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The Story of a Terrorist Attack in Israel: Chaos and Normal Life Again in Jerusalem

September 11, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

I was driving in my car and talking on the cellphone to my brother Dave in California as I pulled up opposite Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, at the city’s entrance.

We were just starting a discussion about new business opportunities when I noticed that the street in front of me was totally jammed.

Oh great, I thought: Traffic at 11:20 p.m. I figured it must be a suspicious object — a frequent cause of street closures in this terrorism-sensitive town.

Then I saw the ambulances.

The surrounded me like hornets, trying to get around the stopped traffic, their sirens blaring, their lights flashing. Then I saw the motorcycles covered with signs for ZAKA, the fervently Orthodox organization that collects victims’ body parts after terrorist attacks.

All of a sudden, I felt sick. I knew what must have happened.

For a brief moment, I was reminded of the time I was in San Francisco when the big quake of 1989 struck. Then, too, I was in my car, sitting in the middle of the street as the world I knew descended into chaos and everything went all fuzzy.

On the phone, my brother was calling my name. Another caller, my wife Jody, was trying to reach my on the other line. I took the call, accidentally cutting off my brother.

“I think it’s right in front of me,” I said, still in a daze. “Something must have happened right here at the Central Bus Station.”

“I don’t think so,” my wife, who was at our home, replied. “The boom was too loud. The whole house trembled. It’s got to be in our neighborhood.”

Of course, it was. The glitziest, jazziest establishment on Emek Refaim Street, the main thoroughfare through our neighborhood and only five minutes away from my apartment, had been bombed. Cafe Hillel only recently had been converted from — of all things — a Kabbalah center. Decked out in glass and chrome with a funky black and red color scheme, Cafe Hillel was always packed.

All of a sudden, the target felt obvious, inevitable.

Sitting in my car, I had to get home.

With all the usual roads clogged by emergency vehicles, I began weaving my way through unfamiliar streets, cutting a path through Mea Shearim, swinging around to the Old City and then up Hebron Way.

Everywhere, people were stopped on the streets, talking on cell phones, listening to car radios. We were in collective shock.

All rules of the road were ignored. Not just emergency vehicles, but ordinary cars and trucks were running red lights, weaving like drunkards, frantic — like me — to reach their loved ones.

Once I got closer to home, I came upon dozens of police and army vehicles, their blue lights spinning, their sirens blaring. They were around me on all sides.

It was after midnight by the time I finally pulled into my garage and rushed into the safety of my wife’s arms.

The news on television provided all the gory details, most of them indistinguishable from every previous attack — except for the familiarity.

This was our street. Our backyard. This was where we shop and eat and swim.

I didn’t know whether to go down to the scene in my beloved neighborhood or sit at home, watching what seemed like unreal images on the TV screen.

By 1:15 a.m., after the crowds had dispersed and I was confident there was no second bomber still lurking — as has sometimes been the case in terrorist attacks — I headed down to the site. I needed to make this tragedy mine.

The streets at the late hour were vastly different than during my wild ride home. The ambulances were mostly gone, replaced by tow trucks and news vans, their spidery antennas reaching up above the devastated neighborhood. Portable generators illuminated the streets.

In front of the remains of the cafe, the police were holding a tough line, keeping gawkers like me at bay. A group of ZAKA volunteers milled about, their plastic-covered shoes moving over the rough pavement. A few were speaking Yiddish.

It had been a long time since I last heard Yiddish in our neighborhood, the German Colony, popular among the left- leaning, liberal-minded set.

The next morning, I was out again. The usual traffic of buses and cars already were speeding by the spot. The street was filled with children walking and biking to school.

Everybody was aware of what had happened, but we were moving on.

This is the drive that keeps us going in Israel. We want to live a normal life — somehow, someday.

But I won’t forget how, on that deadly Tuesday night, I drove through terror. And how it drove through me.

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