E-mails Between Katyushas

Posted: Jul 24, 2006 12:01 AM
E-mails Between Katyushas

In the middle of another century, when we were both teenagers in a Zionist youth group, his name was Jerrold. Now it's Ya'akov and he's the patriarch of a large family in Israel.

Ya'akov and I went our separate ways long ago. He's now retired as the director of a university library, where he still helps out on occasion, and I'm still scribbling away for a newspaper.

Now and then I hear from Ya'akov, Jerrold, when the missiles are flying in those parts, and I've sent him an e-mail inquiring after his health, safety and nerves. His replies are models of brevity - and assurance:

"We're in Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv and far enough north of Gaza to not be a target. Our life goes on as usual. Tomorrow I go into Tel Aviv to work at the university, but they seem to think that rockets able to reach there aren't a problem yet. I well remember the first Gulf War when I was library director and in charge of preparing our building for a possible rocket attack. Life is never dull here."

Life is never dull here. Jerrold always was a model of good cheer and understatement.

The e-mails I get from Israeli friends display the same mix of homey detail and historical crisis. They always get me thinking of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in "Mrs. Miniver" dealing simultaneously with a world war and a used sports car, the Blitz and a flower show, air raid shelters and the servant problem - all with the same British reserve.

Another friend, whom I haven't known nearly as long, is a professorial type who writes from the University of Haifa, where my daughter spent a spring as a resident assistant helping new immigrants get settled in as students.

A picturesque port city, "the Naples of the Mediterranean," Haifa is in the middle of it these Katyusha-rocked days, but the professor, who lives there with his wife and daughter, remains his charming, curmudgeonly self. It seems the Katyushas keep interrupting him while he's trying to read a student's Ph.D. thesis on Maimonides, the great Jewish thinker of medieval times:

"Since I wrote last, Haifa has been hit by 3 or 4 (can't keep track) rocket attacks, each one consisting of 4-6 rockets. Each time the sirens go off we meet our neighbors in the hallway of the apartment building and listen together for the booms of the explosions. This experience is rapidly losing its appeal, to put it mildly.

"It took a few minutes for the news to come on the radio and TV (from the perspective of the Tel Avivians who run the media in this country, Haifa is some exotic place only technically in Israel) and we found out that six rockets had fallen in the Haifa area, and that there are no reports of damage or injury, thank God. We heard none of the booms, so the rockets apparently fell into the sea or a considerable distance from here.

"FLASH! From the next room I can hear Jolene and Rivka consoling themselves over this further scare by watching Oprah on TV."

I particularly appreciated the way the professor talks about those uppity media types in Tel Aviv, much the way we unstylish red-staters talk about those talking heads in New York or Washington.

My professional friend did lose his equanimity when he heard that one of the Katyushas fell near a favorite restaurant: "Now that I take personally, for the following reason. One of the many advantages of living in Haifa is that one need not invest a lot of effort in choosing restaurants, since there are so few kosher ones. One of our favorites, while strictly kosher, is staffed almost entirely by Arabs, who really know how to be hospitable (Jewish waiters in Israel are usually teenagers; enough said); the place is owned by Jews, the maitre d' and most or all of the staff are Arabs, and the patrons (Jews and Arabs) are willing to subject themselves to kosher food. In short, the restaurant is Israel the way it could be, if our neighbors would only allow it. Oh, and the food is also pretty good . . . ."

You can almost picture Walter Pidgeon harrumphing parenthetically while puffing on his pipe as the bombs fall and everyone keeps a stiff upper lip.

Surely, somewhere in Beirut or Baalbek, a professor of Arabic studies is trying to check out a student's Ph.D. thesis on the great Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun while grumbling about the air raids cutting into his reading time. He and my friend would probably get on famously - if only they were allowed to.

As my mother, who knew something of living through a war, might put it in one of her wry moments, which were frequent: Life is beautiful - if they would just let you live.