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The Brownsteins in the Land of Israel

Chapter 7:

The Cafe Hillel Bombing

September 14, 2003

The sound was unmistakable.  I could feel the cool air in my basement office move, and then a slight whoosh after.  As I was realizing what had just happened -- in that split quarter second -- car alarms started to sound.  Then came the cranky sound of the ubiquitous window shutters being raised.  And finally came the sickening confirmation from an ever-increasing chorus of dissonant sirens.  The horror of the evening had commenced in earnest.

I ran up the two flights of stairs to where my family sleeps, sure that Sara, my wife, was petrified.  I was not mistaken.  Sara had already rushed to the kids, hopeful that they were still asleep.  They were.

I next went to our bedroom balcony to see if there was anything to see.  There wasn't, but with the moving sirens I attempted to triangulate the point of terror.  My senses coupled with a generally accurate sense of direction, suggested that one of my worst nightmares had just occurred.

We flipped on the TV, the small one in our bedroom that Sara bought while I was in the States so she would not be isolated in this exact situation.  She bought the TV the day after the last Jerusalem bombing, two weeks earlier, the day after the explosion that blasted away the supposed "ceasefire" with an enemy that has never honored any ceasefire with Jews.  But nothing yet of substance appeared on the "TV of Death".  Alas, I knew it was only a matter of time and this was not just going to go away, like a bad dream.  I went to the Internet, but nothing was there, yet, either.

Knowing the helpless feeling of those far away from us, many of whom think we are certifiably crazy to have left the "safety" of America for this, I wrote the following e-mail broadcast with the subject "We Are Safe":

Dear Friends,

A bomb just went off somewhere here in Jerusalem.  I don't know where, but I felt it while sitting at my basement desk and I heard dozens of sirens.  It might even have been on Emek Rafaim, our Pico, a few blocks away.  I now know the difference between the sound of fireworks and a bomb.  The kids are sleeping soundly.  Please pray for peace and for the dead and for the lives of the injured.


Then the news stated to break in on the TV of Death.  Although my Hebrew is lacking, my map reading is still pretty good.  My morbid guess was within a block.  I told Sara that I was going to go down there to help.  She told me that I wasn't.  She told me that I had no idea what I would do when confronted with dozens of dismembered body parts.  She told me -- without words -- that this was way out of my league.  She was right, as usual.



Your e-mails started to come in.  (Each received -- even if still unanswered -- was greatly appreciated.)  I then sent my last e-mail broadcast (since this one), with the subject "The bomb."

Dear Friends,

Tonight's bomb killed at least 2 people tonight at Cafe Hillel, about half a mile from us on our Emek Rafaim.  Sara and I bought some coffee there this morning, like we do most mornings, on our way to Hebrew class.  Two hours before the bomb, Sara was walking two blocks from there on her way home from a parent/teacher conference.  Batya has a classmate who lives right there. The sirens continue.  Please pray.


The bomb blasted away the precise spot I stood fifteen hours earlier.  I subsequently learned that most people in my community frequented the place.  People practically swear by the classy, clean restaurant chain called Cafe Hillel.  As the crow flies, my house is about 300 yards from there.  As luck would have it, I had only discovered this particular Cafe Hillel a few days earlier when searching for a good place to meet Sara on our way to Ulpan (Hebrew class for immigrants), after walking the kids to school.

The morning of the bombing I had spent several minutes practicing some of what I had learned at Ulpan with some of the charming Cafe Hillel staff.  Then I sat in front at a sidewalk table, with Sara's fresh, chocolate croissant bagged and ready, buses whizzing past, thinking the whole time that I could very easily be a roadside bomb victim if my time was up.  In fact, although we don't ride buses out of abject fear, the "what if" is a fairly regular thing when on any significant Israeli street.  In that sense, the animals on the other side can be proud of at least one significant achievement: instilling unreasonable fear.  While waiting, I took a note from my friend David Notowitz's life, by programming as my cell phone ring the tune of the song that Orthodox men sing to their wives each Friday night: Eishet Chayil (A Woman of Valor), which is taken straight from Proverbs 31:10-31.

