As Director of Film Programs at The JCC in Manhattan, one of the most important festivals for me to attend is the Jerusalem Film Festival, Israel's leading film festival. I not only get to spend a week seeing dozens of Israeli films for our Israel Film Center, but also view the annual great crop of Jewish and International films, which often inspire our program in New York. This year, I was planning on attending with a little extra stress -- for the first time I would be away from my 8-month-old son for 12 days. I did not anticipate the stress of attending the festival while rockets are falling throughout the country.
Some might picture Israel as a war zone, but anyone who has visited here knows how normal day-to-day life is, even in the worst of times. In the past, wars were kept far away... Lebanon, Gaza, the cities of the south -- places that do not impact the vibrant life in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In many ways, Israelis have been more interested in its economy than the "political situation." But now rockets are falling on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and disrupting this carefree lifestyle. Life goes on, and the cafe's are open, but now the mood is one of stress and caution.
The first time I heard a siren going off in Jerusalem, I was at the new trendy hangout that they made out of Jerusalem's old train station. People were drinking fabulous boutique beer, eating Israel's world famous foods, almost forgetting that dozens of rockets disrupting life throughout the country, not to mention Israeli Air-force strikes in Gaza. When the sirens went off, most people did not know exactly what to do. Is there a nearby shelter? Can I take my beer with me? Is it even necessary to go inside?
Most slowly shuffled inside the semi-safe structure hoping that the 100 year-old train station will hold up. The women with children looked stressed. Mothers ran in to the station that has been transformed into an Eataly-style restaurant, gripping their innocent children tightly, while the men mostly stayed outside and looked up at the sky. The whole incident lasted about a minute. The sirens stopped and everyone looked around as if the pilot turned off the fasten seatbelt sign. Suddenly, someone noticed an unattended pocketbook in the station. I asked if someone lost a bag? And when no one answered, all the mothers and children shuffled out of the restaurant as quickly as they had entered.
Outside, you can see in the beautiful blue Jerusalem sky a mark from what must have been Israel's shielding rockets diverting the threatening missile. People took out their phones and started taking pictures. Selfies for Facebook. Life was very quickly back to normal. All and all, not such a stressful moment. My heart went out to the children and the mothers who are with no doubt more impacted by this than they can even imagine. I would not want my son to have to grow up with this kind of experience.
But what I realized was that even though the situation is well-managed, and people realize that the odds of the rocket hitting them are extremely slim, there is a new underlying tension in the air. When are the sirens going to go off next? How can this ever end? Will our lives always be interrupted by these sirens? Weddings, openings of festivals, can we have major events? Will normality ever return?
The rockets might not be hitting many targets, but their success is in its disruption of normality that Israeli's have been (possibly naively) enjoying. The Jerusalem Film Festival opened on a toned down note. It's usual outdoor screening extravaganza, which takes place under the old city walls, was postponed by a week and replaced with an intimate cocktail party on the cinematheque lawn. We were told that the safest place we can be is in the cinema. The cinematheque has always been an oasis of peace in a chaotic region. Now, it serves as a safe space for people to escape the outside dangers. Or maybe that's what cinema has always been... a place to escape. Till this quiets down, I will seek refuge at the movies.