At the sound of a rocket siren, drivers get of their cars on the Ayalon highway (Reuters)
Drivers along the Ayalon highway stop, get out of their cars and crouch down at the sound of a rocket siren, or "azaka". Photo by Reuters
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Walking around this week, I couldn’t help overhearing one word that blared out at me as Israelis conversed: azaka (ahz-ah-KA). It means “warning,” “alert” or “alarm,” and has become the go-to word for the all-too-prevalent sound that signals it’s time to start running for cover – in other words, the siren that says "There's a rocket on the way."

“What if there’s an azaka?" I heard one woman say to another at an indoor cafe table. “And then there was an azaka,” one shopper told her companion as they walked next to a sign in the mall pointing the way to shelter.

Even without rockets overhead, Israelis can count on hearing a siren three times a year: twice on Memorial Day and once on Holocaust Remembrance Day. These two kinds of sirens not only require us to do different things, they also have different names.

On the days the siren is meant to prompt us to remember the past, it is called a tzfira (tzfee-RA). You're supposed to stand still and, preferably, tilt your head down and look contemplative.

When you hear an azaka, though, standing still is the last thing you should be doing. Instead, you run to a bomb shelter or a stairwell or at least a wall, or, if you don’t have any better options, lie on the ground and protect your head with your hands. You can save contemplation for later.

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The word azaka shares the same root as ze’aka, meaning “cry” or “outcry.” It is similar to tze’aka, or “shout,” but it is the kind of shout or calling out that can connote a deeply felt anguish. It’s the cry Mordecai uttered when he heard that King Ahaseurus, under Haman’s bad influence, had issued a decree that all the Jews in his kingdom should be slaughtered.

“Now when Mordecai knew all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried [vayizak, another form of the word] with a loud and a bitter cry [ze’aka],” the Book of Esther states (4:1).

Ze’aka is the cry of loss and devastation. Though the azaka of modern Israel may at times inspire fear in those compelled to obey its relentless wail, its ability to let Israelis know it’s time to race for shelter has gone a long way toward reducing the ze’akot that may well have filled the air had there been no telltale noise until the boom.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.