Buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz

by | Oct 7, 2023

Shabbat morning, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah

It’s Saturday morning, Shabbat, but also the last day of the festival of Sukkot in Israel, called Shemini Atzeret and also Simchat Torah. This is the day we celebrate the greatest gift God gave to the Jewish people (and the world, really). I’m laying in bed and my phone begins to buzz – buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz. In my sleepy fog, I think to myself, “that’s weird, why is my phone buzzing on shabbat? But as the familiar 5 buzz pattern repeats itself over and over again, I am jolted into reality. That’s the alert that there are rockets headed into Israel. My “do not disturb” turns off at 7am every day, and so as the phone switched to normal mode the buzzing began. And it didn’t stop. As a Sabbath observant Jew, I don’t touch my phone on Shabbat, so I had no clue what was going on, and then I heard them – distant booms, one after another. I made my way to the living room where my husband was enjoying his coffee before heading off to Sabbath morning prayers. I mentioned the buzzing – and the booms, and he informs me that he’s been hearing them for at least half an hour.

The booms are the sounds of our “Iron Dome” defense system exploding the incoming rockets in the sky, well above our heads so that whatever lands has already been detonated. That doesn’t mean that they make us totally safe – falling pieces of rockets can kill, too. But, at least there won’t be an explosion on the ground where a much larger death toll would likely happen. Usually. When they launch hundreds of rockets at a time, the Iron Dome can’t possibly hit all of them. But by some miracle, it gets the vast majority of them, and the death toll is kept to a minimum. Usually.

Something is going on and I’m rather concerned. Especially as I head back to my bedroom to get dressed to the tune of buzz upon buzz upon buzz like the contractions of a birthing mother who has been induced and they forgot to turn down the medicine. Every minute or so another set of buzzes. I hurry and get dressed and make my way to the living room where I settle down with my cup of coffee and a book after kissing my husband goodbye as he heads off to prayer.

A short while later I hear someone with a walkie-talkie in the hallway of our apartment building. Someone is speaking on it. That’s weird, I think. No one would be carrying a walkie-talkie on Shabbat if it wasn’t a matter of life or death – one of the few things we are allowed to break the Sabbath for. Then I hear people out on the street – car doors. Wait. Car doors? No one opens up their car on the Sabbath, because it turns on the light, and also we don’t touch what we can’t use. But someone is opening car doors – so I look out my living room window. Beneath me I see my upstairs neighbor in back of a car with the trunk lid open. He’s getting something from the car while also talking on the walkie-talkie. My upstairs neighbor is a Rabbi, a very religious man. And he’s in the trunk of his car, and he’s talking on a walkie-talkie. I watch on. Next to him is standing a young man of about 20 or so with a rifle slung over his shoulder (that’s not terribly uncommon here in Israel), but he appears to be texting on his phone. A religious young yarmulka-clad man on the phone on Shabbat. Oh this can’t be good.

To quote star wars – because what else can you do at a time like this? I’m thinking, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

But I manage to pull myself away from the window as I hear rocket sirens in the distance. Not in my community, so I don’t need to go run to a safe room, but close enough that I expect ours to go off any minute. Then the booms – not distant booms – booms right over our heads, booms that shake the windows and make me want to run to the window to see if there are rocket remnants raining down. Nope, no rockets (whew). But what’s this?

A car drives up in front of our building and out comes my upstairs neighbor – the highly respected, religious, rabbi neighbor. He pops the trunk. His wife exits the apartment building holding a bundle of green clothes. Every Israeli knows that color green, but Israeli mothers know it like none other. It’s a pile of army uniforms. She throws them into the trunk of her car. Standing with my neighbors beside the car are three young adult males and an older teen girl. My neighbors, both the mother and father, begin to bless each of the boys – the blessing we give our children every Friday night, but also when they get married, and when we are sending them off into an unknown situation. As I’m watching the scene unfold, understanding hits me like a ton of bricks – they are preparing to send them off to battle. We must be at war.

Yes, it’s true that in one way or another, Israel is pretty much always in a state of war. But then there are those times that are different – when the rockets rain, or when there is a kidnapping – but even then, our young men women aren’t called up, and certainly not on shabbat. No, this is different.