Sara came a few minutes later, I gave her the pastry, we grabbed a cab and went to Ulpan.  After class we decided to walk a half hour the mostly downhill route to Yehuda's preschool to pick him up.  The first main street on our walk runs along outside of the Old City, past the Dan Pearl, the Citadel, and the King David Hotels.  But clearly this was a very, very whacky day.  Anyone who has been here is used to seeing soldiers armed with machine guns everywhere.  But that particular morning these were very special soldiers with very special weapons and with a look on their faces that as frightening as anything I have ever seen.  The soldiers stood in the middle of this important and busy street looking at everyone and everything, weapons drawn, fingers ready.  I asked one of them in Hebrew if everything was okay.  We were about a foot from him.  He didn't respond, or even acknowledge the question.  I felt really stupid.

Further up, near the King David, I asked an Israeli shop owner we were passing if something had happened.  He nonchalantly replied, "not yet, but it will."  He was right.

Ten hours later, about an hour after the blast, when Sara could watch no more of the TV of Death, she tried to sleep.  I manned the phone and Internet.  One of the calls I got was from one of my wonderful new friends here in my new neighborhood.  He had gotten my e-mails, wanted to see that I was hanging in there.  He asked if I could understand the TV reports.  He told me that several more than two had died.  This he knew because his wife, a physician, went to the scene with her medical bag just after the blast to help out.  She had just returned.

The next morning was my turn to walk Batya, our seven-year-old, to school.  On the way I asked her if she had heard about what happened the night before, perhaps from Sara while I was showering.  Nothing.  I told her that there was a bomb.  She asked where.  I told her in Jerusalem.  She asked where.  I told her, as we were literally stumbling over a discarded, soiled ribbon of red police tape from the night before warning people to stay back: "the bomb was on Emek Rafaim, a little further down than you have ever been, just down the street from here, on Emek Rafaim."  "Can we go there?"  "No honey," I said, remembering hearing the same thing thirty years earlier when I asked to see my just brain-dead mother, right before they turned her off.  And then I gave Batya some lame excuse for not going to the bombsite, not wanting to say, for example, "because I am afraid of what you might see."  Or, "because I am afraid of traumatizing you for life."  Or, "because my job is to protect you and many people think I am absolutely irresponsible and crazy for bringing you to this country."

Twenty minutes later, about nine hours after the bomb, Sara and I walked past the shell that was Cafe Hillel.  There were dozens of police, others in yellow, and soldiers.  Many were leaning on a waist-high plastic barricade.  A few memorial candles burned near the former entrance.  Fewer bouquets rested near the flames.  The restaurant had been completely emptied and cleaned.  Workers were already well on their way to rebuilding it.  Like a prizefighter that has been knocked down, Israelis refuse to allow signs of damage to linger.  My bet is that I will be getting Sara's breakfast there by mid next week.  Although tempted, we didn't dwell there.

Stories started coming out about the victims and would-be victims.  One woman told me that she knows a girl who worked the Cafe Hillel nightshift.  The girl's grandmother had called the girl a few days earlier, citing a dream and ordering the girl to quit.  She did just before the bombing.

Six hours later, the afternoon of the day after, on our way back past the site while going to pick up Yehuda at school, the sidewalk around Cafe Hillel was now boarded up and adorned with notices of the funerals and mourning details for each of the victims.  There was also a simple red Hebrew poster that said, "From Darkness Comes Light".   And, of course, atop the boards waved the proud flag of the sovereign State of Israel.

An hour later, I picked Batya up from school.  The first thing out of her mouth was, "Guess what Daddy?  Two of my friends and I have started a club.  When places are bombed, we will sell our toys to help rebuild them.  Why do people put bombs on their bodies?"

That night, 24 hours after the blast, I got a call from another local friend who was just checking on me.  He lives a block from Cafe Hillel and had a previous career as an Emergency Medical Technician.  Just after the blast, he dashed down to put his skills to good use, helping people before the ambulances arrived.  A now famous young woman, Nava Applebaum, the night before her wedding, had gone with her father to pick up some sandwiches to eat at home while working on the table arrangements.  My friend who went down to help told me that this young woman died in his arms.  Nava's father, who was a famous and courageous emergency physician, died, too.  I have heard that some of his other children went to Batya's school and that a daughter was a classmate of a French/Israeli girl two doors down.  This I have not confirmed, but I'm sure it's true.

Today, the second morning after, the front page of the renowned Jerusalem Post featured a large color photo of a gathering held at the Cafe last night, where hundreds recited Psalms and prayers.  After praying at the site of the bombing, a group of youth, boys and girls -- kids who turned out to have been Nava's friends -- sat around in a circle and placed candles in the middle in a kind of bonfire vigil.  Instead of dancing with her on her wedding that night, the youth sang wedding songs to her openly grieving.  At the end of their singing, they all stood together and sang Israel's national anthem HaTikva, "The Hope".

