August 16, 2001
Her eyes, I think, will stay with me forever. Imploring, beseeching, full of so much sadness. I think the shock of where and how she was, was sinking in. I can't begin to describe all that was in those eyes.
Thursday, Aug. 9, the 20th of Av. On my way to work, I found myself walking down Jaffa street. Hungry, I decided to stop and grab a quick bite -- at Sbarro's Pizza.
In the past five years, I have frequented this establishment exactly twice.
Walking into Sbarro's there is a larger area for sitting in the front, but the back looked a bit cooler and quieter, so I decided to grab a seat in the back. That decision saved my life.
Waiting on line, when they brought me the baked ziti I asked for, it was cold. So I asked the woman behind the counter if she'd mind warming it up. "Ein ba'ayah," no problem, she said with a smile. I will always wonder if that was her last smile on earth.
A couple of moments later, a fellow from behind the counter came to the back with my baked ziti. Then he started to speak to someone at one of the tables. That baked ziti saved his life.
At about 2 p.m., I both felt and heard a tremendous explosion, and day turned into night.
And then the screaming began. An awful, heartrending sound; the sound of people coming to terms with a whole new reality, of people not wanting to comprehend that life has changed forever.
Those of us sitting in the back were spared, but I was afraid of panic, so I started yelling at everyone to quiet down; not to panic. The ceiling looked like it might cave in, but there is always the danger of a second explosion, detonated on purpose shortly after the first.
But then I smelled smoke, and was suddenly afraid the restaurant might be on fire. So, we started climbing our way through the wreckage to the front.
Would there be another explosion? Would the roof collapse? Were we making the wrong decision by climbing through? These are moments that last a lifetime.
There are no words to describe what the front of Sbarro's Pizza looked like in the immediate aftermath of that explosion.
A woman was lying near the steps to the back. Her eyes were staring straight at me, following me. So full of pain and longing, sadness and despair. I dropped down beside her trying to see if she could speak. And then I watched the life just drain out of her. I tried to get a pulse, to no avail. She died there, on the steps in front of me. She was lying by the table I had decided not to sit at.
There were bodies everywhere, and those images are in my mind, they won't let go. A child's body under the wreckage; a baby-carriage; limbs and a torso; A woman holding a motorcycle helmet and screaming next to a person on the floor who had obviously been someone she was with.
And then the mad rush to help the ambulance and emergency crews get the wounded out. They were obviously afraid of a second bomb, so there was no medical effort inside beyond getting the wounded onto stretchers and out: a religious Jew was in tears and shock missing at least two limbs. What do you say? "Yehiyeh beseder," it'll be all right? Will it?
I happened to sit a bit to the left as you walk towards the back, and so the wall behind me shielded me from the blast. Another fellow whom we went back in to get wasn't so lucky. Sitting only five or six feet to my left, he caught the full force of the blast and was thrown in the air. When we got him on the stretcher he was bleeding profusely and was missing a leg.
There are no words to describe what that man's hand, clenched around my arm, felt like. He just kept looking from me to his leg and back again. I started saying tehillim.
So many mixed emotions fill my head today. I came home last night and gave each of my children a very long hug. But, there are so many families today who are waking up to the reality that life will never be the same. Seventeen funerals with friends and families saying goodbye to those they loved so, whose only crime was a desire for a slice of pizza on a beautiful Jerusalem afternoon.
I recall once reading a story of a boy who was saved from a near-drowning by a stranger. As the fellow carried him ashore, the boy looked up and said, "thanks for saving my life, mister." To which the man responded: "Just make sure it was worth saving."
Tonight we celebrate Shabbat. All over Israel, in eight hours, parents will bless their children at the Shabbat table. I imagine we will all hug them a little tighter this week.
Wherever you are, and whomever you are, be with us here, in Yerushalyim, and offer up a prayer for all those who lost loved ones in that terrible tragedy.
Rabbi Binny Friedman works for the Isralight Institute in Jerusalem and lives in Efrat.