This piece is part of an ongo­ing series that we are shar­ing from Israeli authors and authors in Israel.

It is crit­i­cal to under­stand his­to­ry not just through the books that will be writ­ten lat­er, but also through the first-hand tes­ti­monies and real-time account­ing of events as they occur. At Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, we under­stand the val­ue of these writ­ten tes­ti­mo­ni­als and of shar­ing these indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences. It’s more impor­tant now than ever to give space to these voic­es and narratives.

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, JBI is record­ing writ­ers’ first-hand accounts, as shared with and pub­lished by JBC, to increase the acces­si­bil­i­ty of these accounts for indi­vid­u­als who are blind, have low vision or are print disabled. 

Decem­ber 12023

Eight weeks into the war, I still strug­gle to put on my shoes when the sirens go off, shov­ing my feet in at odd angles while hur­ry­ing and curs­ing my laces. The pair of flip flops pur­pose­ful­ly posi­tioned by the door have gone miss­ing – again. My frus­tra­tion and con­cern accel­er­ate as I cal­cu­late the amount of time I need to leave my apart­ment, head down the stairs, out the front walk and through the adja­cent gar­den to the pub­lic shel­ter. In Tel Aviv we have a minute and a half to reach safe­ty. That’s exact­ly how long it takes for any mis­sile shot from Gaza to land with­in the city lim­its. (I count myself for­tu­nate. Those in com­mu­ni­ties on the bor­der have sev­en sec­onds.) I don’t have an armored room with­in my apart­ment (now man­dat­ed by law) – it was built years before such things exist­ed – nor one down­stairs for the res­i­dents, so this is the best solu­tion. Hav­ing to use the pub­lic one isn’t as big a deal as it sounds. Safe­ty is a count­able num­ber of steps away. Of course, all such trips are made in the heat of the moment and I’ve yet to check how many steps there are. 

We’re very for­tu­nate to have a large net­work of shel­ters at our dis­pos­al through­out Israel, as well as the Iron Dome sys­tem. Israel has spent a for­tune pro­tect­ing its pop­u­la­tion. Our neigh­bors in Gaza aren’t as for­tu­nate. Their gov­ern­ment has spent their mon­ey pro­tect­ing the mil­i­tants hid­ing under­ground. There are absolute­ly no shel­ters in which cit­i­zens can take cov­er. That’s why their casu­al­ties are so high. I’m pro­tect­ed even if I’m not home at the time of a red alert. Whether sit­ting at a café or sim­ply walk­ing through the streets of Tel Aviv, there’s always some­one who knows where to go and beck­ons for us to fol­low to a near­by shel­ter. The world makes light of the dead­ly nature of these mis­siles pre­cise­ly because of this mas­sive, effec­tive means of civ­il defense, but here on the ground, we are aware of its sig­nif­i­cance and enor­mous­ly grateful. 

It’s a great way to meet the neigh­bors,” my friend says to me on the phone after a mis­sile attack on Tel Aviv. Jokes offer wel­come relief. But her com­ment is more true than funny. 

Gath­er­ing at least dai­ly, in an under­ground room, even for five to ten min­utes (the offi­cial amount of time one is meant to remain in a safe space after a red alert) is, in fact, a very good way to meet the neigh­bors. Before the out­break of this war, I’d bare­ly exchanged more than a sen­tence or two with mine. And for the most part, those had been lim­it­ed to com­ments about my elder­ly dog. Yet fol­low­ing my neigh­bors down the path to the shel­ter or sit­ting across from one anoth­er here, for the umpteenth time this past two months, I wish we’d found a dif­fer­ent way. 

I don’t want to give the impres­sion that this rou­tine is a com­plete hor­ror, although the actu­al need to take shel­ter is. Some trips have pro­duced some rather amus­ing anec­dotes. Like the time my dog wan­dered away from me and pooped among those who’ve come down to seek shel­ter. My local shel­ter incon­gru­ous­ly dou­bles as a live­ly com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter. It’s the site of Gym­boree and Mom­my and Me class­es, Feldenkrais exer­cise ther­a­py, and a local the­ater club. Its two enor­mous rooms are paint­ed with bright col­ors, its con­crete floor cov­ered with soft mats, and its walls are lined with a col­lec­tion of com­fy, bean bag chairs. As Geor­gia was the only dog that one time, I’d let her off the leash and sat down to wait for the all clear.” The glee­ful shouts of chil­dren from the oth­er room were what alert­ed me to the turn of events. Lo and behold, I found said chil­dren gath­ered around the small pile she had left behind, hands over mouths, express­ing a mix­ture of mirth and disgust.

