It’s 6 PM on July 17th, two days before the 17th of Tammuz, and small planes are circling my house. The people in them are trying to assess the fire raging in the Jerusalem Forest below Yad V’Shem, not far from my home. Will it destroy the museum that commemorates the Holocaust? Will it cause the nearby oil refinery in Givat Shaul to explode? Will the fire department tell those living in Beit Hakerem, Har Nof and Moshav Beit Zayit where I live to evacuate? Like sin, fire creeps at the door and nobody knows how it will end.
“Come, come,” my daughter-in-law pleads on the phone from Gilo, her neighborhood in southern Jerusalem. “It’s safe here.” Living west of Jerusalem, I didn’t even know I was close to the fire, as the wind is blowing the smoke to the east. My only sign something was amiss was that our electricity went out. I didn’t mind the blackout, since we don’t have air conditioning and it’s light outside until 8 PM. What’s a few melted ice cubes and a dead computer when fire rages?
David, my partner who grew up in southern California bush fire country, reads Jerusalem, The Biography on the sofa, nonplussed by the flames in the nearby forest and slightly annoyed by the drama raging in my brain. “What will you take with you,” I ask, “if we have to evacuate? Where will we walk? What should I wear?” Without pausing he says, “I’ll take my briefcase, you and my guitar.” Just hearing this makes the fire worthwhile. Sometimes you have to be on the edge of disaster to hear what’s important to your mate. I immediately imagine David carrying me over his shoulder into the wadi and when I share this heroic image, he looks at me as if I’m crazy and says what to him is the obvious. “You’ll walk!”
And what should I wear, thinking I should get dressed now in order not to lose time when the flames reach our street. “Long pants, longsleeve shirt and closed shoes,” he says with the voice of experience.
What will I take, I wonder. My mind is on fire from the imagined scenario: We barely escape the encroaching flames, David carrying me over his shoulder, me carrying my laptop, digital camera and photos of my children, both of us arriving hot and tired at the moist open lowland in the wadi just in time to watch our house explode. “Shall we say Birkat Hagomel now or later?” He doesn’t even look up from the book that details Jerusalem’s other fires which all took place in the summer. In two days we will note the 17th of Tammuz when the Romans started their seige which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem. “Maybe it’s a Roman plot?” He sinks deeper into his chair and I know he wishes he had mastered the electronic earplugs I bought him, though they wouldn’t help now with no electricity in the house. My daughter calls and I answer “It’s me from the bunker.” She’s thinks the Tammuz heat is melting my brain, but I tell her it’s the fire. “What fire?” she asks and I tell her everything I know which takes three seconds. “Listen to the radio for me,” I request, “since we have no electricity and no reception on the transistor” and as I detail our predicament I realize I like this feeling of being threatened, under seige, this heightened feeling of danger, disaster and potential catastrophe which the fire has ignited.
Later, when the danger passes, I realize these few minutes are a microcosm of the tension we in Israel live with all the time, at least those of us who read newspapers, listen to the radio and watch TV news. We need this excitement and we’re used to it. Without it, life is dull. I recall headlines when I lived in Minneapolis for two years: A deer broke a porch in someone’s backyard. The Twins lost. Our headlines threaten destruction on a daily basis and we love the threat. We wouldn’t recognize normalcy or peace if we tripped over them in a park.
In Israel there is always an enemy lurking at the door. Today it is fire (lit, no doubt, by some nuclear-happy Iranian). This is the adrenaline rush we crave, the ecstacy that drives Israeli men to declare war without thinking of the results. We can subdue the enemy. We can vanquish the flames. We’re invincible.
Even I, who am no pyromaniac, was glued to the TV screen when the Carmel fire raged last summer. Seeing the forest burn was profoundly sad and breathtaking, like seeing an eclipse of the sun or watching a tsunami from a safe distance. Or like watching the city burn.
In normal times we delude ourselves that we can control everything–other people, countries, nature. But suddenly a wave crashes, embers ignite, wind changes direction and we are forced to confront our vulnerability, a helplessness that knows no borders. We are humbled into respecting the forces of air, water, fire and earth. It’s a lesson to the haughty of every nation who think they are immune and invincible. Fire says, Everyone is vulnerable. Jerusalem can fall again.