how terribly petite the roaches of New York seem to me now. In a million years, the spacemen who descend to this place will find only styrofoam cups and the hard-shelled family living under my sink. I am a coward. Afraid to get close, I kill them with a chemical spray. They fall from the wall or garbage bin, thud. They heave madly in tortured circles, stopped by convulsions that come at smaller and smaller increments, cramming themselves into the ground as if to disappear. Their stomachs bulge and seep out. After they die — or as they are dying — their feelers twitch, twitch, twitch.

This was the month for gas masks in Israel. Fearing that Assad might use his sarin-bearing rockets on Israel next, those who did not yet have gas masks picked one up at the post office. Every outlet reported it, and every lede was the same: “Long lines and high tensions in Israel today as civilians obtain gas masks from local distribution centers…” I don’t have a gas mask. I’m not a citizen, and therefore not eligible for a free gas mask from the post office. I can buy one for — 400 sheckels — a bit over $100 from a war profiteer. That’s a month’s worth of groceries, nearly, but not quite a prohibitive cost. Still, I don’t buy one. “Assad’s not that crazy, don’t give it another thought,” says my Hebrew teacher, rolling her eyes. Then almost as an afterthought, “But pick one up anyway.”

An American friend of mine, perhaps trying to console me regarding my lack of mask, tells me that the Israeli gas mask kits lack the antidote for the specific nerve gas — sarin — present in Syrian weapons. He also reminds me that during World War I, soldiers used alternate methods to survive gas attacks. He is right: it is a proud element of Canadian history that one of our own boys figured out you could survive a mustard gas attack if you covered your mouth with a cloth soaked in your own urine. I’m saved! He laughs. We are on a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Thursday (Israel’s Friday) and the bus is filled with soldiers coming home for the weekend. Everyone is sleeping. Soldiers are always sleeping. And after the conversation, my friend and I sit in silence, and I wonder how small the gas masks come. Do they make them for toddlers? For newborns?

I have someone here. He is in the Israeli Army and so he is away a lot. Please get your mask, he begs me. If things get hot — this is how he talks — if things get hot you will not be able to reach me. He tells me if worse comes to worst I can go to his widowed grandfather, who now has an extra mask. What are you doing here? I want to ask him. You should be a camp counselor in rural Vermont. He is worried about his girlfriend jury-rigging a gas mask with her own pee; he is worried about the extra chemicals weapons training courses this new situation might entail. I am picturing him teaching children to canoe. I live in a country without civilians. Everyone I know has the same green khaki duffle bag. It’s usually sitting on top of her closet: out of the way but easy to reach. It is kind of natty looking, actually. Madewell would sell it for $278 as a Weekender Duffle in Hunter Green. But it’s the bag they take with them on reserve duty. I actually do not know what is inside because I am too embarrassed to ask. I would guess that it is a uniform, boots, underwear, socks, toothbrush, a few granola bars, maybe some expired pepper spray for the ladies. And under his bed, everyone has a cardboard box with a gasmask and antidotes.

“You do have a gas mask, don’t you?” the mother of a friend, Naama, asks me timidly. I say I do not and she shifts uncomfortably. “But you must get one. They are free! Just go to the post office.” I say I will. It is Rosh Hashanah — literally head of the year — and soon she and I will walk to temple together. There are no cars on the street, in observance of the holiday. Women in long skirts, trailed by children, carry shopping bags with their prayer books. There must be some religious prohibition against carrying a purse. During this month of holy days — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simhat Torah — you see what a Jewish State looks like. All over the world, the Jewish holidays occupy a comfortable peripheral position. Before Yom Kippur, you tell your boss you will soon be fasting, so he should be extra nice to you. If you work at a sleek magazine, as I did, it’s not so different from brutal juice cleanses endeavored by the white-toothed editorial assistants. I never found this (the lack of publicly observed Jewish holidays) alienating (the juice cleanses certainly). I experienced Judaism as a vaguely nostalgic activity set apart from daily life. That is, I experienced it as apolitical. Not so in Israel.