As they are finishing up taking their turns at blessing their children, another young man, already in uniform with a gun slung over his shoulder walks up and joins them and the four young men get in the car and drive off. As they do, my neighbors hug and comfort their teenage daughter, who is clearly concerned for the safety of her brothers. My heart sinks to my stomach and the tears begin to flow.

What is going on?

Nearby sirens. Overhead booms. Then it’s our turn. I pick up my coffee and my book and go to my safe room. We are among the fortunate ones, our apartment has its own safe room and we live far enough away that we have a full 90 seconds to get ourselves into the room. The cat goes running at the sound of the siren – it’s really loud, and I’m really grateful that the speaker is so close there’s no sleeping through it, but the dog, I call him. He’s old, and going deaf and he doesn’t really move very quickly any more. Finally, He meanders into the hallway and looks up at me and then obeys and cautiously enters the room.

I quickly close and seal the window and the door and then sit down in my chair. Booms. But it’s not actually safe yet. I wait the required 10 minutes and leave. I go into my room and look at my phone without touching it. Just looking. I see a text message from our community. I can’t help myself at this point – if they’re messaging it must be important. I learn that we are at war (duh) and that Hamas has called all Arabs to rise up and destroy not only the country in general, but to attack communities. The council message explains that reservists have been called up, and those not called up but who can guard have been mobilized to protect the community.
A knock at the door.

I go to the door and it’s my daughter’s mother-in-law. Her son (my son-in-law) has been called up. My daughter and family, as well as my youngest son and his family, and my son-in-law’s parents all live in the same community as I do. My son is driving my son-in-law to his base, and he’s bringing a go-bag just in case he gets a call while he’s out. We hug and she goes to check on my daughter and our mutual grandchildren.

More sirens in the distance, more booms overhead, more buzzing. Buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz. Buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz.

Finally my husband comes home – holiday services are long. He grabs a bottle of water and some plastic cups and cryptically explains that our neighbor doesn’t have any water. What?

When he returns a few minutes later, he explains that our neighbor is stationed at an intersection by our apartment (with gun, of course) explaining to people what is happening and standing guard to make sure that nothing happens within our community. He’s not the only one, many men in our community heed the call and do their part.

It’s a long afternoon, much longer than the few hours left until the end of the Sabbath and the holiday. A nap? Sleep evades me. Worry has taken its place. After a little while my husband and I wander over to our daughter’s house. We notice our son’s car has returned so he stops there to find out what’s happening as I continue on to our daughter’s place. Some of the children are handling it better than others, the two youngest have no clue what’s going on, but they know their Abba isn’t there and it’s enough to disrupt everyone’s sense of “normal”. Everyone is out of sorts, everyone is on edge.

It turns out that my son was called up prematurely, so now he’s taking the time to pack a better-prepared bag for when the call comes. He’s not combat. He’s “Rabbanut” – his job comes after the combat. I won’t elaborate. Also, his unit is stationed up north, so unless we end up fighting on two fronts, he may or may not actually be called up. But at this point, who knows?

We all eat a light dinner together and then my son and daughter-in-law take their kids home because the whole situation is just too much for the kids. I hug my son, I hug him extra long, “just in case” and I tell him to stay safe. It’s more of a prayer than a command.

When the Sabbath is over, we head home and I open my phone. It’s much worse than I thought. I read that over 200 Israelis have died and there are at least 35 hostages. Hostages? Hamas staged the most coordinated attack in recent history and simultaneously attacked hundreds of young adults at a party in the desert, and infiltrated several southern communities, murdering and capturing civilians – mothers, babies, elderly – these are not military targets – these are people, ordinary people in their homes. Frightened people. People like me. The only difference? They live close to where the terrorists broke through our border. That’s it. Location, location, location – or should I just say “there but for the grace of God, go I?” There’s nothing to say at this point. Nothing but tears. And prayers.

And that’s just the first 13 hours.

Nothing but tears and prayers. And booms. And buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz.

Written by Penina Taylor

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I get up, get dressed, as usual. I get my coffee and sit down to work. One website…just one…no, I need to work. I try to work. But websites and LinkedIn profiles seem so trivial at the moment. I am so distracted.

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