Growing up in Houston, you get a certain level of tolerance when it comes to crime. It’s one of the biggest cities in America, but without real zoning laws, you have a blend of neighborhoods with different economic levels, you have schools close to strip clubs close to churches. That giant mishmash of peoples and business creates an environment where some of the richest neighborhoods are next to the poorest, and income inequality and all of the ills it brings stand in stark contrast (nothing like seeing a pawn shop five minutes away from a street corner where there are three Starbucks and an art film cinema).
In the six years I lived in Houston after I graduated college and came back home, I had a gun pulled on me, my apartment burglarized, my truck stolen, and had to talk/walk my way out of more than a few hairy situations. I remember wearing that like a badge on my sleeve when I talked to people outside H-town, like I was such a badass for coming from a place where the threat of danger was not an entirely remote possibility.
All of that was nothing compared to this place.
On one hand, I feel safer here than I ever did in Houston. On a Shabbat evening in Fondren Southwest, I always looked over my shoulder every hundred yards or so. I knew I didn’t have anything worth stealing, but I didn’t feel like having another gun pointed in my face. I don’t see the same little dropped baggies of drugs here, the needles in the street, or the gas stations I knew that I just couldn’t go to past a certain time. I can walk around here and feel completely safe at 3 am in the morning going to the gas station to grab an energy drink for when I wake up in four hours. I don’t see colored clothing and wonder what it represents, if someone runs with someone I don’t want to mess with. I don’t worry about if the guy I piss off in a store has a gun, or if the guy that cuts me off on my bike is going to go after me with a baseball bat. The only real crime in my neighborhood is the Russian mafia, and as a friend told me on my arrival here, just stay away from illegal casinos and prostitutes and I’ll be fine.
Maybe it’s the soldiers everywhere. Literally, they’re everywhere, guns and all. In the States, you see a soldier in uniform and assume he must be going to a base, or to a recruitment event, or something that would make him or her not wear jeans and a tee shirt. Here, you cannot go a day without seeing a soldier. It’s impossible, seriously; and they’re all kids. 18-21 year olds with M-16s and Tavors on their shoulders, on the bus, in the grocery store, talking without someone at a park. Or, for an even more jarring sight, they’re out of uniform but they still have their gun. There’s few things more jarring to an American’s view of the military than to see a girl in a miniskirt and graphic tee shirt with a gun that goes past her skirt buying the schwarma in front of you. Add on to that all of the armed guards at malls, bus stations, train stations, movie theaters, schools, government buildings, pretty much anywhere more than fifty people congregate at once. It’s inspiring to see all of these people serving and protecting us, and it definitely adds to this idea that I’m safe because, worse comes to worse, the guy next to me on the bus has a rifle capable of putting 30 plus rounds of ammunition in a bad guy and the training to do it.
But there’s a reason to it all.
Behind all of the visions of strength, of a people reinvigorated, there’s a reason our country sends the vast majority it’s young men and women to serve in the military, There’s a purpose for having my bag checked every time I go to the mall, or catch a train, or go into the airport lobby. There’s a reason that every 100 feet there’s a guy with a micro Tavor at my favorite mall that watches me walk from the McDonalds to my bus stop. In Texas, we had a bunch of guys who can shoot semi-decently and could take a half-day for a course carrying guns; but here, there are literally people trained how to assess threats, secure an area, and kill people everywhere.
There’s a train station near my old ulpan. I took it whenever we needed to get to Tel Aviv after classes, and when the rest of the public transportation was shut down a few months ago after protests following the killing of an Ethiopian Israeli man in my area. I always heard it being called Merkaz HaShmona, but I didn’t know why. I learned after ulpan that it’s full name is Haifa Center Railway Station of the Eight (rough translation order). The eight were eight railway workers that were killed when a rocket fell nearby during the 2006 Lebanon War. You can’t go around Israel without seeing memorials, buildings, and streets named after situations like this. People think of the territories nowadays when it comes to terrorism, but not very long ago, my city was a ghost town during the war. During the intifadas, several bombings here killed scores of people. Buses were bombed. Bus lines that I take today. Places that I go to shop were targets, people died on the streets I walk on because they were just like me: Jews living in our own land.
My wife told me today that we’re in the 60 second area, which basically means if Hezbollah decides to launch rockets towards Haifa, I have 60 seconds from the alarm to get to a safe place. I live on the top floor of a five-story building, and the only safe room we all have is a shared bunker in the bottom of the building. As hilarious as it is to imagine my ass running down five flights of stairs in my pajamas carrying my 40 pound dog with me, that shit terrifies me.
There are days that I wonder if I did the right thing bringing my family here. *feminism check, we made a joint decision and I mean to say how could I have consented to putting us in a situation where I have to see my wife run for her life for simply living her life in the place we know is our home* I wonder if an older house, which I could have put a down-payment on, in our old neighborhood would have been safer. The idea of being shot in a road rage incident, or a mass shooting, or by some violent crime just seems inherently less real and scary than the idea of dying because I took the wrong bus on the wrong day. Or that I couldn’t find a safe place if the rockets came. Or if someone decided that the mall that day was the day that he was going to stab someone and become a martyr, and I just happened to be walking in the wrong damn place.
This place dials the realness of everything up to eleven, and the idea of death is one of them. I know, I am still more statistically likely to die from cancer or some disease than terror or war; but I never had that fear in America. It was always some other place, or maybe it was just that the frequency of death and the number of people there allowed me to minimize and compartmentalize that danger.
The thing is, I don’t have an answer to what to do with my feelings on death, with my fears. I don’t think you can. I chose this, I chose to live in a place surrounded by people that want to kill me. People that see a Jew and think that I deserve to die for living here. I moved here despite that, maybe even to say that I don’t care that you want to kill me. That I love this land, its people, everything it stands for more than I fear dying. I am not a violent person, I definitely don’t want to be a martyr or remembered for dying, but I know that if I had to die for reason, dying for who I am and being proud of it is ok with me. I’ve had times in my life where I wanted to die, where I didn’t care about living, and where I didn’t care if I died. When I’m here, I feel like my life, and at least living here, means something just by going on. If it were to end because of someone else, I could at least say I lived in a place on my own terms, and that I chose a place that I wanted to live and die in. I saw my life in America and I saw the line where it was going. House. Steady(ier) job. Family (G-d willing). I remember going to the cemetary where all of Orthodox Jewish funerals I had been to were, and I remember thinking to myself, this is where I’ll be one day. At first, I thought about how great that was that I was going to build such deep roots in a place. Looking back now, I can’t believe I ever thought that my life could have been limited to where I was. In just six months, I feel like I’ve lived more than I have in years.
I think that’s a part of becoming Israeli, learning to live with the uncertainty. In Judaism, we talk a lot about how G-d has a plan for us, and that everything is for the good, even if it’s hidden in tragedy. There’s a reason that they say this place runs on miracles. It takes a little faith just to make everything work here. Maybe this will be my test, something to help me learn to just trust that G-d has more in store for me than a life laid out for me by someone else, by custom, by someone else’s expectations. Maybe I just need to keep on taking one step at a time, keep on exploring and finding out what I really want from the years I have left in this world. It’s scary, but I would rather have a little fear here than feel like I lived an incomplete life. In the meantime, I’ll make sure to sleep in full pajamas and practice my dog-lifting so I don’t look like a half-naked crazy person if I ever have to make that run downstairs.