As Sara and I walked past today, there is a long table that is completely covered with lit memorial candles, with the overflow of hundreds on the adjacent ground.  This afternoon, when picking up Yehuda at school, we met up with our next-door neighbor, Marlene (a.k.a Mrs. Klitah).  She gave us a lift home.  On the way I learned that it was her table on which the candles are burning and that she had, in fact, organized the now-famous evening vigil the night before, as well.



It goes on and on like this.  I am surrounded by light that comes from darkness.  My friends are heroes and my neighbors are martyrs.

I got an e-mail from Marc & Beth Firestone, who asked, " . . .You must be shaking. Wow. Thank god you are all safe. We will pray for your continued safety.  Does this change things for you at all? Like, where you'll get coffee? I ask in all sincerity. It's never been so close to home. It's really scary . . ."

To answer their perfectly reasonable question: we live here.  We try not to do go to trendy, crowded restaurants.  We lock our doors.  We watch for people.  But, we live here, and there is only so much you can do.

Although it is hard to believe, many, many more Israelis die in auto accidents than in terrorist attacks.  Lethal driving is an epidemic here.  And if you think America is different you are terribly misinformed.  On a weekly basis, those who daily negotiate the L.A. freeway system pass fatalities.  Do you take side roads instead of the freeway?  No.

The Jerusalem Post (January 8, 2002) published an article entitled "Competing risks and realities" by Edward H. Kaplanmakes, Professor of Management Sciences at Yale University:  "According to the Israel Defense Forces  . . . from the beginning of the current Palestinian intifada until the end of December, 2001, 120 Israelis were killed by terrorist suicide bombings, shootings, hit-and-runs, stabbings, or other means within "Israel proper,"  . . . given that 6.3 million people reside within Israel proper, these deaths work out to an annual personal risk of death from terrorism of 16 in one million  . . . Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics reports 461 traffic fatalities during the 2000 calendar year. This adds up to an annual personal risk of 73 per one million, which is nearly four times higher than the risk of death from terrorism. The 2000 Statistical Abstract of the United States reports that about 41,500 traffic fatalities have occurred in each of the past several years in the US. With a population of 286 million people, the annual personal risk of death from a motor vehicle accident in the United States is 145 per one million  . . . the risk of road death in the United States is nearly eight times higher than the risk of death from terrorism in Israel!"

And, although this discussion should not be about The Brownsteins, I will tell you that, our odds of getting killed on the roads of L.A. were far greater than for the general U.S. population.  Conversely, because many of the bombs in Israel have been targeted at buses, which we don't ride, our odds are lower here, too.  So, when you add it all up, we probably had about 20 times greater of me dying on my daily commute to Burbank than I have when walking around Jerusalem.

Emotionally, though, I grant you, it is a far different story.  Yes, I do feel like a target.  Yes, I do know that they would kill me in a microsecond if given the chance.  And, no, being a target is nothing to which I have become acclimated after a few months, believe me.  But I also know that I am surrounded by my brothers and sisters, and protected by one of the two finest militaries in world history.

By comparison, as my dear friend Bill Dickerman suggested the day after, these attacks are quite similar to the earthquakes I experienced in L.A.  We all remember the terror of the Northridge Quake, not knowing when it was going to end, what would fall next, if our housing would collapse upon us, what was happening to our children in the next room and friends around the city.  In fact, during my 14 years in L.A., I survived freeways, riots, fires, floods, and earthquakes.  I buried friends who died unnaturally.  So I am taking a risk?  We all take risks.

I also got this short note from Deborah Clark-Kent, a woman whom I deeply respect, a mentor, friend and former business competitor: "The doctor is gone . . . I am having trouble understanding why you moved there with your family. Is it the intense connection to the culture and cause and religion? Please, if you have time, educate me."

This, Deborah, is far easier to explain.  But first, I must say that I speak only for myself, not wanting to judge others who aren't here yet.  Certainly, not all Jews have the financial or circumstantial ability to do what we have done.  (I do believe, however, that far, far more people can come than have -- especially those with savings or who are sitting on a few hundred grand in home equity, who could live for a generation very confortably in many parts of Israel on a quarter of a million dollars.)

