The Return of Paranoia

by Brian on February 2, 2006

in Living Through Terror

When Hamas swept the Palestinian Authority elections at the end of last
week, my first thought was, well, it’s not such a big deal. It just
makes overt what was always the thinly veiled policy of the now
outgoing government. Maybe this could even be a good thing, I consoled
myself. By removing ambiguity, the two sides could fight it out openly
as unabashed adversaries.

But as the week went on and I read more and more alarming commentaries
from Israeli analysts, coupled with increasingly aggressive
from Hamas’ leaders, I realized that, long term hopes
aside, this was no longer business as usual.

Still, would it really affect day-to-day life, I wondered? After all,
the Israeli army has done a remarkable job quelling the violence in
recent years. That wasn’t about to change whoever was in power on the
other side. Would the changes taking place in Ramallah be felt here in
our little neo-religious Anglo bubble of southern Jerusalem?

My answer came on Friday night.

My friend Eliot was visiting from Modi’in and he asked if we could
check out a new shul for Shabbat evening services. It wasn’t far from
our house; still, it wasn’t our regular congregation, and that meant we
didn’t know all the faces. We got there a bit late and found seats on a
rickety wooden bench set up on the far side wall of the men’s section
to handle tardy overflow visitors like us.

As the hazan drummed his way through the spirited Kabbalat Shabbat
singing, I surveyed the scene from my makeshift pew. Most of the men on
our side looked typically Modern Orthodox – some clean shaven, some
bearded, all with similar knitted kippot and tidy sweaters over fresh
pressed shirts. We recognized a few people here and there.

But there was one guy who looked decidedly out of place.

He was sitting close to the mehitza that divided the synagogue space in
half, wearing a heavy overcoat and a black ski cap that covered his
entire head, most of his ears and the tops of his eyes (which seemed
excessively glazed to my thinking).

A large scarf was wrapped tightly around his neck; the entire effect
was that no part of his torso, other than his hands, could be seen and
those were clutched tightly to his siddur (prayer book) which didn’t
seem to be open. To make matters worse, from where I was sitting, his
beard looked just a bit too bushy and I had a sinking suspicion that it
was artificially affixed with scotch tape or superglue.

In short, one day after Hamas became the Palestinian party of choice, I
felt a return of the paranoia that had gradually receded in the past
few years, culminating in the column I wrote just a few weeks ago about
letting our teenage daughter ride on a public bus again.

Now, I knew that the guy in the ski cap and heavy coat was probably not
really a terrorist as my furtive imagination would have him. He was
probably just a poor shlub who’d come in from the cold and hadn’t
warmed up enough to disrobe.

But years of living through unpredictable violence, armed helicopters
hovering overhead, not to mention keeping your eyes constantly peeled
for the ever-present hefetz hashoud, –  a suspicious object – had
left me no longer the innocent abroad I had once been so many years ago
when I first arrived in Israel.

And so that night, I felt I needed to be extra vigilant. In my twisted
cantankerations, I imagined Hamas planning simultaneous attacks on
synagogues across Israel as part of a sick victory celebration. A
“welcome to the new order” message that no one would miss.

I pointed out the man to Eliot. He dismissed my paranoia with a shrug
and that little clucking sound that Israelis and immigrants who have
been here too long make.

Just the same, I found myself eyeing my potential enemy repeatedly
through the service, looking for little hints that he knew his way
around the prayer book.

Would he move from sitting to standing position at the right moment
during Lecha Dodi? Bow once to the left and once to the right? Cover
his (already shrouded) eyes during the shema?

And what if he didn’t? Should I try to take him down? Yell out “there’s
a terrorist in the house?” Or grab Eliot and make a break for it,
letting the rest of the congregation fend for itself?

I found myself becoming overly critical. Why didn’t this synagogue have
a guard out front? Or at least someone to meet and greet new arrivals?
I tried to talk myself down from my paranoid perch. If this guy was
intent on blowing himself up, why was he waiting so long?

The service continued, through the Rabbi’s drash, through the Amidah.
While others were silently welcoming the Sabbath angels, I was
transfixed by the man by the mehitza who hadn’t done anything wrong
except for wear too many layers of clothing.

The service concluded and the man with the cap and the coat got up,
took his glazed eyes and the siddur that it was now apparent he had
brought from home, and went on his way, back into the cold.

I got caught up in the schmoozing and the camaraderie of handshakes and
heartfelt wishes of “Shabbat Shalom” and lost track of my partner in
paranoia. I didn’t catch if he shook any hands himself on his way out
or just vanished as into the night.

Eliot and I walked home. We didn’t talk about the suspicious man. I
felt too sheepish now that we had passed the night and survived.

It’s still too early to tell whether, with Hamas now in power just a
few miles away, things are going to change. But one thing
is for sure: I already have.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous February 3, 2006 at 12:03 am

Hello Brian,
Keep on your guards because … read this article “Handing Jerusalem to Hamas” at
If you were a possible voter for Kadimah, it is NOT too late to plan to vote for a more Jewish-aware political party that will not sell the motherland to Hamastan!!
The more you give to these murderers (Hamas and company), the more they will you! And to give them anything for what in exchange? More Kassams, more suicide bombers, and more anarchy!
So, FOR THE NEXT ELECTION, BRIAN, I REALLY ASK YOU TO VOTE JEWISH, NOT HAMAS (I.E. NOT KADIMAH THAT PLANS TO CREATE A HAMASTAN VERY CLOSE TO YOU!) Vote Jewish means vote for a political party who is not going to create a terrorist state right next to Jerusalem! Be it a Palestinian or Hamas or whatever Arab state!
And yes, the suicide bombers, DO expect them to come very soon! Sad to say but, for me (contrary to the blinded Israeli left), I do believe these monsters and murderers when they say what they have in store for Yisrael and I do take them seriously!
All the best to you and your family in Israel.
Michael, London, UK.

2 Anonymous February 5, 2006 at 8:49 pm

Hello Brian,
Not that I want to scare you in any way (you do not need that!) but read this article “Diskin: Israel in midst of terror wave” at
And take the appropriate measures for your children in the coming few months, just in case it gets nasty.
Hopefully, these dangers might be only for a few months. If a Palestinian terrorist state is created, it will be a permanent threat until their final try at killing Jews on their own land!
Again, no Palestinian terrorist Hamas state near Jerusalem must be your only focus for the coming elections. Olmert is an idiot who is even more extremist than Sharon in replicating the same mistakes Sharon did with Gaza!!! And for what?!!!
G.od bless you and your family, Brian.
Michael, London, UK.

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