Surviving a bombing, day by day

How an Israeli mother altered her life after an attack

Talia Sapir had always thought terror wouldn't happen to her.

But one night last March, a Palestinian suicide bomber walked into a café in Jeru– salem where she was sitting. He killed 11 Israelis and himself.

Ms. Sapir was covered in blood, but not her own. She emerged physically unhurt.

With a new baby and a full-time job, Sapir now says she cannot afford the time to seek professional help for the experience. Soft-voiced and round-featured, she plows on, dazed but undeterred: "I can't let it break me."

Her experience is an extreme one. But her shell-shocked determination mirrors the mindset of Israel as a whole – one that seems increasingly unresolved about what to do. Opinion polling routinely yields strong support for contradictory strategies for addressing the conflict with the Palestinians.

Like a lot of Israelis, 20 months of strife has altered her political perceptions and convinced her that peace will have to wait several generations. Like a lot of Israelis, she has flirted with the idea of moving elsewhere.

With no alternatives in sight, Sapir has had to devise a way to survive the brutality of the times.

* * *

At around 8:30 on the night of March 9, Sapir decides to leave her five-and-a-half-month-old baby, Maayan, with her parents and go to a cafe with her husband. They haven't been out for ages.

Sapir's parents come over for their babysitting duty just as she puts Maayan to bed. Sapir sees on television that a pair of Palestinian gunmen have attacked a hotel in the coastal town of Netanya, killing two Israelis. "Don't go out," says her mother.

But Sapir is strangely comforted by the news. "They did their [terror] for the day," she thinks. "There won't be another one."

She puts a favorite pale green jacket over her sweater and black pants and she and her husband drive to a cafe called Moment. Situated 100 yards or so from the prime minister's residence, Moment is a hang-out for secular Israelis, an informal club for Jerusalem yuppies.

Sapir, a project coordinator for a fundraising organization called the United Israel Appeal, and her husband, a computer systems administrator, have been going to the Moment for years. As is usual for a Saturday night, the place is packed.

Sapir wants to try to get a seat inside. Her husband prefers to sit outside in the courtyard because he wants to smoke. It is a small thing. She agrees.

Their table is near the entrance to the bar, next to a floor-to-ceiling window that divides the interior from the courtyard. A few feet away from them, a security guard is checking people as they enter the bar area. For about a half-hour, the couple drink their beers in the chilly evening air.

About 10:30 p.m., the bomber somehow slips around the guard and into the bar.

Sapir feels and hears the blast in the same instant. Then there is the stillness that follows a deafening noise. Then the first sirens. Sapir picks herself off the ground begins to register the scene.

The window is gone. The inside of the cafe is a shattered mess. People have already fled the courtyard area, leaving it suddenly empty. She sees some body parts. "These images – you don't forget them."

She knows she is bloodied, but she can also tell she is not seriously injured. Her husband looks fine. Emergency vehicles are arriving, but she doesn't wait for help. She wants to get home, to see her baby, "to get everything off me as soon as possible."

Confused about where their car keys are, the couple find a taxi. After she climbs out of the cab, Sapir peels off her beloved green jacket, the memento of a trip to France, and her husband stuffs it into a trash can before they reach their apartment.

Many Jews are fastidious about burying human remains in accordance with religious law, but Sapir feels no compunction about throwing her clothes away. She is certain the flesh and blood on her clothes are not Jewish. They are the bomber's. As she lay on the ground at the cafe, she saw his head near her.

At home, all her clothing comes off and goes into the garbage. It takes her an hour and a half in the shower, and two bottles of shampoo, to wash her shoulder-length brown hair.

She feels, she says, "violated."

* * *

The next day is Sunday, a workday in Israel, and Sapir takes the day off to visit a hospital and get a check-up. The doctors confirm that she is physically uninjured.

Her husband is also unhurt, but more than 50 people have been injured, mainly puncture wounds caused by nails and other shrapnel packed around the bomber's explosives.

On Monday, Sapir is back in the office. She weeps a bit in those first few days, but she makes herself get back to the essentials of her routine: taking Maayan to daycare and getting herself to work.

Sometimes panic intrudes.

Several weeks after the bombing, as she and Maayan are leaving the apartment building of Sapir's parents, she notices a dirty sweater under her car. She wonders who would leave a sweater there, and immediately she knows someone has been under the car. Someone has been attaching a bomb.

