Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers

I'm going to kill two birds with one virtual stone today - I'm going to write something on fellow travelers, this week's Sunday Scribblings prompt, and at the same time I'm going to write about Tel Aviv for the Carnival of Cities which is being hosted this month by Grace of Sandier Pastures.

The winter of 1990-1991 I was finishing my last year of university back in the States. I'd spent the previous year at Tel Aviv University in Israel, and at the end of this final year I was planning on getting married and returning to Israel for good. While I was back in New Jersey, my fiance (now husband of 16 years) was serving in the Israeli army. If you are wondering why that winter rings a bell in your mind, it was the date of the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait in August, and Bush (the first one) had announced that if he didn't withdraw by January 16, 1991, that he would suffer the consequences. (It's a very strange feeling to have a start date for a war hanging over your head like that. It's hard to explain if you haven't lived through it.) Everyone knew that the moment the war began, Iraq would begin attacking Israel (and Saudi Arabia) to provoke the Israelis into retaliating, in the hopes that this would split the Arab nations away from the anti-Iraq coalition. Israel did in fact come very close to retaliating (and wouldn't you if another country suddenly declared war on you and began lobbing missiles at your civilian population centers?), but held back due to Bush's pledge to protect Israeli cities from the scuds. (As a result of this promise, U.S. Patriot missile batteries were deployed in Israel in a valiant but ultimately ineffectual attempt to shoot down the scuds.)

In the midst of all this and with a typical sense of the invincibility of youth, I decided to spend the end of December and most of January in Israel. I'd been separated for my fiance long enough and didn't want to miss this opportunity to be with him, despite the increasingly worrying political climate. I'm not going to go into war stories right now, suffice it to say that sitting there with a gas mask on during those first nights of scuds, when everyone still thought he might be crazy enough to use chemical warfare, were the most frightening of my life. The whole country shut down, hoping the next scud wouldn't fall on their bedroom roof. I was lucky, I was on kibbutz up north where I was relatively safe. In Tel Aviv and the central region the fears were much more real.

After a few weeks of this surreal existence, trying to get on with our lives while carrying gas masks around the kibbutz, a few things slowly returned to something approaching normal, and as part of this the airport finally reopened, just in time for my flight out. I knew that if I did not get on that flight out I could be stuck for weeks more and end up having to cancel my final semester of university. I had no choice, it was time to go home. This was more complicated than it would have been in peacetime though, since public transportation was still not running and there was nearly no civilian traffic on the roads. Luckily, someone from the kibbutz had to drive down to Tel Aviv very early that morning. I accepted his offer of a lift with gratitude, and that is how I found myself sitting outside a closed bakery in North Tel Aviv at 6am, with no place to go, no way to get there anyway, and a flight that wasn't leaving until midnight.

At 7 the owners came to open the store. I quickly went inside and ordered a coffee and a pastry, glad for the chance to at least warm up for a while. After I'd sat there for about 45 minutes (the only customer who came and actually stayed), the wife asked me what on earth I was doing there, in this outlying neighborhood in the middle of a war, surrounded by luggage and reading a book. When I told her, she went in the back and spoke with her husband. Five minutes later I found myself being driven to their apartment, coffee and a big bag of baked goods in hand. They had to work that day, but I was more than welcome to stay in their home until it was time to leave for the airport that evening. Her only request was not to go out on the balcony, since the scuds had blown out the windows and there was broken glass everywhere.

These people hadn't even known my name when they opened their home to me and then left me there on my own all day. Seventeen years later I am still speechless with gratitude at their generosity. Israelis can be abrasive at times, occasionally even downright rude, but when push comes to shove they pull out this inner reserve of strength and compassion that has no equal. The whole country temporarily forgets its many differences and pulls together for the common good. Israelis have known their share of crises, but if I had to pick who to have sitting next to me during the next one there is no one in the world I'd rather have with me.

35 comments:

Redness said...

Speechless ... you took me there, now I am thankful you're here ... stupendous writing, Thank YOU!!

gautami tripathy said...

Stunned! One awesome post..

Gautami
leveller

Pieces of Me said...

That is a beautiful story. As I read it, I thought: what makes Israel so special... you nailed it there.

THAT is the part of Israel life I truly miss living here in Pittsburgh. (not the fact that my smart husband couldn't get a suiting job there, not the way the school system is run and the pathetic salaries of teachers, okay you get he idea...)

Is that bakery still around? You could come full circle ... Just a thought.

Robin said...

Sadly it's not, they built a mall on top of it.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Wow. What a story, babe.

Sometimes, when I think about how the Tour Manager will need to be there, I worry that he'll be vulnerable to this sort of thing.

