The New Year season in Israel is marked by a unique set of sights, sounds and smells.
Markets burst with color. The bright scarlet of bulging pomegranates, deep shiny purple eggplant, huge green grapes and succulent dark brown dates line the stalls. The sharp sound of the shofar reverberates through the slightly damp air of the early morning, as the faithful heed its plaintive call to repentance during the days leading up to Yom Kippur. The scent of the last of the summer flowers lingers in the air, mixed with the fragrant odors of traditional holiday food wafting out of kitchens and bakeries all over the city.
It's hard to comprehend that in the midst of such vibrancy, Israelis continue to face existential threats from neighboring enemies that claimed hundreds of lives over the past months.
Since last Rosh Hashanah, the frequency of terror attacks inside Israel has thankfully declined, due to unprecedented levels of security awareness and crafty intelligence work. But who can forget the murder of 7-month-old Shaked Avraham killed by Arab terrorists while sitting down to Rosh Hashanah dinner with her family in Negohot a few years back? Her killer was among those prisoners released from Israeli detention in a goodwill gesture two months earlier. Today, negotiations are underway for a prisoner release that would supposedly spring Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit from Hamas clutches.
Reaction in Israel to terrorist killings or outrageous demands is muted. There are no wild cries on the streets to avenge the murders. No calls for anything more than effective self defense. The political debate centers on the most efficient way of protecting innocent lives. Some believe the security barrier will do the trick; others support a more sustained campaign to eliminate known terrorists. Arab Knesset members have their say too and are frequent guests on the TV political talk shows that dominate prime time Israeli TV.
Many Israelis have arrived at the conclusion that there is little we can do to effect change in Arab society. The fundamental adjustments in attitude that must occur before Arabs are ready to accept Israel's right to exist in the region and abandon terror as a means of political discourse have to come from within. MK Binyamin Netanyahu puts it this way: "The test of whether we're moving toward peace will come not when we fight the terrorists, but when the Palestinians fight the terrorists among them."
Meantime, it's hard to get out to celebrate a wedding when friends are mourning a son lost in the war. It's difficult to go to a concert when you pass neighbors on their way to the rehab unit to tend to their severely injured son. It's a major hassle to pass time in your idling car waiting in a long line for the security guard to check every vehicle entering the local shopping mall. But because of Arab violence, this is what passes for normal life these days.
The Jewish New Year is a time of reflection and self-examination. This year, the prayers and hopes of Israelis are no different than they've been in the past. A year of peace and tranquility where those distinctive New Year sights sounds and smells may be fully savored and we may look forward not in dread, but in anticipation of better days to come.