We all need rea­sons to laugh. That’s the main rea­son that swap­ping shel­ter tales has become part of the city’s dai­ly con­ver­sa­tion. What else can we talk about when the details of the war itself are so bru­tal? I’ve begun to col­lect these tales, flip­ping through them in my mind when I need to find humor in a sit­u­a­tion that con­tin­ues to be grave. There was a pho­to­graph on social media of a mot­ley gath­er­ing that sought shel­ter next to a day spa, some women sport­ing crinkly sil­ver paper or droplets of dye, some with face masks still adhered. I under­stand this group jumped up from their chairs and sought shel­ter a sec­ond time only min­utes after this pho­to­graph was tak­en — not both­er­ing to move when there was yet a third red alert with­in the hour. Mis­siles be damned. 

Maybe more macabre, but still some­how amus­ing because of its absur­di­ty, was the gory, close-up image of a bloody toe sans nail I received an hour after such an alert: my friend’s run for the shel­ter with her two dogs that sent her to Urgent Care. Just as prac­ti­cal as absurd are the ear­ly evening debates I’ve been par­ty to, time and again, on the phone with friends, regard­ing whether there’s time to take a show­er. Pic­tures of men wrapped in tow­els stand­ing among oth­ers ful­ly dressed in an under­ground shel­ter tes­ti­fy to the risks. One chilly late evening, I ran into a young woman shiv­er­ing in a short night­ie. The rest of us were also in bed­wear. Most of my friends have ditched gen­uine paja­mas for com­fy cloth­ing more suit­able to an audience. 

The loud, thud­ding explo­sion of inter­cept­ed mis­siles (and the slight­ly dif­fer­ent, sharp­er, sound of those that escape the inter­cep­tion mech­a­nism and slam into a build­ing, car, or even a per­son) imme­di­ate­ly extin­guish­es our des­per­ate attempts at jovi­al­i­ty. There is an inher­ent con­tra­dic­tion to our expe­ri­ence of this con­tin­u­al threat. On the one hand, it’s quite ter­ri­fy­ing; on the oth­er hand, stretched out over the course of weeks, or months, it can become almost mun­dane. It’s dead­ly to not seek prop­er shel­ter but mis­sile fatigue caus­es some peo­ple to make alter­nate choic­es. Like my hus­band, who lies down on our apart­ment floor by the door to the stair­well. Like the women in the beau­ty par­lor, who chose to stay put after the third sub­se­quent siren. On the one hand, we fear for our lives; on the oth­er hand, we feel incon­ve­nienced by the con­stant need to stop every­thing and seek shel­ter. When­ev­er pos­si­ble, we face this unten­able exis­tence with laugh­ter. Oth­er­wise, we’ll cry. It’s fun­da­men­tal­ly not fun­ny at all. 

On one run to the shel­ter, I come across a woman with fiery red cheeks, eye­glass­es lodged halfway down her nose at an awk­ward angle, lips pursed in a painful puck­er. She’s cut­ting across the lit­tle yard out­side my build­ing, pulling a lit­tle dog that – con­fused by her fran­tic, irreg­u­lar move­ments – is trac­ing a jagged path in her wake. This is no longer just any leisure­ly after­noon walk.

Can I come in?”

I shake my head. No. We don’t have a shel­ter. It’s over there.” I ges­ture with my head. Fol­low me.”

I swerve around the two of them, unwill­ing to waste even a few of the pre­cious sec­onds I have, to make my way to the shel­ter. Don’t wor­ry.” I call behind me. That’s my mantra these days. I repeat it as much for myself as for oth­ers. Born and raised in Amer­i­ca, I only moved to Israel as a young adult. I didn’t grow up with this night­mare, but thir­ty years lat­er, it has become an unde­sir­able giv­en in my life. 

