Back-to-school Supplies? Check. Gas Masks? Look at That Line!

A day in the life of a working journalist with children in Jerusalem: Buying a 3-year-old his first tot-sized backpack and getting chemical warfare kits for kids upgraded.

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Early, I will go early. We will get our two small kids to pre-school, and then I will go over to the mall and trade in the baby gas mask we received two years ago for two new ones, to fit a toddler and a 3-year-old. The possibility of Syria hitting Israel is remote, or so the experts say. So how long could the line be? I’ll take care of the masks while they’re at pre-school, do a little reporting to boot, and maybe pick out my son’s first tot-sized backpack. I’ll kill two birds with one stone.

Oh, I never do things early, do I? My husband brings the kids to pre-school at 7:30 while I’m still in a daze, making my coffee. But the school year started Tuesday and today, Wednesday, only goes until 11 A.M. anyway – easing the kids in slowly. I’ll do pick-up, which is the better part of the deal anyway.

At 9:30 A.M., I find droves of cars and people encircling the Hadar Mall in Talpiot, one of only two gas mask pick-up spots in Jerusalem. I imagine it to look, from above, like hajj pilgrims circumambulating the kabba in Mecca, with more and more people joining in as the days goes on. In the past, I approached these crises with journalistic nonchalance, but having two small children to take care of changes everything.

Much of Jerusalem, it seems, feel similarly. Residents have been arriving since 9 this morning – no one informed them that this stand of the Home Front Command would open only at 11 A.M. – and adding their names to the list. I’m No. 68.

I find myself chatting with a friendly, veiled woman named Intisar, who has come here with her husband from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud. Unsurprisingly, there are no gas mask distribution centers in her part of Jerusalem – where a third of the city’s residents reside.

“We hope we won’t need these, but we’re all afraid we might,” says Intisar, whose husband shakes his head against telling me their last name. As the mother of three daughters – 9-year-old twins and an 11-year-old – she feels she must be prepared for the worst, just in case. “The Koran mentions a war like this that will come at the end of the world,” the husband offers. Intisar rolls her eyes.

Nearby, two young immigrants from France, relatives by marriage, slump down to sit on the floor in front of a storefront.

“I honestly don’t listen to the news, but my husband said we have to come and upgrade our masks,” explains Lea Amoyal, 28, who has a 2-year-old and a 8-month-old baby at home – but only one baby mask, which has been deemed outdated, according to a card that arrived in the mail from the Home Front Command. Amoyal and her husband made aliyah from Marseille less than two years ago, and initially moved to Ashdod. The coastal city is in firing range from militants in Gaza, and it was targeted repeatedly with Grad and Qassam rockets last November. Three months ago, the couple moved to Jerusalem instead.

“That was the most stressful part of my life here so far,” Amoyal says, recalling having to hurry to a shelter, heavily pregnant, with a tiny toddler in tow. “Somehow I feel safer here than I did there.”

Her cousin Elodie Shoshana, 25, offers up her political analysis. “I think it will be a series of limited strikes, not a full-out war. But the question is who else it brings into the picture: We have to think of what Russia and China might do.” When not picking up gas masks, she says, she’s a kindergarten teacher.

Kindergarten teacher! Less than 20 minutes to dash out of the crowded mall to pick up my son by 11 A.M.

I make it just in time. He greets me with a big hug and a tov meod (“very good”) sticker on his shirt, a reward for being cooperative. I bundle him into the car and head back to the mall to discover that the traffic has grown even thicker – abnormally thick, panic thick. After circling the mall once and finding scores of cars lined up to enter the parking lot, I decide to skip it and go to another mini-mall in the area, where I can at least get that backpack. I mean, Barack Obama is still reading maps of Syria at this point, right? Am I going to forfeit anything, other than being No. 68 in line, if I put off getting our masks for another day, perhaps two?

Mr. Tov Meod might have been feeling cooperative with his new teachers, but at the mall he’s in a different sort of mood. He doesn’t want to shop, but rather, he’s obsessed with the escalator and would like to be left to play on it all afternoon. I have to all but drag him into a store to “choose” a bag. We settle on one that looks like a sparkly soccer ball and reads “COOL” – it’s either this or girly-looking bags with Bratz and bimbettes. Kiddie backpacks, like masks, are in high demand and supplies are running low. On the way out, I find the armed security guard we greeted on the way in reading the news on his tablet. “No official decision in Washington yet,” he offers. “But it’ll happen soon.”

No point in trying to go back today to that distribution center, particularly with a cranky child who needs a nap more a than a gas mask. My husband has since picked up our little one, now having her midday snooze. I snatch a small window of quiet to do some reporting over the phone, and then we head out to enjoy a late lunch (almost early dinner by kid standards) at the home of retired friends. They have an easy-breezy air about them - the hostess has just returned from vacation in Switzerland. There, you don’t pick up back-to-school supplies and gas masks in the same shopping trip.

But in our long, leisurely visit, the prospect that Israel could get slammed with a chemical weapon doesn’t come up. Turns out we have lots of other things to talk about, and that our two children running roughshod over the yard is plenty engrossing. I might have forgotten the current state of affairs for a few hours, except for the text messages and emails pinging in from worried family in the States.

On the way home, I get to telling my husband about the crowds at the mall-cum-mask-distribution center. The supermarket yesterday, he offers, was equally jammed with people stocking up on food and water. He reminds me that for a fee, we can just order the masks online. But the truth is that many of us don’t trust that these will arrive anytime soon. Distribution centers are overwhelmed, and there are reports that there won’t be enough kits to go around. A hotline for ordering them crashed from overuse on Wednesday. To top it all, reports emerge that shortly after I left it, the very distribution center I visited was closed - six hours ahead of schedule - due to the near eruption of a riot among the waiting crowd.

My children, while not yet rioting, also have also been crashing. Getting them to bed after these long hot days, in this strange twilight between summer and new school year, isn’t so difficult. I wish someone would give me a sticker and send me to bed. But the night is young. I trudge off to parents’ night at my daughter’s new pre-school for an 8 P.M. meeting that runs long. In the question-and-answer session, parents ask about pick-up policies and potty-training. No one asks what they will do to protect our children in case of an attack. Perhaps that’s because most of us already got that part down in our orientation to the building – there’s a gymboree that doubles as a shelter and sealed room. Around here, they know all about killing two birds with one stone.

Israelis get their gas masks. The box marked in green is for children.Credit: Moti Milrod
Lea Amoyal and Elodie Shoshana sit down for a long wait to exchange and update their gas masks in Jerusalem. Credit: Ilene Prusher

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