For Elizabeth Reichert
When the sun comes down on Tel Aviv, it comes down hard. You open a window and darkness is everywhere. You think, Wasn’t this land lit up just now? Wasn’t the air yellow only moments ago? But you can never be sure.
You came to visit from New York when your sister was enlisted—of course you did—and her new olive uniform could have fit two of her.
When the sun comes down on Tel Aviv it comes down hard, and on the days when people try to remember, it comes down even harder. In Israel, there are days devoted to the task of remembering. This is how a nation achieves collective remembrance: it freezes to the sound of a wailing siren for the duration of one minute, or two. Cars stop mid-road, screaming babies go unattended, and if you open the television or radio you hear nothing but the soundtrack of grief.
Now here’s the thing: remembrance sirens sound exactly like wartime sirens, and in Tel Aviv, this can get confusing. It especially gets confusing if you are someone who currently lives abroad. If Tel Aviv is your hometown but on this Day of Remembrance you are merely visiting, this is what will happen to you: You’ll be brushing your teeth, when suddenly you’ll hear a gentle cry growing into something violent, the roar of a manmade wailing machine. You will think that maybe a new war is starting, or an old one returning, because the Gulf War is something that your body remembers, and sirens are part of that memory.
You were twelve and for a while your family moved from city to city in an attempt to avoid danger, but the Scud missiles seemed to follow you. Finally you settled in a town called Raanana that seemed far enough from peril and close enough to routine: school for you, day care for your sister, work for your parents, every morning all of you clutching your boxed gas-masks like purses. You got your first period in that temporary home, and in the bathroom which was not your bathroom you stared at the blood for a long time. Then: the siren; another missile was on its way.
Brushing your teeth you will think about that war and say to yourself, This is probably nothing. A few seconds later you will open the bathroom door and shout to your sister, What’s going on? but she will not hear you over the piercing sound of her music; on this Day of Remembrance she is a soldier on her day off, trying hard to forget. You’ll spit, and with toothpaste on your lips like foam you’ll shout again, you’ll shout loud. Your sister will hear you. She will step out of her room and gasp. This is what she will scream: Tzfirah! In Hebrew, the siren that reminds people to remember has a special name – Tzfirah.
You will want to laugh at the absurdity of the moment, but you will not. You will want to hug your sister with too much force and whisper, Don’t go back, but you will not. Let’s pretend we can’t hear it, you will want to say; let’s walk over to the kitchen, toast some bread, fry some eggs. But you will not. For the remaining twenty seconds, this is what you will do: stand still alongside your sister, listen to the siren, and think about death, about darkness that takes over a city in a flash when the sun comes down hard.