Dressing up for Purim is one of my favorite parts of the holiday but in 1991 costumes were really not on my mind. What was on my mind was the question of whether we would be able to hear the Megillah reading in its entirety. Or would a siren sound and set us all running to our sealed rooms to don gas masks?
Almost seven months before Purim, Iraq had invaded Kuwait. The world spent five months trying to oust the Iraqis by diplomatic means and then in the middle of the night on January 16th- 17th America began bombing Iraq. The next morning schools in Israel were cancelled.
What was the connection between America bombing Iraq and Israeli children going to school? It really seemed as if it belonged in the theatre of the absurd.However there was some logic to it. America needed Saudi Arabian air fields for their Operation Desert Storm. Saudi Arabia told America they would stay allies as long as Israel would not get involved. There was no way they could join up with the “oppressive Zionist regime”. Therefore, Iraq had threatened that if America attacked them they would in turn attack Israel with nerve gas. Their goal was to indeed involve Israel and break the American-Saudi Arabian alliance. On the eve of the war then-President Bush came to Jerusalem to plead with then-Prime Minister Shamir not to get involved.
Instead, Israel set up an excellent system of civil defense. All the citizens were issued gas masks or a mamat. The mamat was a plastic tent for babies. It looked like something out of a science fiction nightmare. One wall had a glove shaped opening in it that someone could use to pat a terrorized baby. We were praying with all our might that we would not need to use it.
Shilo, on January 17th, had a holiday atmosphere. The weather was warm and conducive for the children to play outside. The news seemed good. Most of the Iraqi air force had been destroyed. I was not the only one to think that we might be on the brink of the coming of the Moshiach. Perhaps the whole threat of war would blow over without anyone getting hurt.
It was about two in the morning when the siren woke us. Israel was being attacked. The instructions on the radio were for all of us to go into our sealed room and put on our gas masks. We behaved according to our training, woke up the children, and ushered everyone into our bedroom which served as our sealed room. The window was covered with clear plastic that was taped to the frame. We sealed the door shut with more tape and shoved a wet rag next to it on the floor. As instructed my husband and I put on our gas masks and then helped the children with theirs. Finally the baby was slipped into the mamat. Although I moved calmly and methodically I could not keep my bottom lip from trembling.
We were in the sealed room for several hours. After a while the radio informed us that we could take off our masks. The children began coloring with the special markers we had bought for the occasion. For me, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the tornado warnings we had when I was a child. It was almost morning when the all clear sounded and all the children left our bedroom and stumbled back to their beds.
Later we would learn that there was damage in Tel Aviv. Two women had suffocated because they had not taken the filter lid off their gas masks. No nerve gas had been deployed. Over the next weeks there were many raids but little damage. In the whole six weeks of the war only one person died directly from the missiles.
My father used to have a saying: You get used to anything, even hanging, if you hang long enough. It did not take us long to get used to the new reality of the Gulf War. We stayed as close to home as possible after dark. We never went anywhere without our gas masks. We prayed for a full night’s sleep. We made sure to have plenty of food in the house. And we ate.
Despite the background of fear we had our light moments. Being that Saddam Hussein did not want to waste his depleted bomb supply on sparsely populated areas we knew it was very unlikely that our little village would be bombed. Therefore many relatives, who a week earlier were afraid to visit Shilo, now came in hordes for an extended, free vacation.
As safe as we felt from the Iraqi rockets there was concern about the possibility of Arabs rioting. The local head of the civil defense asked my husband to drive him to Beit El so that our large van could be filled with weapons. It was normally a twenty minute drive. That night everyone, Arab and Israeli, was under curfew. It was eerily dark on the road and the drive was short. The van was quickly loaded and the two men were on their way back to Shilo in no time. Halfway home they encountered an army roadblock. My husband’s accent was quite thick and his Hebrew rather poor at that point in time. “Avraham,” the civil defense head instructed. “Let me do the talking.”
The schools continued to be closed for several weeks and the younger ones enjoyed themselves thoroughly. One morning I got a call from the village office. I was told that my children were bothering the soldiers stationed in the grove of almond trees. I set off to investigate and, sure enough, two of my sons were sitting at the picnic table with a half dozen of their friends and three reserve soldiers. All were cracking sunflower seeds and seemed to be having a grand time. When I told the boys they needed to leave I faced three very indignant soldiers. In no uncertain terms was I told that the boys were not bothering anyone. The soldiers enjoyed their company. I went home alone.
The attacks slowed down, the country settled into a routine, and the schools reopened. Purim was on the horizon. Would there be a miracle? Would Saddam Hussein be defeated as Haman once was? The rabbis began discussing what to do if we had to stop Megillah reading in the middle. For those more far-sighted, questions about the Pesach Seder arose.
Thankfully, we made it through the Megillah readings, both at night and in the morning, without any sirens or missiles. The weather was lovely Purim morning and it was a pleasure to see everyone out in their costumes delivering Purim food packages to each other. I do not remember how my children dressed that year. In fact, the only costume I remember is that of one of the rabbis. A rather stout man he had dressed up as a sealed room. He was wrapped in plastic and sealed with tape.
Suddenly a shout was heard. A radio was turned up high. The announcement was made. The war was over. Saddam Hussein had surrendered. We could unseal our rooms. The rabbi tore off his plastic. We had had our own Purim miracle!