by Judy Lash Balint
There's not going to be a war with Iraq that involves Israel. That's the
word from the IDF, says a diminutive 19 year old female IDF soldier who is
nonetheless charged with providing instructions in English for immigrants on
how to prepare a sealed room and wear a gas mask.
The reassuring words are offered at an instruction session that takes place
at the Jerusalem office of the Association of Americans and Canadians in
Israel (AACI), where around 60 predominantly senior citizen members have come
to learn the ins and outs of proper war preparation in their native language.
"You probably won't need this," the soldier repeats frequently throughout the
session in accented English as she deftly pulls out one type of mask after
another from her demonstration box. Those attending don't seem too reassured
as they pepper the instructor with questions. "Why did they ask my age when
I picked up my mask?" questions one elderly woman in the front row. "Well,
how old are you?" retorts the soldier. "If you're over 80 years old, they
give you a special mask with a blower," she informs the crowd. "Also it's
for anyone with a beard."
The mask has to fit snugly about the face if it's to keep out the nasty
chemical and/or biological weapons President Bush suspects Sadaam Husein is
harboring. For the elderly and the bearded, a device is attached to the
filter, which blows filtered air into the mask, keeping the other substances
The soldier tells us not to open or use the gas mask until told to do so by a
Home Front Command notice broadcast over radio or TV. "How long does the mask
work for?" someone asks. About 18 hours, we're told, "But you won't need it
for more than that. You'll be evacuated before it runs out."
The masks are designed for use in the sealed room in our homes that each of
us is supposed to enter when instructed by the Command. Our teacher tells us
what kind of tape to use, but emphasizes that no one should run out just yet
to buy tape and the plastic sheeting needed to seal every opening. "I don't
think there'll be a war...and anyway, you'll have at least two weeks notice,"
she says authoritatively.
Still, she's doing her job, and she carefully explains that every opening
must be covered, including light fixtures and bathroom drains, if that's your
sealed room of choice. "If everything's so tightly sealed, how long before
the air runs out?" pipes up one man near the back. "Oh, you'll have 3-4
hours of air, but that's plenty because we'll come to evacuate you," she says
again, leading a few people in the back to speculate on the orderliness of
such an undertaking, given Israeli nature.
Some of us suppress a laugh as we try to picture thousands of Israelis
wearing gas masks and dressed in two layers of clothing (better protection
against air-borne contaminants we're told) waddling down the streets of
Jerusalem toward Teddy Stadium, which has been designated as a potential tent
city in the event of a damaging attack.
Our soldier is telling us about the new developments in gas mask technology
since the Gulf War. To the untrained eye, the new masks closely resemble the
old ones. But the instructor jauntily points out the bells and whistles on
the newer version. There's an improved drinking straw; fog-free lenses, and
a feature that prevents anyone mistakenly attaching the filter to the mask
without opening the air hole. "In the last war, a couple died because of
that..." she says.
"What about wearing glasses with the mask?" a bespectacled man calls out.
"Definitely not! No contacts either--they might get moved around--and you'll
be in the sealed room, you won't have to see anything.."
Two religious, younger women exchange glances, as they try to imagine
entertaining and feeding their young kids without being able to see properly.
They grow more perplexed as they try to understand which mask would belong to
which kid. "This one is for babies until three years old," chirps the
instructor, holding up a contraption that resembles a mini astronaut suit.
"This one here is for 3-8 year olds and after that they get a smaller version
of the adult mask."
The 3-8 year old model has bright red straps and a blue plastic blower. "The
kids really like it!" the soldier enthuses. "Just tell them it's Purim.."
Forget about those CNN Gulf War images of babies in a plastic tent. Today's
version is more like a plastic suit with arms and a place for a bottle,
making baby more portable.
After answering a few more questions about how to drink water and what to use
for a toilet in the sealed room (a sand-filled bucket) the soldier looks at
the clock and briskly hands out a sheet explaining the symptoms and
treatments for exposure to nerve gas, mustard and anthrax, before she heads
out the door.
The crowd seems more anxious than when they walked in. "Es vert goornisht
helfen," (it won't help at all) sighs a slight, elderly man in Yiddish, as he makes his
way out into the dark, cold and windy night.
from the January 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine