July 12, 2007
Hey, Hezbollah! Stop the rockets, we’re eating dinner here!
Adding to the litany of heartbreak, the outbreak that we would soon call the Second Lebanon War erupted more than a week before the accompanying photo was
taken in my friend's backyard in the biblical landscape of the Western Galilee village of Clil. |
More than one-third of the country had been shut down as the hard rain of Katyusha missiles fell, putting more than 1 million citizens in shelters. The warm, clear evening was brilliant with shadows of waning sunlight, but its peacefulness was shattered by booms and sirens as dinner was about to be served.
We weren't in shelters because Clil is an offbeat, off-road and off-the-track oasis of beauty, a bucolic bohemian settlement populated by artists, decorated commando veterans, writers and some high-tech entrepreneurs who had no shelters.
This beautiful village is not plugged into the national electric grid. All energy is solar and wind; green technologies abound in the area with its creative homes and landscaping.
No known building code is followed, including the one requiring shelters and secured rooms in most Israeli buildings since the Gulf War of 1991. Hence, backyards with barbecues and southern exposures were preferred and declared relatively secure by all the lapsed, rapidly aging ex-soldiers nestled in the Galilean hills.
We sat down for dinner in this town neatly placed between the Arab village of Kfar Yasif and the Druze village of Yarka, hearing the unsettling booms of incoming Katyushas and Israel's outgoing artillery. The unsettling interruptions were only trumped by the Druzes' singular alarm announcing that something somewhere was in the air, other than the cooling breeze of that summer evening caressing us, the cedars and the olive trees.
Evenings under these circumstances required large quantities of wine, good food and the comfort of friends who surrounded the table. We had come to visit our northern friends, Mike Eilan and his family, as the Torah commands us to visit the sick - and bring the wine.
Mike's son, Benjy, 15, couldn't have been more amused -- relieved from the boredom of his grandparents' home in Jerusalem, where he'd been sent at the outbreak of the war. He was ensconced at the barbecue, tending to lamb marinated several different ways, and happy to be back with his dogs.
Mike's brother-in-law, Amos Bentsur, couldn't have been more depressed, having just returned from Kibbutz Yiron, which had been taken over by the army as a staging area. His son had been in combat in Lebanon and had been rotated back to Yiron for a break that afternoon, so he could take a nap, be hugged by his worried father and picnic before returning with other sons to the dense fog of the war.
We talked about that haunting look you could see in the eyes of the brave youth at Yiron. Not fear, but rather a stare that distantly focused on something that, as Yehuda Amichai had written, went to some place that "wasn't there or wasn't there yet." We all spoke of how that stare had been seen before -- in the first Lebanon War, in Sinai in '73, or the Golan or in 1,000 other points of time and space that are catalogued, put on a shelf and taken down to remember only at great risk.
The women had stayed back, spicing the marinades, chopping the salads and waiting for some news from the front, while listening to Yarka's siren. We were enjoying the dinner and friendship, but to say that the sirens were not unsettling would be the lie the photo reveals.
We talked late into the evening, with yet more toasts and a near compulsion, like in a "The Book of One Thousand and One Nights," to keep telling stories and avoid the restless sleep that awaited us. Good company would trump this war, and we continued our feast.
The next morning, I rose early to go farther north to visit another friend's porch for early breakfast, letting my daughter, Dena, 17, sleep in with the other revelers who'd survived these bad times. She'd complained about being woken up by what she thought were slamming car doors in the night but were actually the outgoing artillery that had not subsided.
From the porch in Kibbutz Cabri, I gazed through my friend's military binoculars to see where Hezbollah watchtowers had been removed the prior week. No, we concluded over a third cup of coffee, this could not go on. The north should not be so far away.
Later, making our way back down to Haifa, I was listening to a radio interview with one of the owners of Maxim's, who had opened his restaurant for business.
"But," the interviewer asked, "hadn't the Home Front Command ordered all businesses closed?"
Maxim's, a jointly owned Arab-Jewish beach haunt, where both communities dined together early and often, had been targeted by one of the most cynical and vicious suicide attacks in 2003. It had re-opened under the banner: "We will not let coexistence be destroyed."
As a matter of principle, George Tayyar (the Arab partner) insisted he would stay open "not just for business, since there really wasn't any, but for business as usual." Yes, that was it, he kept repeating: "I'm not open for business, but for business as usual."
Business as usual was his response to the Lebanon War and all wars and all who would threaten his ability to gather citizens of Haifa together for lunch or dinner. It seemed like Tayyar had derived the same conclusion we'd come to the evening before: Civil defense and resistance to terror required fine dining and good company, so that our toasts and prayers for the safe return of battling children would come speedily in our time.
"That's where we're going for lunch," I told my daughter.
"Business as usual" was the right slogan for the war. But then the radio report shifted again to Katyushas as I started seeing more Haifa police with flak jackets and helmets. Though Haifa is a working man's city, hardhats on the local cops were a disconcerting sight.