On High Holy Days such as Rosh Hashanah, even in godless Tel Aviv, there is no public transportation, nobody works, no shops are open. You walk to temple or, if that’s not your thing, go for a bike ride on quiet streets. In temple, Naama leans over to me and whispers, “Soon we will go la-ritzpah.” (Soon we will go to the floor.) And we do, first to our knees then bringing our foreheads to the ground, a motion familiar from seeing Islamic men at prayer. It is a gesture of total obeisance during which I felt, counter-intuitively, free. Afterwards, I asked her how often one goes la-ritzpah. Twice a year, she says: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sometimes, in the Hebrew Bible, God reinforces commands by reminding the Israelites that they were Pharaoh’s slaves. Freed from Egypt, they now belong to God. Surrender, selection, and complete belonging — all present in this act of genuflection.

The threat of a chemical weapons attack from Syria passes. But living here requires some level of preparedness, and I know I should go buy a mask. Instead I sulk righteously. In Israel, it is perfectly acceptable to ask a stranger if she is a Jew, and I get asked every day. “My father is,” I say, as if conceding a point. This results in a stranger, with great excitement, explaining to me that I am in fact not a Jew at all because the religion is matrilineal. I say the same thing every time: “That is very interesting.”

The State of Israel defines Jewishness as having one or more Jewish grandparent. My gentile mother is one hell of a lawyer, and has reviewed the terms of the Law of Return carefully with me. This law grants any Jew the right to live and work in Israel — immigrating or obtaining various visas. However, a substantial chunk of public life in Israel is overseen by an Orthodox rabbinate. This creates more than a little tension regarding who is Jewish and what being a Jew means. So, when I desperately need a work visa to stay in the country, I find myself in the Ministry of the Interior, biting my nails while a hard-faced Russian-Israeli named Anya or some such reviews my visa materials. She is reading my “proof of Judaism” — a letter from the rabbi heading the congregation where my father was Bar Mitzvahed. She is frowning. My shoulders begin to droop when her colleague, a traditionally-dressed Orthodox Jewish woman in a headcovering, leans in and read my letter over Anya’s shoulder. I breathe in sharp. “Give her the visa, Anya.” Exhale. Anya looks incredulous and starts to protest. Headcovering clucks in slight impatience, Anya prints out my visa on peach colored paper and sticks it into my passport.

I got my visa. I’m in. However, the waiting room is filled with people who will not get visas that day. There are tens of thousands of refugees from the African world in Israel. The majority have no official status in this country, which as far as I have heard, does not even bother to process their asylum applications. There is no mechanism for their absorption, and no room in Israel’s national narrative for their voices. They escape Eritrea or Sudan, survive refugee camps in Egypt, sneak through fences into Israel, and fold sheets for under-the-table pay at Tel Aviv seafront hotels. Some of them have escaped torture camps in Sinai, as was reported earlier this year on NPR’s This American Life. They do not have gas masks. Many undocumented refugees live in the area around the Central Bus Station, meaning, many live in the park near the station. Thin black bodies sprawled on the grass and on benches. This is where you come when you fall through the cracks. I have debated writing this part, because to me it is obvious that it is embarrassing to spell out. It is this: There is absolutely room for these refugees in the story of Israel. All throughout the Bible, the experience of slavery in Egypt is used to engender compassion and humane treatment of the most vulnerable peoples in the population. As well as being reminded that they were slaves in Egypt, the Israelites are reminded that they were “strangers” there. So what I don’t understand, what I refuse to understand, is why this story — one of the oldest and most beautiful in the world — cannot inspire the most compassion, the most open arms, the most justice. Shouldn’t Israel be the most desirable place to be a stranger, not one of the hardest? I say this to Israeli friends, who agree that there is something very wrong going on, but who also remind me that Israel sits on the gateway to Africa. “We cannot just open our gates,” one tells me, “and remain a Jewish State.” There are theories that posit all national narratives are a dangerous fantasy, whose instability can only be remedied by cruelty and violence. I do not want it to be true.

As for me, I will borrow $100 from my mom, and I will get a gas mask. It will sit in a brown cardboard box under my bed just like the one under Naama’s bed, and Anya’s bed. Brown cardboard boxes under the beds of everyone I know. Outside the central bus station, men with deeply scarred backs will lie on park benches and wonder where their sisters are. And as I am falling asleep, someone I love will text me, Did you get the mask?

Photo courtesy of the author.