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Far From Home

Israeli Angelenos worry, wait and try to deal with the situation from miles away

by Amy Klein

July 19, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Amotz Zakai is vice president of production and manager at Echo Lake Productions, an independent film company that has produced films like "Tsotsi" and "Water." Needless to say, Zakai is very busy right now.

But when the 33-year-old Israeli American dual citizen heard about the fighting in Israel, he immediately called his army commander to see if he should return to Israel to serve.

For Zakai, who served for four years as a lieutenant in the artillery division of the Israel Defense Forces, the battle in Lebanon is especially significant, because he fought there between 1991 and 1995 -- and lost three friends. "When I was in Lebanon we thought we'd rather be killed than be captured, so to go back down there is not a good situation," Zakai said.

Going back into Lebanon, he said "is the most horrible thing we could do but because of the terror, we must do it."

"It's hard to see your people suffer when you're out here in Beverly Hills"

Zakai and his wife are expecting their first child, and his wife, who used to be a sniper in the Israeli military, does not want him to serve. But he still may go to Israel, with thoughts of volunteering for the army spokesman's division. "My family is there and it's hard to see your people suffer when you're out here in Beverly Hills."

L.A.-based demographer Pini Herman estimates that 30,000 Israelis live in Los Angeles, although others claim there are as many as 150,000. And while for most it's not a question of army service -- citizens abroad are rarely called up -- it's a question of ties to the homeland. Most Israelis here still have family in Israel, many of whom are now under siege.

"I'm petrified," said Iris Mertzel, a software engineer who lives with her American-born husband and baby in Sherman Oaks. Mertzel, 30, moved to Los Angeles six years ago, but she grew up in Nahariya, a Northern city hit hard by Katyusha rockets.

"I see it on the news, the Katyushas hitting the place I grew up, and I'm just really scared," she said.

Mertzel was 6 during the Lebanon war, and she remembers sleeping in bomb shelters.

"We're used to being hit, but never with such intensity," she said. She is in constant contact with her family -- her parents, grandparents, brother, aunts, uncles and cousins are still there. Many friends have evacuated, and her uncle went to Tel Aviv, but most of her family is staying.

"They won't leave their homes"

"They don't know when it's going to end, and they don't want to leave their homes," she said.

For some people, it seems harder to be here watching than it is there. "I'm more worried than they are," Gal Shor, editor-in-chief of Israeli newspaper Shalom L.A., said of his parents and siblings and their children, who live in Kibbutz Yir-On in the Northern Galilee, where Shor grew up.

"We're too small to try and hit us," his father told him.

His family is used to the situation -- a terrorist once walked over from Lebanon and blew up a small bomb in their house, killing no one.

Shor said everyone in the Israeli community here is worried and constantly watching Israeli TV or listening to the Israeli radio (www.kol-israel.com). But travel to Israel continues unabated. Many people from Los Angeles were already in Israel when the conflict started. This summer was slated to be a record high of tourism for Israel.

"The economy is better, and it was calm until two weeks ago, and it looked like a nice summer until what happened happened," Shor said. He doesn't believe that many people will cancel scheduled trips.

There is a Hebrew word for such stiff-necked pride, davka, which means "in spite of the fact," with an in-your-face connotation. That's how Shikma Geffon feels about her trip, which has been planned for months.

"Morally, I feel like I have to be there"

"When I heard what was going on, I wanted to go more," said Geffon, a religious-school teacher who is studying for her master's in psychology. "Morally, I feel like I have to be there," she said, adding that she is considering volunteering, maybe to work with children, using her teaching and psychology skills. "When your home is being attacked, you want to be there, you don't want to feel out of the picture."

But some people have to consider their national pride versus their family situation. Dalit Shlapobersky, 37, a film translator in West Hollywood who has lived in America for 10 years, debated with her husband about whether she should travel to Israel with their two kids as planned on July 20.

"We've been thinking about it all the time. Part of our family [in Israel] says come, part says don't come," she said. "Not going is a statement that we don't belong anymore, and going is a sign of solidarity that although we've been there for 10 years, we're still Israeli."

And yet, with two children, she wasn't sure. Her son, 11, is just back from Habonim Dror camp, a Zionist camp here, where he heard about what was going on in Israel, and he still wanted to go. Her daughter, 5, keeps asking about the situation, wanting assurance that the conflict is not where they are going to be. (They will be in central Israel.)

"I have mixed feelings, Shlapobersky said. "As an Israeli, I don't want to be afraid. And on the other hand, I don't want to do something stupid out of pride."

In the end, as of press time, she had decided to go.

Stay in USA or Return to Israel?

For some Israelis, it's not about whether or not to go visit, but whether to go back. Betzalel Engelberg's mother came to America in May, and was supposed to leave Sunday for Haifa.

"She was not that easygoing about it, but we all persuaded her to stay," said Engelberg, who worked with his two siblings in Israel to convince their mother to stay in America.

"I hope that within less than a month it will be easier to go," said Engelberg, who has lived in America for 26 years and works in oil production. At the end of the summer his niece has a wedding planned. "If they are not changing the plans to have the wedding, I'm not going to change my plans about going."

Keeping up with routines is one defense that Israelis -- both in Israel and in America -- have always used to fight terror. "Israelis are very good about dealing with routine in the midst of craziness," said Oren Rehany, an actor and writer who works here at CinemaNow.com, an online pay-per-view movie web site.

"The purpose of terrorism and war is to disrupt routine and normal life. When you don't give these people what they want, that's part of the psychological retaliation. The message that comes across is you're not going to disrupt our lives. You're not going to ruin what we've established."

Rehany's father lives in Nahariya, his sister lives in Haifa and his mother in Tel Aviv. "Every single person of my family that I've spoken to is doing just that -- nobody is evacuating or stopping to work or sitting home all day. And I'm proud of them."

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