Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images
Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defense system intercepts a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, above the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, on May 11, 2021Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images
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Nights of Sirens

48 hours in and out of Tel Aviv bomb shelters, with rockets flying and kids in tow

by
Dana Kessler
May 13, 2021
Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images
Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defense system intercepts a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, above the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, on May 11, 2021Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

The first siren started to wail in Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening at 9 p.m., just as Hamas warned. One of the moms in my son’s class quipped in our WhatsApp group: “Hamas could teach our kids a lesson in punctuality.”

Even though we knew it was coming, the siren still caught us by surprise. We ran down the stairs to the building’s bomb shelter barefoot (big mistake—it was roach infested and about as clean as a drug den on the Lower East Side in the ’70s). The building’s tenants, and some strangers that came in from the street, crowded together in the shelter. Some joked about showing the Green Pass, the government-issued entry permit for recovered coronavirus patients and vaccinated people. A few days ago, we had to show our Green Pass to enter the Tel Aviv Cinematheque for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders; a week ago we had to have our kids tested for COVID to go to a family wedding. Now, in the bomb shelter, everybody was welcome, regardless of COVID status. And no one wore face masks, even though any other place as crowded would require it. Suddenly, the whole COVID thing seemed silly. The human capability for worrying is limited. You can’t fret about two different things at the same time.

The atmosphere in the shelter was friendly: That’s what happens when you sit around with strangers in your house clothes. All the kids were already in their pajamas. As we heard boom after boom, my youngest son sat on my lap and cried—he was really scared. We all promised him that there was no reason to be afraid. After a while he saw all the older kids playing a card game on a blanket in the corner; he calmed down a bit and hesitantly joined them. While the kids played in the corner, the grown-ups chatted and mostly stared at their cellphones, trying to make sense of what was happening and to find a sign that it was over. When we were finally convinced we could go back home, the little one started crying again, now he was afraid to leave the shelter. Again, we made promises.

We entered the apartment. Everyone washed their feet and we grown-ups downed a semilethal dose of antihistamines to combat the poor sanitation conditions in the shelter, which made our eyes water and our skin itch. The kids decided we needed to be more organized for next time. They packed a bag full of games and snacks. They made sure again and again that we would wake up, and we would wake them up, if there was another siren, and then reluctantly agreed to go to bed.

It was almost 11 p.m. We continued to stare at our phones. A friend from Giv’atayim texted that a bomb fell on his street. Others sent videos taken from their roofs of the rocket attacks, which looked strangely like Yom Ha’Atzmaut fireworks.

At about 3 a.m. we were awakened by booms. We should have deduced that if there were explosions nearby, then the siren will soon follow, but for some reason, we didn’t. The totally obvious caught us by surprise again a few moments after. But at least we had time to pee before waking up the kids and running to the shelter again, with the little one piggybacking on his dad.

Being up at 3 a.m. felt strangely familiar, reminiscent of waking up in the middle of the night to catch a plane—a pleasant, somewhat distant memory from before COVID.

This time the turnout was much less impressive; the shelter was less crowded. It’s always like that: Everyone shows up for the premiere, then the audiences start to diminish. Our younger, single neighbors especially gave this round a pass, probably fast asleep. Just like some people can’t be bothered to get a COVID vaccine, others can’t be bothered to get out of bed for a silly little thing like incoming rockets.

This time we were also better prepared, with sandals on our feet and a backpack full of goodies. All the kids in the building hit it off immediately, reminiscing over the bout of rockets from a few hours back, with a sense of pride and almost military camaraderie. They shared their roasted seaweed snacks merrily and started playing cards right away. While the country is in flames, kids in Tel Aviv eat seaweed in a bomb shelter. It sounds absurd, it feels surreal, but that’s life.

This time we stayed in the shelter for two sirens and two rocket barrages in a row. The grown-ups discussed politics: Who is to blame for this mess, and how terrible it must be in Gaza right now. The kids, in their own world, enjoyed their pajama party. When we were finally convinced we could go back home, the little one started crying again. This time he didn’t want to leave the shelter because he was having too much fun. Again, we made promises.

Just like some people can’t be bothered to get a COVID vaccine, others can’t be bothered to get out of bed for a silly little thing like incoming rockets.

I spent the rest of the night staring blankly at meme after meme on Facebook, some actually worthy of a chuckle. My personal favorite: “Apparently Hamas didn’t spend its COVID year cultivating sourdough.” One of my friends and his new girlfriend posted a mock romantic selfie with the caption: “Our first war together.” Once in a while I checked the news online. While my social media feed was relatively lighthearted—a mix of black humor and pacifistic pleas to stop the war—the news itself provided an unpleasant contrast.

After the second round in the shelter, my better half and the little one went straight back to bed. My eldest son and I had a harder time falling back asleep. Too much excitement.

Going to bed at 6 a.m., with the morning light peering through the blinds and the sound of early birds chirping, felt strangely familiar—reminiscent of distant times, way before the kids, when we used to return from nights out clubbing as night turned into day. It was morning when I finally dozed off into nightmarish dreams. There was no need to wake up early since school and kindergarten were obviously canceled. I slept until my kids woke me up a few hours later.

While much of the country was burning, our day was pretty uneventful. We all stayed at home. Since school was out for the rest of the week we let the kids eat their yogurt desserts, which they were originally supposed to take to school on Friday in a little wicker basket as part of their Shavuot festivities. In the afternoon friends invited us to join them on the playground—there’s a public bomb shelter there, should we need one. The kids didn’t want to go, proclaiming that our home shelter is much more fun. And besides, they promised the neighbors’ kids another round of SET.

I’m writing this Wednesday evening. It’s after 11 p.m. Rumors had said the rockets would fly at 6 p.m., others said 7. We sat around waiting for a few hours, during which we instructed the kids to go to the bathroom every time they needed to, even a little, and not to hold it in, so they wouldn’t need to go in the shelter. At 8 we changed them into their pajamas quickly and skipped their evening shower.

Now I’m sitting at the computer while everyone else in the house is sleeping. I’m sad and scared of the future. I read the news of what’s happening not so far from here and it breaks my heart. On my street it’s eerily quiet except for an exaggerated number of motorcycles going by, which is strange and inexplicable. The whizzing sound they make is exactly like the beginning of a siren, and makes my heart skip a beat every time one zooms by.

Thursday 1 a.m.—another siren wails, and here we go again.

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.

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