From Purim Masks to gas masks in less than six hours

I will always associate Purim with war.

I remember the sense of liberation we had during Purim in 1991 as the Gulf War came to an end. We felt as if we had been delivered from a modern-day Haman. The cycle of waiting had ended – the waiting for sirens, the waiting to be able to take off our gas masks, the waiting to be able to leave our sealed rooms and the wait- ing for the sirens to sound again.

This year, the order was reversed. Purim preceded war. After Megillah reading and delivering mishloach manot with my children in costume, I returned home to seal a room. My four year old son, Shemer, and I started by taking down his brother’s crib (he never slept in it anyway). Shemer helped me cut the strips of tape that we first used to cover the windows in an effort to prevent shattering should an explosion occur nearby. Then we laid strips of tape around the window pane, around the lintel and finally around the plastic sheeting which covered the window, following the instructions distributed by the IDF’s Homefront Command.

My wife and I explained what was happening to Shemer. I asked him if he knew what war was. He shook his head and we proceeded – peeling away a layer of his innocence. We told him about war. We told him we were making a special room to protect us. We explained that if a siren sounds he would wear a special mask to clean the dirty air so it would be easier to breathe. He got excited and wanted to see the mask, thinking of the Purim masquerade we had just witnessed, but we were not yet permitted to open the protective kits and we told him so.

Once the children fell asleep, my wife organized food and drinks, clothing and other essentials. I moved a telephone, a TV, VCR and radio into our children’s room, extending and testing the long cable we had requested anticipating such a need when we installed cable TV a few years ago.

At 10 p.m., five hours before the deadline of President Bush’s ultimatum, one of the television stations broadcast instructions from the Home Front Command detailing how to seal a room and put on all the different types of gas masks. They told us, a little late, that we should open our kits and try them on our children because tomorrow our children would need to take them to school.

The theme for the evening was reiterated time and again by every government and army official. As the television stations had clocks counting down the minutes left before the deadline of the ultima- tum, the talking heads assured us that there was minimum risk and they were taking the maximum number of precautions.

My wife and I went to sleep a few hours before the ultimatum’s deadline. We awoke to the expected news that a war had started, that schools were open that children were to bring their gas masks an that all adults were to carry theirs.

The day after Jerusalem celebrated Purim, the surreal scene of children walking down the street, carrying their gas masks to school was its reality.

Arriving at school that first day, Shemer asked me how to say “emergency” in Hebrew. I told him and he seemed reassured, as if just one more bit of information helped him feel in control.

The two of us helped a teacher bring the gas masks down to the shelter. I drew some flowers on Shemer’s brown box so he that he could identify it. Then I went to work.

That first day, the children had a drill with one child demonstrating how to put on a gas mask. The next morning Shemer ran into our bedroom, gas mask in hand, excited to try his on.

Despite our best efforts to go on with life as normal, these past weeks has have been different. While most adults are not carrying their gas masks with them, almost every child continued to take theirs to school until the beginning of Passover vacation. For the first week of the war, each parent was assigned a rotation of few hours in the middle of the day should we be needed to assist with the children in case of an attack.

While the actual war seems far away, part of it has come here affecting our children. Shemer will remember this as a special time, with a special room and a special mask, when mommies, daddies and teachers got together to make sure that he was safe.

The world has changed for him forever.

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