a different side of Israel

Not Jewish?! What are you doing here? (Part Six)

Not Jewish!? What are you doing here?
In Part Six of “Not Jewish?!”, our heroine reminisces about life in Tel Aviv during the first days of Gulf War II. Carrying around a gas mask in a cardboard box seemed like a weirdly retro, 1940s moment to an Englishwoman who learned about the Blitz in high school history class…. The war also brings Boaz back into her life. Suddenly Jill must grapple with some Serious Questions About Life that she would have preferred not to face.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

What a gas…

by Jill Cartwright

I still carried my gas mask with me – to work at the paper and at the bar where I still had a part-time job, even though I had serious doubts as to its actual effectiveness. I’m sure that if anything actually happened I would have had a heart attack from the panic, been paralysed with fear or too shaky to actually get the thing out of its box.

And that box. It was a cardboard box. It was so 1940s. To me gas masks were a thing from history; people had gas masks slung over their shoulders in black and white pictures of people running round London during the Blitz, or in photos of queues of children in long shorts waiting at train stations to be evacuated from London. Gas masks were Carrie’s War, not Jill’s war.
Gas Masks Normandy The masks themselves looked like useless pieces of World War II rubber that you see in museums, not cutting edge military equipment from the 21st century. How were silly goggles with a plastic snout supposed to save me from this non-conventional, chemical, biological attack everyone was ranting about? It was laughable.

I tried not to even think about the possibility of actually having to use it and tried to approach the situation with a kind of detached humor, which is probably better known as idiotic denial, and lived in the blind and totally unsubstantiated belief that of course nothing would actually happen.

It was like when I get on the bus here, and as always – still to this day – the little warning light comes on in my head that there is the possibility that the guy who just stepped on, who looks pretty much like anyone else sitting on the bus, could suddenly explode. But then I think “nah, it won’t happen, not today.” Why? Because my gut feeling says so.

I seem to have convinced myself that I have some kind of supernatural powers of intuition, that I would “feel” it if I were about to die because surely you couldn’t die just like that. Surely you’d feel something weird inside, something “not quite right.” It couldn’t be that you could just die, just like that. Surely it didn’t happen like that.

And so I was convinced that of course Iraq didn’t have non-conventional weapon heads and of course Iraq wouldn’t fire at us and I approached the whole thing with a kind of hysterical wishful thinking and took pictures of myself sitting in my apartment with my gas mask on and two thumbs up – but decided I wouldn’t send them to my mum, who I’m sure wouldn’t have shared my sense of humour.

It was with that same sense of surreal disbelief that I parted from Boaz most mornings as he headed out all dressed up in his green uniform and his brown army boots. He had been called up on emergency reserve duty and had come up from Be’er Sheva to stay with Grizzly and me as it was nearer the base. Every day he would leave the apartment in his officer’s uniform and I would stand by the door seeing him off, feeling I should be proud or worried or something, like girlfriends are in the old movies when they send their men off to war.
(Even though I knew he was quite safe in an office somewhere, and even though he told me it was really boring and they sat around watching blips on a computer screen waiting for Iraq to launch, and eating).

And then it seemed that, for us, the war was over.

And it seemed that Boaz and I, once again, were over.

It didn’t end in tears and accusations, shouting and screaming. The relationship and all that it had been and could have been came to a head quite unexpectedly and innocuously while we were sitting on the beach one early evening as the sun weakened and the people were starting to walk away to their cars and their apartments, leaving behind them the dent of flattened sand and a few empty water bottles and crumpled Bisli* packets (which really drives me mad).

I don’t even remember how on earth we started talking about it, but at one point, Boaz turned to me and said, “Do you think we’ll ever get married?” And thus it seemed that the time had come to talk about all the thoughts, those heavy and serious thoughts that I had tried to push away and avoid dealing with. It seemed that the conversation had been forced upon me, without me being prepared, in completely the wrong setting, and it took me off guard.

All I could think – and you may find this ridiculous but I challenge you to find a woman whose brain doesn’t scramble wildly into the future – the first thing I thought about at the prospect of marrying Boaz was “Oh my God, I’ll have to send my kids to the army.”

I mean it was okay me being here, having my experiences, being part of the thrills, the fears, the passion, the craziness; I could sort of take responsibility for me. But kids, well that was another matter. I couldn’t have kids here. I’d panic, I’d worry, I’d be neurotic. Suddenly I understood Israeli mothers, who have their cell phones glued to their ears, know where their children are every second of the day, and are horrified when I tell them that I last spoke to my mother “about two weeks ago.”

And I’ll never forget the story a woman I work with told me: When she had given birth to her son in Israel during the 1970s, the doctor had implied to her that it would probably be a good idea to have another child.

*A popular Israeli snack.


  1. Great read Jill. Wasn’t here for that bit of “fun” but I can only imagine. I do remember coming in and seeing the decorations that kids used to put on their mask boxes. I remember some really funny box designs. Strange time even for Israel.

  2. Interesting read. Please post faster, I’ve been checking in for days for the next installment!

  3. “Gas masks were Carrie’s War, not Jill’s war.”

    Yes! That’s exactly how i felt! And the incredulity at how little a gas mask looked different to the ones i’d seen in museums commemorating London during the Blitz… it worried me not a little… Glad i wasn’t alone in that.

  4. Jill, I love you.

  5. I recall watching news broadcasts here in Australia and seeing film of people lugging their masks around with them and looking like something out of a Dr Who episode. I could not imagine those things being any use at all.

    My friend is one of those Israeli mothers with the cell phone…..alas! its difficult to talk to her on the phone these days.

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