A bus was bombed in Jerusalem, someone whispers to me, so the interview will have to wait a few minutes. I had just completed the labyrinthine, multi-floor security process at the Israeli consulate in New York City, where my camera was disassembled and my cell phone inspected. I was now in a group of offices, where the visiting IDF soldiers I had come to meet were gathered around a small, mounted television playing an Israeli news channel.
“Can you read the Hebrew?” one of the soldiers asks. “Not really,” I admit, but I tell her my sister works in Jerusalem. “It says no one has been killed,” she explains. (This is before one woman died from her wounds at the hospital.) I continue to watch the aftermath of the atrocity unfold with these soldiers, who, sworn to protect their soil, are dressed in jeans and zip-up sweatshirts 5500 miles away. But their life goes on, and so does mine, and I have come specifically to talk to female soldiers, to discuss their experiences in the Israeli army. I will do the interview, and quickly, so that the soldiers may return to the news.
As I sit down with three of them (and one spokeswoman), I find myself surprised to see them looking like, well, normal young women. They are petite and feminine; hearing them give their rank and brief descriptions of their intense responsibilities boggles my mind. Even when she’s not wearing the uniform, one explains, it’s as if she has it on. Like Superman, another laughs.
I ask what it is like to be here, far removed from the attack. They are in New York representing the IDF, attending events like last night’s Friends of the IDF Dinner, and meeting with Jewish leaders. One says she is angry, and is counting on her unit to find those responsible and bring them to justice. They will have to do it without her, though, until she returns to Israel in a few days. While the bombing is horrible, she explains, it isn’t the first time it has happened. Though still young, these women possess that sobering sense of reality that living in (and defending) Israel has come to require. It’s a kind of survival mechanism that allows an individual to watch news of the bombing but then focus on one’s next immediate step—in this case, the next scheduled interview with the next young American journalist.
Soon the discussion turns to me (“it’s an Israeli interview,” one jokingly explains), and to my sister. They want to know where she lives and what she does, and they offer to take her out to meet real Israelis. Then they ask about me, and why I’m interested in writing about them. I admit that I mostly just thought it would be cool to meet them and learn what it’s like to be a woman in the Israeli army. They seem surprised that they would be considered “interesting” as female soldiers, since for them it’s such a natural existence.
Their schedule for the day includes museum tours and maybe even a little time for shopping. “At the end of the day, we’re girls,” they laugh lightly. Our interview is over; they return to the group of dressed-down soldiers, still glued to the television. I’m escorted out to the lockers, where I gather my belongings and quickly check my cell phone. “Bus bombing in Jerusalem. Franny OK,” reads a text message from my father. Various emails and messages inquire about the bombing; a New York Times news alert informs me that Elizabeth Taylor died.
My sister answers my phone call after a few of those overseas beeping rings. It happened at her bus stop, she says, the one we got off at when I went with her to work while visiting in January. Right by the kiosk that serves the Nespresso coffee she was so excited to show me. She didn’t go into her office today, and instead worked at a café near her apartment in Tel Aviv. Stunned, I walk quickly to the subway, itching to get back to my computer. If nothing else, I want to Facebook-friend the soldiers, like I’d promised.