Wednesday, April 28, 2010

National Psychosis

ere in Israel, we suffer from a sort of national psychosis. We live with fear and anxiety on a regular basis. We go about the daily act of living knowing that any moment, tragedy could change the tenor of our lives forever.

But no one could really function like that. You can't make tuna sandwiches, hang laundry, balance your checkbook, drive your kids to their piano lessons, or shop for groceries while expecting the sky to fall on a continual basis a la Chicken Little. It won't work. The asylums would run out of room and there would be no one left to administer them.

So we Israelis learn to bury those feelings. The feelings remain just under the surface of the everyday man/woman and lie in wait in a state of deep submersion.

Shoot me for heresy now, but this is the reason I do not believe that just anyone can live in Israel and I don't pressure my American friends to drop their lives and come live here. Not everyone can live like this. We don't all possess such flexible psyches that have the ability to switch emotions on and off as need be, in order to cope with day-to-day functioning.

Of course, as an American-born, middle class Jew, I had the luxury and privilege of choice. Not everyone can choose where to live. I chose to pledge my troth with Israel knowing full well I didn't have to do so.

It helps that I am a Litvak, a Jew of Lithuanian heritage. We Litvaks are known for being cold and unemotional. The truth is, perhaps we just internalized our emotions way back when in Eastern Europe Pogrom-Land, in the same manner as Israelis must do today. My Litvak personality is expressed in sarcastic, glib humor and in the way I do not like chick flicks. It takes a great deal to make me cry.

When I was thrown out of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, my mother was called in for a meeting with the principal at that time, Rabbi Lerner. He described how punishment seemed to evoke no response from me. He pointed to an ashtray on his desk and said to my mother, "Your daughter has no more emotion than this jade ashtray on my desk."

My mother was very upset, but since she is also a Litvak, she held her counsel and resolved that even if the school were to allow my return, she would not ever want me there again.

Rabbi Lerner was wrong. I felt the anger of my teachers at those times. It hurt. But I knew that they were trying to break me. It was a contest of wills. I was not someone they could break. I was a human being and not a horse.

Now I am an Israeli. You cannot break me no matter how much terror you throw at me. I will not leave. You cannot make me. You can't have my land, no matter what you do to me. You can bring the entire force of European and American opinion against me and it will not matter.

Yet, this morning I woke up to the sound of an airplane flying much too low. I didn't become frightened, I waited. This is how it goes. The beginnings of tragedy knock on the door and you wait to see how it evolves. You don't react right away.

I waited. And more planes flew overhead. I thought: this is it--we're in a war. Something has happened with Iran. I had been aroused to full wakefulness. I waited some more.

And then it was over. No more planes. No sirens going off, no rush to retrieve gas masks, no need to rouse the children and hustle them into the mamad--the "sealed room" that every apartment in Israel must contain by law. I turned over and went back to sleep.

This happens all the time. The feelings rear their heads whenever necessary--the time the cops descended on a female suicide bomber three people away from me in the line going into the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, the time I heard footsteps too close behind me in a silent alley, the time there was a bombing at the Machane Yehuda souk right around the time I knew my husband would be shopping there, or the time the bus driver got suspicious about a potential passenger trying to board--and then recede as if they had never been there. Israeli adrenaline is under strict control and can be summoned or bid farewell at will.

It's called the fight or flight response. But in Israel, the response has been honed and fine-tuned to a masterful point.


  1. Too complicated for me.

    I'm here because we are supposed to be here. What happens is part of the hand we are dealt. We hope to be worthy of God's protection.

  2. great blog varda. Hashem should protect all the Jews wherever they live.

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  4. Where are Sidney Poitier and those nuns when you need 'em?