Once inside, this duo and I head down the stairs, join­ing oth­ers already gath­ered. I take a seat and look around at the oth­ers, some swip­ing the screens of their cell­phones, look­ing for news updates (the city of Tel Aviv pro­vides free WiFi), while oth­ers are also check­ing out the crowd. We only gath­er for a few min­utes so there isn’t much time to strike up a con­ver­sa­tion. Yes, you can meet your neigh­bors, but this isn’t a very good way to get to know them, after all.

My atten­tion returns to the woman I encoun­tered out­side. She’s cry­ing. No, not just cry­ing, sob­bing — expelling big gasps of air between jagged inhala­tions. She paces back and forth with­in the shel­ter, her dog look­ing thor­ough­ly ragged for the wear. He no doubt wants her to sit down like the rest of us, so he can get a break. A wall of stony faces, reflect­ing what I call shel­ter stu­por, that numb state of mind that sets in among those now safe but worn-down from the whole rou­tine, watch­es her fall apart. Again, the dual­i­ty — this time in how one responds to this sus­tained trauma.

I am cer­tain I’m not the only one who wish­es she would stop cry­ing. We all teeter on the edge of feel­ing okay, a sliv­er away from com­plete­ly lost. The abyss of abject fear lies right there — straight ahead. None of us want to go there. Those who had stared, now look away. No one tries to calm her down. Men­tal ener­gy is at a min­i­mum — our nerves frayed by what has been and still is, our hearts heavy at the thought of what lies ahead. Growls attract my atten­tion and I look over to see two feisty dogs, pulling their leash­es to the max and try­ing to get at her schnau­zer. I exchange a smile with their own­er, wel­com­ing a break in the ten­sion, then gaze back at the woman. Sunk deep into her fear, she ignores this room of wit­ness­es and pulls her dog into the sec­ond room, half-sob­bing half-speak­ing into the phone. I catch a few words. Some­thing about how she can’t take this. How she doesn’t want to live like this. I look down at my feet. Does anyone? 

The encounter with another’s fear that day is soon eclipsed by my own. Dur­ing one of my runs to the shel­ter, the leash between Geor­gia and me extends to its lim­it as she falls behind in the stream of peo­ple seek­ing safe­ty. The woman ahead of me falls flat on her face. My eyes imme­di­ate­ly look beyond her to the door of the shel­ter. It beck­ons invit­ing­ly. Come in. I can keep you safe. I’m so close to it. 

I stoop to gath­er the arti­cles that have fall­en out of the woman’s purse – a lip­stick, her wal­let, a few ran­dom scrunched-up tis­sues – con­scious of the pass­ing sec­onds. I’ve got your things. Let me help you up.” I give her arm a tug, but she doesn’t budge. Anoth­er glance at the door­way. The clock is tick­ing. In gen­er­al, I have plen­ty of time to get to this safe space, but on this occa­sion that win­dow is clos­ing. Come on. We need to get inside.” Geor­gia runs cir­cles around us. Plant­i­ng her hands on the ground, the woman lifts her head from the pave­ment. She is bleed­ing pro­fuse­ly from both her nose and mouth. I pan­ic, sens­ing I’m out of time, and grasp her arm more firm­ly. I have no idea what to do: leave her alone on the ground and get to safe­ty? Or stay by her side?

We have to move.” I speak firm­ly and help her onto her knees. She moves slug­gish­ly, obvi­ous­ly stunned by the fall and the quan­ti­ty of blood. That’s when I hear them – sev­er­al loud explo­sions. A fris­son of fear, then relief, moves through me. We didn’t make it, but we’re still alive. Sud­den­ly aware of the dan­ger of the sit­u­a­tion – a first round of explo­sions is often fol­lowed by anoth­er – the woman lets me help her inside. Geor­gia hap­pi­ly fol­lows, unaware that I am freak­ing out. I still don’t feel safe. These are mis­siles after all. And they aren’t always inter­cept­ed. Some­times they kill. 

I’ve had enough of being the good Samar­i­tan. Once inside the door­way, I find a pile of paper tow­els and press them toward her face. Hold these. Apply pres­sure.” Turn­ing away, I lead Geor­gia down­stairs. We aren’t com­plete­ly pro­tect­ed until we enter the under­ground area of the shel­ter, and I’m no longer tak­ing chances. Shak­en, I chance a glance back­ward and see some­one else attend­ing to her needs. I’m relieved as I can no longer find the where­with­al to attend to the needs of anoth­er. I intend to sur­vive this war. 