She sees herself turning the key and triggering the explosion.

She buzzes her father on the building's intercom and asks him to call the police. When they come, they are very nice. One officer drives her car up and down the block to prove it does not explode.

One weekend afternoon, her parents are babysitting Maayan and Sapir calls her father on his cellphone to make sure everything is OK. Everything is fine, he tells her. He and Sapir's mother and Maayan are enjoying a visit to a cafe.

Sapir freezes. Inside her head, she can see an explosion, the images from Moment. She goes immediately to the cafe and insists they go home.

* * *

Worry over dark-haired, round-eyed Maayan has brought Sapir to consider a radical solution to her anxieties. She wants her child to have a normal childhood, so for the first time in her life Sapir has contemplated leaving Israel.

The problem is that she can't, at least not permanently. For one thing, she doesn't have a second nationality or family overseas, which rules out an easy transition to another country. Sapir is Israeli, born and bred. So are her parents. Her father's lineage, through his mother, extends back seven or eight generations.

And Sapir's employer, the United Israel Appeal, is one of the founding institutions of the Jewish state. Her cubicle is in a Jerusalem building where David Ben-Gurion, the country's first president, once had his office.

Every workday she enters a lobby decorated with framed reproductions of posters from the early days of Zionism. One depicts a man laboring in a field, looking with a determined face into what can only be the future. "Palestine – help him build it," the copy reads.

If leaving is out of the question – "I wouldn't really do it," she says, as much as the idea appeals to her maternal instincts – then staying demands two compromises. One is to accept a political leadership, in the person of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, she would never have supported five years ago.

The other is to settle for a shrunken life.

* * *

"No" is the guiding principle of Sapir's post-Moment lifestyle. No cafes, no restaurants. "That's over for me," she says. No parks, no movie theaters, no malls. No trips to downtown Jerusalem. No crowded places. No zoo for Maayan.

When she hears sirens in the distance or overhears someone discussing a bombing, Sapir keeps herself from turning on the television or the radio, an act of heresy in a nation devoted to the top of the hour. "I'm trying to avoid the news in order to keep going."

"It's paralyzing," she admits.

One of her co-workers has long led such a curtailed existence, limiting her children to their home, their school, the houses of friends. "I thought she was crazy," Sapir says. "I thought she was over-reacting. But now I know she's not."

Sapir has had close calls before. A decade ago, on a trip to India, a mis-step in the dark took her over the side of a cliff. She climbed up with only a sore back. A car accident in Israel left her badly shaken but unharmed. She walked away from Moment, too, but any sense of imperviousness was shattered.

"I have experienced three times a situation where you think you're going to die and you don't," she says. Moment stands out because it brought Sapir face to face with "pure hate, pure evil." "The idea that someone is willing to die in order to kill you – this is horrifying."

She once felt she could see an answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: A Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a shared Jerusalem, intertwined economies. Now she feels that she and many of her fellow Israelis had deluded themselves about the true nature of the other side.

So Sapir considers measures she once thought extreme: invasions to denude the Palestinians of weapons and terrorists, fences to separate Israel from Palestinian areas, the creation of a limited, declawed Palestinian state. "Any other solution probably wouldn't work to protect our lives," she adds.

Nearly a year and a half ago, Sapir voted for the reelection of Ehud Barak, the prime minister who represented Israel at the failed Camp David talks and who tried to reach a peace along the lines Sapir believed possible.

Now she says she might well vote for Mr. Sharon – long the bane of Israel's pro-peace, center-left constituency, for which Sapir could be a poster child. Sharon is a brilliant military tactician, she explains, and such skills are what such brutal times demand. Plus there are no appealing alternatives.

Sapir is against Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas and has long thought they should be dismantled. But not now. "When the situation is like this I don't think we should give them up because it will show we are weak."

For now, in her mind, there is no solution. For Sapir, surviving terror means trying to never to miss "the small decisions that could change your entire life," like agreeing to sit outside at Moment.

She has had the passenger-side airbag disabled in her little Fiat so Maayan can ride in her carseat next to Sapir. That way she can unbuckle the baby quickly or use her body to shield Maayan if they run into trouble.

"You think about things normal people don't think about," Sapir says. "It's sounds crazy but it's not. It's reality."

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