How I became an Israeli during the Gaza operation

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I am an 8-month-old Israeli. I am a 23-year-old human being, but it was only four months ago that I wrote my first “alef” and achieved an infant’s comprehension level in Hebrew. I feel a certain affinity with the toddlers I see playing outside the public bomb shelter behind my apartment. Operation Pillar of Defense changed how we view the world.

And like most Israeli children have done, I have kissed loved ones goodbye when they went to the army, but I had only experienced war as a voyeur.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on television last month, “Something something war, something something rockets and missiles, something something Hamas,” I watched with anxious anticipation, wondering what it all meant. When sirens echoed in Tel Aviv, the young children and I were led by the hand, running toward the shelter.

We asked one-word questions about the explosions. “What?” “Why?” It was the first time I felt my heart pounding so hard that I could hear it, could count its rapid-fire beats.

Then a bus blew up during my commute to ulpan, where I was studying basic Hebrew skills. We were told to stay inside because there was a terrorist outside. I felt nauseous. All day I couldn’t stand the sight of food. My stomach kept churning. Worries scampered around my brain. When next? Where next? These were pointless concerns; there was nothing I could do. We all sat and waited for the phone to ring, trying to pay attention to homework (yeah, right).

Riding the bus home after ulpan class was intoxicating, with its own kind of vertigo. Like standing with a blindfold on and your toes curled over the edge of a cliff. Only you can’t even choose to jump or step away from the edge. You are suspended in that state, unable to feel anything but the adrenaline pulsing beneath your skin.

That night I went to a new restaurant near my house where a Moroccan mother makes soup. It would take a

    master cook to tempt me to eat. An ambulance drove by, sirens blaring. I rushed to the TV in the tiny restaurant; it showed buildings exploding in Gaza. I asked an old man behind me: “Is there news? Did something happen?”

He said, “Everything’s fine.”

Suddenly I found myself screaming at him, “Everything is not fine!”

Why did seeing an ambulance make me feel like I’d just sprinted for miles, my breath coming too quickly, my face hot and heart racing? The man didn’t try to comfort me, or tell me not to worry. He jutted his chin out and tilted his face up toward the sky. I lovingly call this gesture “the chin.” I’ve come to understand what it means: “What do you want from me? This is how it is.” If I say that Tel Aviv is too expensive and someone replies with this gesture, I always tease: “Don’t give me the chin.” I hate it when Israelis give me the chin. There must be something we can do.

But when this old man replied to my terror with “the chin,” I started to cry.

I am usually a very polite person, which, frankly, sets me apart here in Israel. But since the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, I’ve shouted at a stranger in public and argued politics with everyone. For the first time I stopped answering contrary opinions with, “That’s interesting.” Instead, I disagreed with my friends, loudly, and relished the release. I became more Israeli over those eight days than I had over the previous eight months.

By Thanksgiving, everything had changed. On the second day of the operation, we had learned the verb “to thank” at ulpan. And each student had to say what he was thankful for. One by one, students of all ages from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Mexico and Italy, said, “I am thankful to the IDF.”

And I, a liberal, secular Jew of mixed ethnicity from California — very anti–military force for any reason — echoed the same sentiment that Israeli children across the country also probably learned for the first time. “I am grateful to the IDF for protecting us.”

Leigh Cuen is a former calendar editor for j. In the spring, she moved from San Francisco to Israel, where she works as a freelance journalist and studies Hebrew. Follow her on Twitter at @La_Cuen or visit