Buying groceries in a war-zone

Update from Israel, July 21 2006

by Forest Rain, Lionheart 

How many of us take the grocery store for granted? We assume the store will always be there, packed with the merchandise we want, available all day long… 

In a war zone all these assumptions fly out the window.  

The army has directed all the citizens of northern Israel to stay indoors, in secure locations, except when it is absolutely necessary to go out.  

Residents of all the northern towns, including Karmiel where I live, are not to go to work, go shopping or visit friends until further notice. It is summer, warm, sunny and bright with blue skies and puffy, friendly looking clouds but the kids’ summer camps are cancelled. Kids can’t play outside, go swimming or go to friends’ houses. Parents are unable to work which means that they are not making money to provide for their families, pay the bills and put food on the table. Moreover, parents need to keep their kids entertained for hours on end, often in a single room (i.e. the bomb shelter or the secure room in their home). This has been going on for ten days now. Can you imagine living with your entire family, in one room, for ten days with no end in sight? 

And then there is that simple fact of life – people need to eat. After so many meals the food in the house starts running low… then what do you do?? 

Rockets can land anywhere, anytime. The sirens, if they go off in time, give about one minutes warning that it is necessary to get to a safe location. Going out to the grocery store is not so simple… 

The army said we are supposed to stay home and not go to work; that includes those who work at the store, stock the store, clean the store etc. There are no announcements as to what is open and what isn’t as we do not want to put ideas about potential targets in to the heads of the Hizballah operatives. There are many questions to take into consideration when thinking about getting groceries while missiles are raining down on your town: is it safe enough to go out? Is the store open? Is there food in the store? What if you are driving down the road on the way to the store when the siren goes off? What if a rocket lands when you are putting your groceries in the car?  

On Tuesday my mother and I had to go get some things for our home. Today we went out to buy groceries for my grandparents.  

During a lull in the bombings we decided it was safe enough to go out. We called the store, were told they were open so we went directly there, the idea being to get to the store before more missiles were fired on our town.  

Driving to the store was strange. It was an especially beautiful day, the trees a glorious green, flowering bushes lining the road, sunny but not too hot, a day to be enjoyed but except for police cars patrolling Karmiel the streets were practically empty. All the other stores were closed. The restaurants were empty, closed, blinds drawn. On the holy day of Yom Kippur the streets are also empty and the stores are closed, then too no one drives or works, but on Yom Kippur the atmosphere is one of peace and contemplation. The feeling in the air today is one of baited breath and choked throats.   

There are quite a few grocery stores in Karmiel. Our favorite is at the edge of the city. On the way to the store we pass one of Karmiel’s malls, the industrial area and Karmiel’s cemetery. Usually the mall parking lot is full. Since ours is not such a large town and funerals are not held all that frequently, the cemetery parking lot is usually empty.  On Tuesday the over flowing parking lot told us there was a funeral going on at the time we drove by. There was a funeral today as well. Again there were far too many cars for the usually ample parking lot.  On both days a soldier was buried. Dov Steinshos, 37 years old, was a husband, father and comrade. Nadav Baeloha was a young man, only 21, so cherished for his special, big-hearted personality that those who knew him nicknamed him “Soul”. 

 The army said to stay inside unless it was absolutely necessary to go out. Hundreds of people found it necessary to be outside, nowhere near a safe location, in order to pay their last respects to these two sons of Israel. They came to show their love for the departed and for the newly bereaved. They came to uphold family, to say with their presence: “One of your family members is gone but we too are your family and we are here”.  

With their physical presence hundreds gave testimony, thanks and a promise to the departed souls. These two soldiers died to enable their people the simple right to be outside and enjoy a beautiful summer day. Many do not want us to be able to stand free and tall in our own country. For love of these two soldiers and for love of the family of Israel hundreds stood outside, refusing to let fear chain them indoors, refusing to abandon their comrades, their family. Each time, both my mother and I, on our mundane errand, had the urge to get out and add our physical presence to that of those attending the funerals. We didn’t know either man but their loss cut deeply nonetheless. 

Today a siren DID go off while people were outside, participating in Nadav’s funeral. Miraculously they were unhurt; the rockets did not hit the cemetery. My brave, brave people… I love them and I am so very thankful for all the miracles we experience in this country. 

This is a perfect example of life in Israel – events that are spiritually and emotionally enormous are just another episode in the physical realm of day to day life. Twice my mother and I passed funerals on our way to the store. They were “just” one more event, something we drove by. It seems strange but that’s life, at least that’s life in Israel. 

When we got to the grocery store there were very few cars in the parking lot, nowhere near the usual number. On what is usually the busiest shopping time of the week (Friday in the middle of the day, before the Sabbath) the store seemed almost lonely. Adhering to the safety precautions necessitated by the constant attacks, most people stayed at home. 

