Watching disaster in NJ from the safety of Israel
Ada Beth Cutler and her husband, Chuck, visit Machtesh Ramon, the Ramon Crater, in the Negev.
November 14, 2012
Forty-four years ago, I left New Jersey to go to Israel to study at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Before leaving, I had been active in Students for a Democratic Society and spent a night in jail after being arrested in the antiwar demonstrations of 1968 at Columbia University. When the cafeteria at Hebrew University was bombed while I was on the campus, many people asked my parents how they could let me stay in Israel when it was so dangerous. My parents’ response was, “She’s safer in Jerusalem than she was in New York City!” They knew danger was a relative thing.
Fast forward to this year: My husband, Chuck, and I left New Jersey in mid-October for a five-week sojourn in Tel Aviv while I’m on sabbatical from Montclair State University. We rented an apartment, hired a Hebrew tutor to regain some of the fluency we had lost over the years, and have spent summer-like days wandering around Tel Aviv and soaking in the culture, diversity, and vibrancy of the “Jewish Barcelona.”
Last week, I took part in an Israeli cooking class with my sister who had come to visit from Canada. Coincidentally, the only other participants that day were two American sisters. One had been to Israel a dozen times; the other was on her first trip to Israel at age 68. When I asked why it took her so long to come to Israel, she admitted she had always been afraid it was too dangerous to visit. She was amazed at how peaceful and normal Israel seemed; she had pictured it as a perpetual war zone.
It was doubly ironic for me to hear about her perception of Israel as a dangerous place. First of all, there we were, enjoying a beautiful, sunny day of shopping in the Carmel Market and cooking in our instructor’s kitchen while back home in New Jersey, our family and friends were already in their ninth day without power. Second, I have almost always felt safe and at home in Israel. When we arrived this time on a Friday afternoon, the woman in charge of our apartment wanted to be sure we went right out to get food for Shabbat. Everyone we met on the street and in the shops wished us “Shabbat Shalom,” complimented us on our Hebrew, and helped us find flowers and wine for Shabbat. How could we not feel welcome and at home? Danger is indeed a relative thing.
Full of gratitude
There was ample media coverage here of Sandy and her destructive pass through New Jersey and New York. It was painful to see the scenes of the decimated Jersey shore, the flooded subway tunnels, the burned-out homes in Queens, and the many downed trees everywhere. We called daily to check on our kids and on my elderly parents, who thankfully were staying with friends while there was no power in their Maplewood apartment. We were safe, warm (hot, in fact), and powered up in Israel while back home there was no heat, electricity, or gas for millions of people. It was surreal and worrisome, and we have been relieved each time we hear from loved ones that power has been restored. Yes, it’s not unreasonable to worry about the possibility of danger in Israel, but danger comes in many forms and places around the world.
Chuck and I realized we were going to be away during the last weeks of the presidential campaigns and Election Day and we worried we’d miss out on important coverage. There was nothing to worry about; every cab driver, shopkeeper, friend, and relative we encountered wanted to know whom we were voting for and why, and most of them engaged us in heated discussions about the relative merits and consequences for Israel of an Obama or Romney win. Political discourse is in the DNA of Israelis. Furthermore, Israelis are inveterate news junkies, and the coverage here of the U.S. campaigns and the election was amazing. Israeli TV stations had reporters stationed in Boston, Chicago, and Washington and, on the morning after the election, we were able to watch Romney’s and Obama’s speeches live on Israeli TV. Had we been home in New Jersey, where power wasn’t restored until Nov. 8, we would not have been able to watch the speeches at all!
As we begin our last week in Israel, we are full of gratitude for this amazing opportunity. Our Hebrew has improved dramatically, we’ve witnessed the awesome sight of thousands of cranes migrating over the Hula Valley, we are greeted as old friends by shopkeepers as we walk around our neighborhood, and we watched the sun set over Machtesh Ramon in the Negev. We’ve visited 12 (yes, 12!) museums, spent leisurely time with Israeli friends and relatives, and found our favorite Tel Aviv cafe for breakfast and afternoon coffee. I even got to lecture at Kibbutzim College and compare notes on teaching and teacher education with students and faculty there. We feel a bit guilty that this all happened while New Jersey was reeling from Sandy, but it was a powerful reminder that danger and disruption can happen anywhere.