JERUSALEM, Oct. 17 (JTA) – It should be the worst of our problems. Access to the animal shelter belonging to the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the northern suburb of Atarot has been cut off, leaving hundreds of cats and dogs at the mercy of a few brave volunteers who come in to feed the animals when it’s safe.
But the people living here in Israel are feeling the effects of the ongoing road closures and restrictions on our activity even more acutely than our canine/feline friends.
Normally, Sukkot is a popular time to schedule trips around the country, concerts and other family entertainment. Virtually the entire country is on vacation during the weeklong holiday. Government offices are closed for the week, teachers and students are home from school, and religious and secular Jews each celebrate the holiday in their own ways.
Sukkot 5761, however, will be remembered as the dampened festival. Not only did the weather change this week, with bursts of rain, thunder and lightening challenging those who want to fulfill the mitzvah of sleeping in the sukkah, but the general atmosphere is dampened too.
The Israel Defense Force issued orders canceling all tours through Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip; evening events such as the Shlomo Carlebach fest are canceled; the Mordechai Ben David concert in Hebron won’t take place. Jews are warned to be on the alert for terrorist activity at major gathering places such as shopping malls and parks, and fathers are being called up for extended reserve duty.
But many are trying to preserve a feeling of normalcy and sukkot, or booths, of every size and description can be seen on balconies, rooftops and in courtyards. Every kosher restaurant in town has one and boasts bigger and better holiday specials to entice customers. The day before Yom Tov, the Orthodox neighborhoods of Geula and Mea She’arim were almost impassable, with trucks hauling wondrous quantities of palm fronds to top sukkot driving slowly along the narrow streets.
Practitioners of the art of etrog sniffing – a holiday custom – could be seen on every street corner. I walk down to the Western Wall to take part in Birkat Hakohanim (the Priestly Blessing), passing a group of Arab street cleaners dressed in their blue uniforms chatting on their break in the Jewish Quarter. Not five yards away, a dozen Israeli border police lounge on the railings, their waists hung with batons, guns and helmets in a show of protective force. The crowd at the Wall is considerably less than on other recent holidays, but the ambulances, police and media are out en masse. Many residents of outlying communities couldn’t get in to the city because of the continuing road closures. In Gush Etzion, for example, home to many English-speaking immigrants, sporadic closures due to shooting and stoning on the road to Jerusalem have caused varying degrees of hardship.
For the Taragin family it was the frustration of being prevented from meeting visiting grandparents staying in a hotel in Jerusalem. The relatives arrived on the Thursday before Sukkot, and it was six days before the kids could find a guaranteed opening of a few hours safe passage to arrive in the city.
For others like Efrat resident Dan Goldstein, a patent agent for high-tech companies, the aggravation was more urgent. His wife, Yael, is due to give birth at any moment and their concern is arriving at the hospital in time. Goldstein and his brother, Doug, a financial planner with offices in Jerusalem, have temporarily moved their business operations home to Efrat.
Those involved in the tourism industry aren’t quite so fortunate. My friend Adina was laid off for the week from her job as a receptionist at the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem. Like almost every hotel in the country, the Plaza was only 60 percent full during the normally packed Sukkot period. No groups, no job, Adina was told. Her side business of kosher catering for visitors who rent apartments here has also suffered. Tour guides are sitting home waiting for the few Christian groups who haven’t canceled to show up.
But it’s defense and security that are on everyone’s mind. Regular citizens are doing guard duty. At Moshav Mattityahu for example, Morris, a longtime resident notes, “men arrive home in the evening after a long day’s work, and then they are up until 11 or 12 at night patrolling the moshav.”
Moshav teen-agers and pensioners have been called upon to help share the extra security burden, especially during the hours when most of the community’s men are at work. Mordekhai, 16, was given a crash course by the local civil guard, including basic arms training, and he now patrols the community after school.
Mordekhai’s father, Larry, works for an Israeli high-tech company. Larry’s boss was upset to learn that Larry had been drafted since he is working on a project where he is the only employee with the requisite expertise.
Still, all of us gathered around the Shabbat table here last week agree that despite the tension and fear of what may yet occur, we’d all much rather be here than sitting in the Diaspora. There, during all the other crises Israel has endured, we would helplessly worry about what’s happening, and live with that nagging, disturbing feeling that one’s physical being is in one place but one’s soul is in another.
(Judy Lash Balint is a freelance writer in Jerusalem.)