Instead of the usual single security guard at the door, two were on duty. One was an Arab and one was a Jew (Did you know that it is common to see Arabs working as security guards for Israeli businesses?). We asked the guards how they were feeling and they both tried to say things we might find soothing: “It will be ok” and “We’ll be fine”. 

The grocery store is a great equalizer. Everyone eats; everyone has to buy food from someplace. Our grocery store is a microcosm Israeli society – on any given day you will find people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and religions shopping and working together.  

In this time of war the store is different. It opens and closes at different times, depending on how safe it is to be out of the bomb shelters. When we walked in the first thing we saw was a sign with an arrow pointing in the direction of the store’s bomb shelter.  

We noted with satisfaction that all the shelves are stocked, the aisles clean and the store workers at their usual stations. These basic things are not to be taken for granted in a time of war. At second glance we realized that there are fewer workers than usual, only a skeleton staff.  

A woman working at the cheese counter explained that there are two reasons why only some of the staff works at a time: because there needs to be room in the bomb shelter for all the customers and the staff in case of an attack and because it is dangerous to come to work so it is necessary to endanger the minimum amount of workers while still being able to serve the public. She said with pride: “I come to work because I have a duty to feed the people!” My mother and I watched this woman sooth a nervous co-worker, a Russian-Jewish woman who is probably now experiencing war for the first time. A different worker (who was not there today) once told me that she had lived in Sinai when it still belonged to Israel and was forced to leave when Israel gave up that beautiful expanse of land for the cold peace we currently have with Egypt. Even in normal times the stores is filled with people from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences… 

Looking around I noticed another major difference in the store. Not only were there many fewer customers than usual, most of the customers were men and there were no children in the store. Some of the men were in uniform, soldiers who had to be outside anyway, sparing their family the danger of going out by doing the shopping on the way back from the army base. 

Usually the store is full of families: young Jewish couples, shopping together along with their new baby, Christian-Arab and Muslim-Arab families who bring all their family members along for the shopping trip, religious Jewish women who may or may not be accompanied by their husband, shopping with kids in tow. Today there were Jews and Arabs. A Muslim man brought his 20-something daughter to the store, possibly she can’t drive and he doesn’t know what to purchase without female help (in most Muslim households the kitchen and cooking is woman’s business). My mother and I went together as did another Anglo-Saxon mother and daughter pair about the same age as we are. My mother is friends with the other mother; I went to high school with that family’s son. A week ago in one of the katushas attacks on Karmiel windows of that family’s house were broken by the impact of the missiles hitting the house kitty-corner from them. Today they were in the store, they too needed groceries.  

The grocery store staff, like the customers, is of all ethnicities and religions. The cashiers are Arab and Jewish women. Many of the Jewish women are immigrants from Russia. The Arab workers are mostly Christian-Arabs from the villages near Karmiel.  

Today the store manager, an Arab, prowled the premises, uncomfortably. As we entered the store he asked if the siren had gone off. It hadn’t. Like many others, he was hearing the wail of the siren even when it wasn’t actually on. A couple of my mother’s patients, the only people who have been determined enough to come for treatment this past week, and who are both Holocaust-survivors, are also hearing the siren ringing in their ears, even when it isn’t on. It sounds exactly like the air-raid sirens they heard when the allied forces were bombing Germany. 

The fabric of our society is made more beautiful by its complexity. Israel is the country of the Jews but many Israelis are not Jewish. Each person adds a different thread to the weaving. Jews come from all over the world – from Arab and Muslim countries such as Iraq, Morocco and Yemen, they come from Eastern-European countries such as Russia, Ukraine and Romania. Jews have made aliyah from India, Ethiopia, Spain, France, Germany, England, Argentina, South Africa, Australia… the list goes on and on. Jews vary greatly in the way they express their Jewishness, from being ultra-orthodox to being a post-modernist atheist. A Jew is Jewish by religion, culture, lineage and history.  And then there are the Arabs, Christian-Arabs and Muslim-Arabs. There are the traditionally nomadic Bedouin who are Muslim by religion but differ in culture from the Muslims who come from a city-dwellers background. There are Druze who are Arabs by culture but have an entirely different religion. It is not easy to integrate people from such a wide variety of backgrounds into a single society. Many difficulties arise but in the instances where the different groups come together with acceptance in their hearts and minds each is enriched by the other’s differences.  

My grocery store is just one of many examples where the different elements of Israeli society come together peacefully, to the mutual benefit of all. Many people seem to think that Jews and Arabs can not and will never be able to get along. The experience of buying groceries at my grocery store, even (or maybe especially) during this current time of war proves otherwise.   

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