Haifa, Israel — In the small camera store, a 30-something mother with two children in tow started screaming at the petite, gray-haired woman standing next to me. The older woman’s offense? One of her feet was too close to the door, preventing the mother from opening it enough to push her stroller through.
The screaming was pungent and the tension palpable. It ended shortly after it began, though not soon enough for my American sensibilities. But after reflecting for a while on the silly squabble, my distaste turned to an odd serenity.
Normalcy had returned.
As I trekked last week across the north of Israel, the only signs that the area was just a month removed from being a war zone were some battered buildings, an unusually high volume of earth-moving equipment, and a handful of tanks on the highway on large flatbed trucks. Otherwise, life seemed almost like it was just a few months ago, right down to social interaction.
Israelis liken themselves to the sabra, a fruit with a tough, prickly hide that envelops a sweet, soft interior. The rugged exterior part of the analogy is regularly on display, not just in traffic jams or store aisles, but even in service-oriented business, such as hotels and restaurants.
Fights can erupt anytime, anywhere. Israelis yell at strangers, neighbors, and friends. Fighting aside, normal conversation is often terse, even brusque. Perhaps owing to their spoken language—Hebrew, I’ve been told, has one-fifth the working vocabulary of English—Israelis are blunt, to put it nicely. Even tourists are not immune. At the hotel, for example, the chef responded to my request for extra cheese on my omelette by barking that there was already enough.
Finding the soft, sweet core of sabra Israelis is typically a tougher task. Not during the war, though. Israelis banded together in every way possible, and the national mood was noticeably different. Even the notoriously fractious political culture stood united.
But something uniquely Israeli also happened. Residents of the north who refused to be cooped up in bomb shelters boarded buses and headed south. Even though the suddenness of it all meant that destinations had not been worked out in advance, most of the evacuees were not worried. Nor should they have been. Across the country—well, the areas out of Hezbollah’s rocket range—Israelis volunteered to take in displaced residents from the north.
A young Israeli woman said it best, “Israelis have hot tempers, but warm hearts.”
While crowds once again pack restaurants and malls in the north, the generous spirit that marked the wartime has not died. When I visited the Rambam hospital in Haifa, I sat in on an art therapy session involving roughly two dozen patients. Walking from table to table and doling out advice was award-winning artist and best-selling children’s book author Hanoch Piven. Creating a more dynamic version of arts and crafts, patients assembled artwork out of wide array of items, from string to plastic trinkets to Brillo pad.
Though his costs are covered by Roche Pharmaceuticals, Piven doesn’t need to do this. He’s long past his “starving” phase, yet he comes back to his home country periodically from his Barcelona residence in order to lead these art therapy sessions. He was making the rounds of Israeli hospitals two months ago, but obviously couldn’t travel to the one in Haifa while rockets were raining down. So he vowed to come back.
The incredible assortment of materials “allows patients to express themselves in ways they otherwise couldn’t,” Piven explained. One created a portrait of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. When I asked him why, he responded, “Why not?” At the 20-minute sit-down group discussion afterward, several of the participants expressed the anxiety they felt during the 33-day war. There were tears, laughter, and sometimes both at once.
Further north in Nahariya, stores were also bustling and residents appeared to be out in full force. Just as in Haifa, I visited homes destroyed by katyusha rockets. One in particular struck me. The entire facade was charred, and almost everything inside had also been burnt to a crisp. What was amazing is that this extensive damage did not come from a direct hit. Visible in the front yard was the spot where the katyusha had landed, some 15 feet from the front of the house. The hole in the ground was less than a foot in diameter and maybe a few feet deep, yet the footprint of its devastation was far greater.
In Kiryat Shmonah near the Lebanese border, most interesting was the appearance of one of the bomb shelters. The above-ground portions were painted to be as kid-friendly as possible. Most likely done by a professional artist, the colors are bright and the drawings of children and their families are warm and inviting. Happy as the outside of the bomb shelters may appear, though, children in the area do not seem enamored of it after spending a month trapped inside because Islamic terrorists were trying to murder them.
For as nice as it is that normalcy has returned to northern Israel, it is not lost on anyone there that “normal” doesn’t change that they are wanted dead by their neighbors.