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Sealed Rooms, Open Hearts

Mishpacha Staff

January 1991. Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait. America prepares for Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait and defend its oil supply, building a coalition of countries around the world — including Arab regimes — against the “Butcher of Bagdad.” But Saddam has a secret method for cracking the coalition against him: he bombards Israel with Scud missiles. Twenty years later, memories of the sirens, the panic, the run for the sealed rooms — and the gratitude for salvation against the odds.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, radically transforms the life of those of us living in Eretz Yisrael. Despite months of his threats to incinerate Israel, we have been lulled into a false sense of security by the constant bluster of the Israeli government that Saddam surely knows that any attack on Israel will elicit a response of such magnitude that no sane leader could contemplate it. The blitzkrieg into Kuwait, however, reveals a high-stakes gambler who just might be willing to call that bluff.

For the next five months, it seems that no conversation — even among those with no thought of leaving — is complete without the questions, “Are you staying?” and “Do you think there will be a war?” as if to make sure that they are not somehow acting irresponsibly.

Another aspect of every conversation is an almost ritualistic comparison of notes about hysterical calls from parents in the States, pleading with their children to “come home.” The calls began almost immediately with the invasion itself and reach a crescendo as the UN deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait draws near. These calls do more to frighten people here than anything we are hearing on the news.

A baal teshuvah friend notes wryly that his parents, who did not exactly grow up on emunah and bitachon, have not once suggested the possibility of returning home despite having four children and ten grandchildren here. I point out to him that religious parents imagine that their children can simply return to their respective birthplaces and lead the same lives that they did here; his parents are under no such illusion. Second, many religious parents either experienced themselves, or come from families that experienced, the horrors of the Holocaust, and are bound to be hypersensitive to threats of danger.

The most widely circulated story concerns a baal teshuvah learning in Bnei Brak who returned to the States in response to his parents’ pleading, only to be called up with the Army reserves and sent to Saudi Arabia. Another frequently told story involves a yeshivah bochur who returned home, only to be killed in a car crash on the way from the airport.

The first story is true; the second hopefully not. But both express the mood of those who have decided to stay: there is no point running away, as all is in the Hands of Hashem.

My wife’s pleas to get our sealed room in shape grow more importunate as January 15 approaches. I try to pretend that I am too fearless to be bothered, but suspect that the truth is known: my manual dexterity does not seem to be up to taping the large plastic sheet over the window to the whitewashed wall. By the time I’m ready to make my third attempt, all the appropriate tape seems to have disappeared from the stores.

At 3 a.m. Wednesday night, January 17, my sister-in-law calls to say that the war has started. My brother was up for his shift on his community’s around-the-clock Tehillim vigil when he heard the news. We grab the radio and repair to what is to be our sealed room. The news seems to have invested my fingers with a hitherto unsuspected nimbleness, and within minutes the plastic sheet is up. We spend the rest of the night listening to the breathless reports from Iraq.

The mood on the streets the next day is euphoric. If anyone paid attention to the caveats of government spokesmen that it is too early to know whether Iraq’s entire missile capacity has been destroyed or not, it is not immediately evident.

We have played over and over in our minds how will we react if there is a real missile attack, but when the attack comes at 2:30 a.m. the next morning, the first moments are spent trying to figure out whether we are hearing a siren or not. People are calling family and friends in Israel from America with news of the attack before Israel Radio has switched from its regular programming. Had we not have been called, we might well have slept through the faint siren. Many do.

Given the time it takes us to herd the groggy, whimpering children into the sealed room, it is fortunate that the missiles fell far away. The low point in our first night comes as we are sealing the door in the room, when the older children start screaming in unison, “Where’s the baby?” My wife and I look at each other, as if to say, “I thought you were getting him.”

We flunked our first night’s test — only half the children in their masks and tents by the time the “all clear” sounded.

The next day, everyone’s concern is with preparations of the sealed rooms for Shabbos. Even the radio carries extensive discussions of the halachos of Shabbos preparations.

Nothing heightens one’s sense of being alive like the fear of death. Looking at pictures of the destruction from the first night’s attack, the word “miracle” flashes at you like a neon sign. Entire apartment buildings collapsed, over a thousand apartments are damaged, and yet only seventeen people are slightly injured. A journalist for one of the virulently antireligious papers writes, “The sight is horrifying. ‘Miracle’ is too small a word to describe the fine line between the bloody massacre that might have taken place here, and the small numbers of lightly wounded that resulted in actuality.”


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