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Dealing With It
by Judy Lash Balint
March 20, 2003

I finally did it. Last night, a few hours ahead of George Bush's deadline for the showdown with Sadaam, I teetered on a step ladder and fumbled with the plastic and tape that's supposed to save us from the unspeakable.

I've had the supplies on hand for a few days already, but couldn't quite summon up the will to actually carry out the task. I guess I was feeling some peer pressure to get my act together and be prepared, but my more rational and sceptical side kept me from doing it.

The final straw came when I was questioned by the host of a Seattle based radio talk show, where I provide occasional commentary from Jerusalem. During last night's call, Dave Ross, now broadcasting to his listeners back home from Qatar, asked what I personally had done to prepare. I could tell that my answer--"not much yet, Dave--was not what he was looking for. It would have been much better radio if I could have gone on for a few minutes about my stash of food, extra batteries, liters of water and taped up windows. I should even have been able to tell him that I'd tried out my gas mask, but the order to do so only came an hour later from the Home Front Command.

Still, after we hung up and I tuned in to the latest domestic radio bulletins, I figured I had the stuff in the apartment anyway, why not make use of it. Of course I didn't exactly follow the directions in the Emergency Handbook that every Israeli household received last month. I'm more inclined to go along with Prime Minister Arik Sharon's reassurances that Israel's chances of being hit with anything are about 1 in 100. With that in mind, I feel that I'm "yotze" (fulfilling my end) by just doing something that at least resembles preparation.

I spent a good 15 minutes eyeing my kitchen door from all angles--and feeling pretty stupid about doing so. I could have been catching up on some reading, relaxing in front of the TV or even sleeping, but here I was at midnight scrutinizing my kitchen door!

It's a wide sliding door that doesn't really close. I could figure out how to seal it from the outside, but then how the heck would I get in? If I was able to seal the door from the inside, the same problem presented itself. Finally, I settled on cutting a piece of plastic the right size and leaving it by the door, next to the roll of tape. When/if the time comes, we're supposed to get a few minutes notice, so my plan is to run up the ladder then and tape myself in.

I had to rummage in the back of the bedroom closet to get at the gas mask box. Opening it up for the first time I almost felt like saying "Shehechiyanu." (Blessing recited over anything new or experienced for the first time in a year) We are told to open the filter and attach it to the mask. Try it on, adjust the straps and make sure the mask is airtight. The smell and feel of the rubber on my face reminds me of a snorkeling mask. Glasses don't fit under the mask, so it'll be an audio-only experience in my sealed room, since I can't read without glasses. Now put it back in the box, we're told, and carry it around with you everywhere you go.

This morning, hardly anyone either in my neighborhood, or in the center of town is observing that order. Schoolchildren are supposed to be taking the masks to school, but I saw plenty of middle-school kids walking or biking to the middle-school at the end of my block with no tell-tale big brown box slung over their shoulders. On the main street in my neighborhood I do see an English friend striding to work with her box safeguarded in a plastic bag in her hand. I catch up to her and she rolls her eyes. "Look at me. I feel like such an idiot--no one else is carrying their mask. How uncool am I??" she plaintively asks. Like me, she is one of those who was not here during the last gas-mask war.

At the other extreme are friends who did live through that one. They live in Jerusalem's Old City and have almost remodeled their entire apartment to seal up all their bedrooms this time. The wife even brought back thirty protective suits from a recent trip abroad to give to family and friends. I now have a pale blue plasticized suit with white booties to accompany my black rubber gas mask....

Meanwhile, e-mail messages of concern pour in from friends and even slight aquaintances abroad. Of course I appreciate the sentiment, but I'm just a little bit more concerned about them over there. To me, the likelihood of a mass terror attack on US or British soil is far more likely than any damage that might occur in our overprotected Israeli society. It's much easier to defend and protect a scant 6 million people in a country that fits into Lake Michigan, than to try to prevent a terror assault in the US, where the enemy is not nearly so well-identified.

But maybe my attitude would be different if I lived in Haifa or Tel Aviv. Haifa, a port city with its complex of petro-chemical factories and oil refineries, has battened down the hatches. Nine Scud missiles hit Haifa last time, and some Haifa residents have taken off for Eilat or The Dead Sea. So far, the only exodus from Jerusalem has been of foreign journalists and the Government Press Office, which moved its operations to Tel Aviv. The foreign press speculates that if Israel is to be targeted at all, Tel Aviv will be the best vantage point. The Sheba Hospital has generously offered its roof for viewing.

With radio listenership up, some stations have taken to broadcasting relaxing music, in between the official pronouncements and news alerts. Others, like my favorite, Radio Jerusalem, are making light of the whole matter. This afternoon, the frenetic Didi Harari, host of the afternoon program ran a series of hilarious "interviews" with characters like Iraq's Tariq Aziz. A few gas mask jokes follow: Two guys ogling a young woman: "Ooooh, look at the filter on her!!" The new curse: "May your filter be blocked."

I know I didn't feel this way twelve years ago, during the Gulf War. I remember sitting in Seattle, absolutely overcome with foreboding and dread at what was occuring in Israel. I was a round-the-clock CNN watcher, cringing with the news of every Scud falling on Israeli soil.

Somehow, being here is a lot easier. Despite Israel's reputation for inefficient bureaucracy, in times of crisis, things come together. Things have been so tense here over the past thirty months of Arab instigated violence that this current rise in the temperature doesn't feel so different.

There's no doubt that the world is to change in significant and unforeseen ways over the next few fateful weeks--for the better, one can only hope and pray.