ook,” I say to my seven-year-old son. “There’s a rooster.”
We’re in Ashdod for Shabbos, celebrating my nephew’s bar mitzvah, staying on a yeshivah campus. It’s just after Krias HaTorah and we’re sitting outside the caravan-cum-shul, basking in the gentle warmth of the sun. The sweet sound of the bar mitzvah boy’s clear and confident leining lingers in the air; the sweet taste of the candies we threw lingers in the children’s mouths.
The orange-and-red rooster pecks at the grass. My son follows it as it meanders along the path. They both disappear around the corner.
Then there’s an air-raid siren.
It takes a second for the sound to register. A missile attack? Must be a mistake.
I look at my sister-in-law’s white face and widened eyes. “Azakah,” she cries. “Lamerchav mugan.”
A siren. To the protected space. The bomb shelter.
I jump up. Lift one of my two-year-old twin daughters, grab the other one’s hand.
“Tamar!” I bark at my five-year-old daughter. “Quickly! Come!”
But where is the bomb shelter?
“To the rooms! To the rooms!” I hear someone shout, frantic.
There’s a mamad, a fortified room, in every apartment in the yeshivah’s guest house.
But it’s impossible to get there in time. The rooms are a few minutes’ walk away.
We see men running, talleisim flapping after them in the wind. We run after them, to the makeshift bomb shelters set up behind the shul. Squeeze between concrete slabs to get inside.
The siren stops wailing.
A false alarm, I think with relief. It stopped so soon.
Then I remember that we’re in the south of the country. In Ashdod. Here, there’s only 45 seconds to get to safety.
Oh, G-d, this isn’t a false alarm. This is real!
Where are my other children?
My seven-year-old who was following the rooster?
My nine-year-old, in shul with my husband?
My husband? My husband?
I’m going to cry.
I see my husband in the crush of people.
“Where’s Yair? Where’s Yoni?” I ask him.
“Yair’s here.” He pats my son’s head. “You have the girls?”
“Yes! Where’s Yoni?”
“Yoni?” His face pales.
We scan the crowded shelter.
“He was following a rooster,” I say. “Maybe he didn’t see where we went?”
“How long do we have to stay in here for?” someone asks.
“Ten minutes,” someone else answers.
My husband looks at me. Shakes his head. “I’m going to look for him,” he says.
There’s an agonizing second where we both silently debate whether that’s a wise course of action. Ten minutes aren’t up yet. There’s danger of injury or death from falling shrapnel.
My husband leaves.
I clutch my toddlers close to me.
“Are you okay?” my mother-in-law asks me.
“We can’t find Yoni,” I tell her. “Avi went to look for him.”
“We can leave now,” someone announces.
We squeeze out and go back to shul. Everyone is hugging everyone, making sure all are okay.
My husband appears, holding Yoni by the hand.
His face lit with a smile, but his eyes, those mesmerizing dark chocolate eyes with their thick lashes, are glistening.
“Yoni,” I gasp. “Here you are! Are you okay?”
He moves his head up and down.
“Where were you?”
“I found him in the mamad in our apartment,” my husband says.
“Someone said go to the rooms,” Yoni explains. “So I ran there. When I got to the stairs, the azakah stopped. I walked slowly up the stairs so I wouldn’t fall. And I said Shir Hamaalos.”
I’m awed by his bravery. His quick thinking.
“Yoni, you’re a gibor,” I say as I embrace him. “You did the exactly the right thing. You went to the mamad and you said Tehillim. You’re a hero.”
He’s a reluctant hero. He won’t leave my side the rest of the day. Nor sleep by himself during our Shabbos afternoon shluf.
“I couldn’t close the door of the mamad properly,” he tells me. “And I called out, ‘Ima.’ Where were you? I thought the missile got you. I was so scared. I cried.”
I hug him and reassure him and rub his back.
There’s another siren in the afternoon. Yair is in the park at the time.
I’m in bed. One twin is asleep next to me, the other making mischief at the hallway sink. We’re in the mamad in record time. I slide the metal window shade shut, my husband pulls the heavy door closed.
It’s pitch-black when we do that.
After ten minutes, we emerge. I look out the window at the park, wonder how Yair is faring.
I see my sister- and brother-in-law crossing the road with a gaggle of children. I see Yair with them, and when he gets back, he recounts how they lay on the ground next to a wall, hands over their heads, my sister- and brother-in-law over them.
“Were you scared?” I ask him.
“A little,” he says with a smile.
We don’t let the security situation spoil the rest of the day. Resist the temptation to ask the Indian foreign worker sitting outside to give us a news report. Try to remain in the cocoon of Shabbos, of the simchah.
We sing and dance during Seudah Shlishis, make a human train across the dining room, weaving between the tables. After Havdalah, we hear of the 250 missiles and counting raining down on the South. We tremulously pack the car and again debate the best course of action: stop the car on the highway in the dark and get out if there is a siren or continue driving toward our home in Beit Shemesh? We decide on the latter.
I stay strong until Sunday night. Until I hear of the young father in Ashdod killed in the stairwell of his building as he ran to safety. Of the car on the street outside that went up in flames as it was hit by falling shrapnel.
I feel nauseous. The fluorescent lights are too bright, my children’s voices too loud. I breathe in deeply and slowly. I thank Hashem that He kept us safe and beg Him to protect all of Am Yisrael.
Then as suddenly as it began, it finishes.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad declare a ceasefire.
Is this how it works? I wonder. They determine the rules of the game, they’re the referees and the players?
I think of a line in my grandmother a”h’s memoir: “The Hungarians were playing football with the Czechoslovakian Jews.” She’s referring to the many internments and releases she endured as a Jew in Hungarian-occupied Czechoslovakia, until the Hungarians finally handed them over to the Nazis, who then deported them to Auschwitz.
Our enemies may think we’re footballs to be tossed about.
Sitting ducks, to be aimed at, taken down with rifles on the banks of the River Danube, in the pews of shuls in Pittsburgh and Poway.
But I know the truth.
The secret of our resilience. Of our survival.
I heard it from Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis a”h, herself a Hungarian Holocaust survivor.
The Jewish people are like roosters. L’hagid baboker chasdecha, v’emunasecha balailos.
No matter how dark the night, we know morning will always come, and we get up before sunrise to herald it.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 642)
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