So, why are we here?  We are here because we are Jews and this is our home.  This is exactly the same answer that you would hear from my fellow students in Ulpan, too.

Although I am still proud to be an American, America was just a place for various generations before me to escape persecution and/or to gain wealth.  And although I am grateful that America provided my family with freedom and financial security, I am no longer needed there.  I am needed here.  The State of Israel is under attack, physically and financially.  Do you realize the many of the countries on this planet -- 55 years after the birth of Israel -- still do not recognize our right to exist?  And there has been an economic boycott of Israel for years, intended to strangle us, with countries like Japan participating.  (  What, for me if I were to have stayed in America, would have been more compelling than the survival of the Jewish homeland?  I have often used the analogy of people who want an encore at a concert, yet sit selfishly chatting, while others stand and press for one more song: they intend to enjoy it, yet as a member of that group, do not help those who are trying.  And I have never been one to ask others to do what I wouldn't.

Please understand, too, for 2000 years we have mourned our exile.  Every day, every single day, we pray several times for the return of Zion, for the rebuilding of Jerusalem as the throne of King David, and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple adjacent to the Western Wall.  Further, each year at the end of the Passover seder, every Jew proclaims this yearning: "Next Year In Jerusalem!"  Are these empty words?  How can I say them and not do them?  Why would I ask every day for something that is already available to me?  My most basic choices were: 1) to ask vainly for something I have, an action which I have been told is an affront to the Almighty; 2) to stop asking for it (i.e.: to give up orthodoxy); or 3) to accept the gift that the Almightily has given me, a gift that was deprived to millions of other Jews for 2000 years.  Knowing me as you do, I had no choice.

There is also a more immediate historical component to our commitment to the State of Israel.  During the 1930s and 1940s, Jews in distress had no place to turn.  As a result, six million of us died at the hands of European anti-Semites and cowards, principally German, but certainly not exclusively.  I am not the first to believe that these people's deaths resulted in enough world sympathy for the United Nations to vote into existence the State of Israel.  So, who are we to squander that?  And, more concretely, who is going to accept persecuted Jews today and tomorrow, if not the State of Israel.  Certainly not America and certainly not now.

Be very clear about this: Jewish persecution did not end when Auschwitz closed.  Saving Jews since the Holocaust is not simply an abstract concept.  From 1948 until now, about 94% of the nearly 3 million immigrants to Israel have come from historically anti-Semitic countries, like Arab and Soviet nations ( and

Is there a need for a Jewish safe haven in the future?  Just as one example, take a look at the most anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli western country in the world today: our old friend France (  Yes, in the country where I was married, approximately 750,000 Jews are surrounded by about 16 million venomous, ever more politically powerful Arabs.  Anti-Semitic attacks are so commonplace in the "seat of culture" that no one even pays attention anymore -- except the victims, of course.  So where will these French Jews go as France become a Moslem country?  To America?  Hardly.  There is only one place on earth that wants Jews, and I live here.

My final reason for being in the Land of Israel is this: I can tell you that raising children in America -- and, specifically, in Los Angeles -- is a bigger gamble than I am willing to take.  Los Angeles is a world that revolves around adults and money; Israel is a land that revolves around children and religion.  Even if people here scramble to make ends meet, even if people aren't religious here, children speak the language of the religion and all calendars are based on our holidays.  In a nutshell, my progeny stand a far better chance of being Jewish by raising them here than they do there, even in the fabulous Pico-Robertson community we left.

I heard a few days before the bombing that, in L.A., the boyfriend of a dear friend of mine died in his late twenties.  It is also a very sad waste of a life.  The number of illicit substances found in his bloodstream at the time of autopsy was formidable.  It is pretty clear that this man was the embodiment of the L.A. culture that was perfectly painted in the book "Less Then Zero".  Please finish the obvious comparison about relative danger yourselves.  I know what my conclusions are and I am prepared to live my convictions.

Finally, most of this was written today, about 36 hours after the bombing, Thursday, September 11, 2003.  Again, I'll let you finish my thought.



Thank you for reading this far.

I appreciate and look forward to your comments and greetings.


If you would like to receive my wife's views on this in the next few days, which I highly suggest, please let her know, if you haven't already done so, at


Rich Brownstein

PO Box 8130

91081 Jerusalem


Phone: 011-972-2-6733-491



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