No longer wor­ried now that I’m sit­u­at­ed with­in this under­ground haven, I hear anoth­er round of booms, this time three in suc­ces­sion. The sol­id walls of the shel­ter shake. I eager­ly embrace the pro­longed silence that punc­tu­ates the end of this attack. Those gath­ered look around in acknowl­edge­ment: we are all still here, safe and account­ed for. I recall expe­ri­enc­ing the sim­i­lar shared sense of relief recent­ly on a pub­lic bus when a tire blow-out accom­pa­nied by a fright­en­ing explo­sion had us all think­ing it was the work of a sui­cide bomber. An exchange of glances had ver­i­fied that it wasn’t, that we were all okay. 

The actu­al dan­ger, the one I con­tin­u­al­ly shove to the back of my mind, occa­sion­al­ly makes itself known. Only a few nights ear­li­er, I’d been calm­ly head­ing to my shel­ter when I heard the booms from the North­ern area of the city, whose alert sys­tem had gone off about thir­ty sec­onds before ours. The city of Tel Aviv is divid­ed into four quad­rants by the mis­sile detec­tion sys­tem. I’m in Cen­tral Tel Aviv — but, depend­ing on the direc­tion of the wind, I can hear the alerts com­ing from those adja­cent sec­tions. Expo­nen­tial­ly loud­er when heard out­side, those explo­sions shake me to the core, shat­ter­ing what is, admit­ted­ly, a false sense of com­fort. The assumed cer­tain­ty that I will be able to stay out of dan­ger is quite friable. 

Some­times, that opti­mistic mantra of don’t wor­ry isn’t enough. Some­times, I’m afraid. I just don’t want to admit it. It’s eas­i­er to instead be annoyed and incon­ve­nienced by this rou­tine, to laugh at appear­ing in my paja­mas and slip­pers, and to com­plain that Georgia’s heavy when I’m forced to car­ry her all the way to the shel­ter, know­ing that if I give her time to pee, we won’t make it safe­ly inside. I’m aware of the dual­i­ty of emo­tions and real­i­ties that gov­ern my dai­ly life, but des­per­ate­ly try to force the lighter, more palat­able side to the sur­face. It’s not all doom and gloom because it can’t be. Because the human spir­it can’t stand it. At the end of the day, we seek the light. 

Just the oth­er night, I found it. As I made my way down the unusu­al­ly crowd­ed stair­way to the shel­ter (I know there’s plen­ty of space inside to accom­mo­date a crowd), I was dis­tract­ed by the sound of singing. I apol­o­gized as I squeezed myself beyond those gath­ered, then peeked around the cor­ner of the stair­well. Inside was a large cir­cle of seat­ed women being led in song accom­pa­nied by a gui­tarist. Not one of them react­ed to the ran­dom indi­vid­u­als who’d come in to seek shel­ter. Did they even know there was an alert? Some of us exchanged smiles. I turned my atten­tion back to the group. They were smil­ing as well, and, joined togeth­er in song, hadn’t missed a beat.

Life goes on, even under fire.

The views and opin­ions expressed above are those of the author, based on their obser­va­tions and experiences.

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Car­o­line Igra is a free­lance writer, an art his­to­ri­an, a triath­lete, and a moth­er. She lives in Tel Aviv, Israel, but haisl from Philadel­phia. She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, a master’s from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, and a Ph.D. in Art His­to­ry from the Insti­tute of Fine Art, NYU. She has pub­lished numer­ous art his­tor­i­cal arti­cles, sev­er­al exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logs, and a mono­graph on Pol­ish artist J.D. Kirszen­baum, cho­sen as one of Slate Mag­a­zines Best Books that year. Her cre­ative non­fic­tion has been fea­tured in sev­er­al lit­er­ary jour­nals, includ­ing Col­lat­er­alAway, and Moth­ers Always Write. Her first nov­el, Count to a Thou­sand, was pub­lished in 2018 (Man­dolin Pub­lish­ing). Her sec­ond, From Where I Stand, was in 2022 (Koehler Books).