Last year, we spent an unforgettable summer in Israel. Unforgettable because Israel is the place where my heart and my breath are one. Unforgettable because it was the first time we showed our kids the land, the history, the life of our people. Unforgettable because my children met aunts, uncles, cousins they had never met before, and the love and connection transcended all distance, time and language. Unforgettable because on a beautiful, hot summer morning we celebrated my oldest son’s bar mitzvah at the Kotel in Jerusalem in the midst of a war.
The summer of 2014 was the summer of Operation Protective Edge. It was the summer of intense conflict between Israel and Gaza. It was the summer my children and I learnt words in Hebrew we didn’t know existed, and some we’d never even heard in English: Iron Dome (Kipat Barzel), alert/siren (azakah), protected room (mamad).
It was the summer my children learnt more about the country of my dreams and desires than I could ever have taught them.
My kids appeared unfazed by the relentless sirens and rocket attacks. We spent time in a bomb shelter somewhere almost every day, and they seemed to accept this as part of life in a complicated country.
Since we returned, I have wondered what they absorbed from that unforgettable summer. What they remembered, and would remember as time goes by. How the experience would color their imaginings, views, hopes of the world, that country, their own lives.
My fifth grade boy, Zak, wrote a memoir essay for school last week:
Unfair by Zak Gilbert, age 11
What does fair mean? Is it fair if you get two cookies and your sister gets one? Is it fair that your brother gets $20 for cleaning his room and you get $7 for doing the same? Is it fair to do an activity that your sibling really wants to do without them? Is it fair that there is a very nice, unfortunate old lady down the road?
Is it fair that in some places in the world there are children who are stuck in a bomb shelter for half their summer break?
We finished dinner and went to play at the park near the restaurant. Suddenly out of nowhere the siren went off! I heard that annoying loud sound that signals a near coming bomb.
Again? I thought. I tried to pick up my baby cousin. I grabbed her from behind but she felt like a crate of baseballs. I put the cute little crate of baseballs down and yelled to my big brother, “Take Stella!”
I ran but looked back to make sure Daniel had her. I continued running and soon jumped over the plants and dashed down the shelter stairs and looked around for my mom and aunt, who was sobbing. “Where’s Stella?!” she screamed. “STELLA!”
I knew where they were. I needed to get this information to this freaked out, 30-something-year-old, first time mom who was on a different continent in a bomb shelter without her three-year-old. “She’s fine. She’s with Daniel, don’t worry,” I said calmly.
“Are you sure, Zak?”
No, Mom. I thought sarcastically. I gave her to some random shop keeper. Out loud, I said, “Yeah.”
I looked around and thought, This is not fair. Maybe someone was about to propose, or maybe someone was going to meet their mom whom they haven’t seen, but are instead in this crowded shelter. It’s not fair that I’m in a bomb shelter in Israel when my dad is in California working at his office, safe from bombs. Or how I’m only here for 2 months, but people have to live here all the time. My cousins who live here may not even start school until September, maybe even October because of the bombing, who knows. It’s not fair for my brother, who’s not even 13 years old yet, and he’s looking after three kids in a bomb shelter.
What I’ve come to realize is, whether I like it or not, life is sometimes not fair.
Eventually, the sirens stopped and we reunited with the others in the park. We took about several minutes to recount the recent events and catch everyone up.
Now I know. Now I can relate. Now I understand that sometimes life will be unfair. Sometimes you’ll get two cookies and your sister will get one and that isn’t fair but, hey, at least you got a cookie so in a way it is fair. If your parents only let you watch TV after you’ve done your chores, and then don’t let you watch TV then that’s not fair because they change the rules and that’s not fair. Life is unfair.
I don’t like that things are unfair, and before the bomb shelter experience, I knew life was unfair. But now I really know. Things will be unfair and sometimes you just have to accept life the way it is.
This essay has been published with the permission of the author.