By Baila Marcus
Twenty-six years ago, as a newlywed, I learned how to fry schnitzel and iron my husband’s shirts. After several months of marriage, worrying bits of information filtered into our new nest. Iraq invades Kuwait, screamed the headlines. “Saddam Hussein is threatening to send Scud missiles to Eretz Yisrael, possibly coated with lethal chemicals,” my sister-in-law reported. My hands shook as I dried the two dinner plates.
I’m usually a laid-back American, but under these circumstances the words laid back took a back seat. Add to the mix a nervous British husband, and the result is a cocktail of memories.
We lived in a tiny two-room apartment in northern Yerushalayim. Due to the threat of chemical warfare, the population was instructed to seal up one room in their apartments. We taped up the window and lined it, and any other possible opening, with plastic. Our room was stocked with food and drink, at least 12 glass jars of orange juice, and we searched in vain for batteries.
Our gas masks were handy, and bleach was available in case it was necessary to drown out potential lethal chemicals. The possibility of a Scud attack was the topic of conversation, but nobody believed it would actually occur.
Until, one cold Thursday night in January, the siren blasted.
That unforgettable blare, with decibels rising and falling, sent shivers up my spine. We sped to the sealed room, pulled out our masks and recited Tehillim. “I’m sure there are dangerous chemicals seeping in the room,” said my husband confidently. “We must put down bleach.” As a newlywed, I kept quiet and continued davening. But soon, an unidentifiable, detestable stench reached my nostrils. “Um,” I politely started, “I think the fumes from the bleach are dangerous.”
“You’re right,” my husband agreed. He then opened nearly all the glass jars of orange juice and poured them on the bleach to dilute the smell.
Baruch Hashem, the Scud missile didn’t hit our area. When the all-clear siren sounded, I bounded out of the room for fresh air.
While shopping the next morning, I overheard two women talking. “There’s a total dearth of challos!! We’re having ten bachurim tonight. What am I going to do?”
Her friend answered, “You’d better start sifting flour. Apparently, the bakers got scared off from the sirens…” That week, we had homemade challos.
As I prepared for Shabbos, I constantly worried that the siren would interrupt me. “It won’t happen again, right?” I turned to my husband for support. Before he could reassure me, the dreadful rise and fall of noise erupted. Back to the sealed room.
The persistent alarms changed my reality to a new normal. Take along your gas mask when you leave the house, find ways to entertain your kids, as they had no school, and keep on davening. The miracle stories were happening quicker than Hussein could send his rockets. In fact, through the kindness of Hashem, not one person suffered a direct hit from a flying Scud.
An unusual phenomenon occurred with the weather. The usual hourly weather report was blacked out due to security precautions. That particular winter had boasted clear blue skies with barely a trickle of rain. Once the radio was quiet, Hashem unleashed downpours from the Heavens, watering the dried-out land and providing us with life-giving water. In the middle of the seven-week span of Scud missile threats, the trees began to shyly display their flowers. Ah, Tu BiShvat was here.
During our first year of marriage, we traveled every third Shabbos to my parents, who lived a bus ride away. Despite the precarious threat of an attack, as the third week since the start of the war approached, I ventured to ask my husband, “Do you think we can go away for Shabbos?” Silence.
“I really need a break.” Deafening silence.
“It’s been quiet for the past four nights.” Silence.
“I’m sure it will be a peaceful Shabbos.”
Finally, my husband said, “What if the siren goes off while we’re traveling there? And do your parents take this war seriously? They’re extremely laid back.”
“Let’s hope it will be a quiet bus ride. And my parents do have a sealed room,” I said.
“All right,” he reluctantly acquiesced.
While at my parents’, in the middle of the night I thought I was dreaming. But no, it was that all-too-familiar noise. I rolled over and felt around for my glasses on the night table. Only one slipper was near my bed, so I jumped into that and stuffed my arms into my robe. I looked over at my husband, who was knotting his tie!
“It’s like three in the morning! You’re getting dressed?” I asked.
“I’m nearly ready,” he said as he slipped into his shoes and dashed off with his gas mask and Tehillim to the sealed room.
As we sat, shuckeling over our Tehillim, my parents slowly got up and tried to rouse my drowsy younger siblings. One brother headed to the bathroom; a younger sister was confused and didn’t want to get out of bed. As some of the family members trickled in, my husband gave me a look.
Somehow, we survived that Shabbos.
The sirens occurred when least expected. One late afternoon, I was on my way home from a doctor’s visit when the siren beckoned. I hurried into the nearest communal place, the supermarket across the street, and joined the other shoppers in the sealed room.
I studied my fellow Jews. In the corner was an older Sephardi man mouthing words of Tehillim. Across from me was a young woman wearing a snood, trying to calm her infant, and near the entrance, a teenage couple — he without any head covering and she sporting about five earrings on each ear. It was a strange mix of people, yet here we were, together for a common reason — we were Jews suffering from age-old persecution delivered through a modern Amalek. As the all-clear siren signaled, the trance of togetherness lifted and we all rushed off on our individual paths.
The weeks crawled by; we looked for ways to ease the tension. As we played Scrabble, the siren wailed. “I can’t take this anymore,” I said as we rushed to the sealed room.
“Purim is around the corner,” my husband answered. “Keep on davening.”
It was with immense relief and joy that we learned that the threat from Saddam Hussein was thwarted around Purim time. We have a picture of mishloach manos on our table with our sealed window in the background.
Would my happiness have been the same had I known of the future wars and terrorism that awaited the Holy Land for the next three decades? I’m grateful I wasn’t gifted with prophecy, as the thought of more petrifying conflicts then would have been too heavy to bear.
Let’s cash in on the opportunity to plead with Hakadosh Baruch Hu for the time when “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares… No nation shall lift up a sword against another nation, and they shall no longer learn warfare” (Yeshayahu 2:4).