But then I think if something happens, you'll keep an eye out for him.

Thank you. May it never be necessary that you and I meet for anything other than a blessing.

Robin said...

You know Susan, empirically he's a lot safer here than he is downtown in your city. Don't let sensationalistic headlines scare you off. My story was 17 years ago, and if I remember correctly only one(!) person actually died from a scud.

GreenishLady said...

Great post! You convey the atmosphere so well. The kindness of strangers - I love that story.

Mrs. W said...

As always, your writing is captivating... brilliant.

tumblewords said...

Awesome story! News reports fail to include such incredibly wonderful happenings aboue regular folks attempting to go about their business in extraordinarily difficult times! Love the post.

Shannon said...

Wow... I am choked up and amazed by this whole story. I often find myself wondering what life is like in war zones. How do people make it through. This is how they make it through - they reach out to one another. It is incredible how one gesture of kindness can stay with someone for ever. If only we all remembered this.

Shari said...

Oh good. Another story about Israel. I love hearing "feel good" stories about how caring and considerate some people can be.

infinitygoods said...

What a great story you tell. I remember that time vividly as I was a journalist back then. Your insight and first-hand account is fascinating and heartwarming. Thanks for a great post.

Becca said...

This story goes a long way toward renewing my somewhat tarnished faith in human nature. A great tale from the road!

keith hillman said...

I'm gobsmacked! You told this amazing story with such style!

Herb Urban said...

An amazing story. I would love to make it to Israel some day.

Janet said...

This story left me with a smile on my face...thanks!

Lea said...

What a beautiful story Robin.. It warmed my heart and it is on these lines that I want to live, where there is goodness in people, in the most unexpected places...

Tammy said...

Robin, that was an amazing story and showed such bravery. I was hanging on every word.

punkin said...

I just stumbled upon your blog. I must say, WOW! It warms my heart to hear of such kindness. I am a Random Acts of Kindness kind of person, and try to teach my kids the same. What a random act of kindness this was. Thanks so much for sharing and making my day a little brighter.

susiej.com said...

This was wonderful-- thanks for the journey.

Phyllis Sommer said...

absolutely gorgeous writing, as usual...and so israel! love it!!!!!

angie said...

Totally captivating. I really love your writing style.....what a wonderful couple.....such a great example of the kind of simple kindness not commonly found.

poppy fields said...

I love stories like this, reminders of all the good people out there.

Rob Kistner said...

What a bold life of extreme knife-edge reality that must have been -- or even may still be.

It is nearly impossible for me to wrap my brain around the idea of critical strife in the city where I live. We have some crime on our streets, and we see it on the news occasionally -- but crime is not war.

Wow -- how intense. It must have changed you to some degree?

So glad you and your hubby are with us! ;)

Robin said...

No. Crime is not war, and war does in fact feel quite different. The advantage though, is that when the war is over life goes back to normal again, whereas the fear of crime stays with you (I grew up in NY so do have some basis for comparison).

Of course I've been lucky. I spent the first Gulf War in the north, where things were much calmer, and the second one in the center of the country, while it was the north that is being bombarded. I've thankfully never had to listen as the bombs fell around me, wondering if the next one would fall on me.

bleeding espresso said...

Gorgeous story. I came via the Carnival, but I'm a former Sunday Scribbler as well...you're inspiring me to get back into it :)

Robin said...

I hope you do! I just read your excellent carnival entry as well. I'll look forward to seeing more of your scribblings.

Wendy said...

Hi Robin,

your post put a smile on my face. I was last in Israel in 2000 and the kindness you describe does not surprise me. Time to go back for a visit...

Jo said...

Yes, a great write from you, woo hoo.

UL said...

This is brilliant...it makes me want to believe in the goodness we have in abundance, we just need to tap it right.

Fourier Analyst said...

Have you ever contacted them when you finally moved to Israel? You are such a great writer, your stories transport me!

Robin said...

I did stop in for a visit once many years ago, but they've since closed the bakery and we've lost touch.

Gemini Girl said...

Rude is an understatement.... Israeli's can go way beyond that. My husband and I will be moving back to Israel in 2-3 years and I am worried that I wont be able to accept everyone's rudeness and behavior (like when I was ther ein May- EVERYONE telling me how much weight I gained- this after giving birth to twins 6 months prior!!)

I think all israeli's will help one another in a time of crisis.

quilly said...

Robin, I have wondered from time-to-time how you could live and flourish with the stresses you must have and after reading this post I have the answer -- with grace and courage.

Sarah M. said...

I arrived in Israel on an overseas program the day Kuwait was invaded. I had my first date with my future husband the day Saddam sent rockets to Israel, we spent it in the sealed room. This post brought back memories.