Ten years ago this week, on the 20th of Av (Aug. 9 2001) at 2pm, I was sitting in the back of the Sbarro’s Pizzeria in Jerusalem when a suicide bomber walked in and detonated the bomb belt he was wearing, murdering 15 innocent people and injuring scores of others.
10 years later, I can still hear the blast ringing in my ears, still hear the screams of the wounded, and still see the horrible images of that terrible afternoon. I still get a lump in my throat when thinking of Chana Nechenberg, a young wife and mother who has been in a coma these past ten years, or of Malki Roth, a 15 year girl full of so much life who is still, ten years later, a 15 year old girl, because she never reached her 16th birthday.
I can still feel the hug of my eldest daughter, who was 11, when I got home that evening; and I still shudder to think how close I came to missing these last 10 years.
The following is a letter written the next day to my father in an effort to collect my thoughts, and this article is dedicated to the memory of those who were murdered that day, and to those who still suffer from their wounds and losses, 10 years later.
Friday, Erev Shabbat, the day after:
Her eyes, I think, will stay with me forever. Imploring, beseeching, full of so much sadness. I think the shock of where and how she was, was sinking in. I can’t begin to describe all that was in those eyes.
Yesterday, Thursday, August 9th the 20th of Av, on my way to work, I found myself walking down Yaffo street. Hungry, I decided to stop and grab a quick bite... at Sbarro’s Pizza. In the past 5 years I have frequented this establishment exactly twice.
Walking into Sbarro, there is a larger area for sitting in the front, but the back looked a bit cooler and quieter, so I decided to grab a seat in the back. That decision saved my life.
Waiting on line, when they brought me the baked ziti I asked for, it was cold. So I asked the woman behind the counter if she’d mind warming it up. “Ein Ba’ayah,” “no problem,” she said with a smile. I will always wonder if that was her last smile on earth.
A couple of moments later, a fellow from behind the counter came to the back with my baked ziti. Then he started to speak to someone at one of the tables. That baked ziti saved his life.
At about 2 p.m., I felt and heard a tremendous explosion; and day turned into night.
And then the screaming began. An awful, heartrendering sound; the sound of people coming to terms with a whole new reality, of people not wanting to comprehend that life has changed forever.
Those of us sitting in the back were spared, but I was afraid of panic, so I started yelling at everyone to quiet down; not to panic. The ceiling looked like it might cave in, but there is always the danger of a second explosion, detonated on purpose shortly after the first.
But then I smelled smoke, and was suddenly afraid the restaurant might be on fire. So we started climbing our way through the wreckage to the front. Would there be another explosion? Would the roof collapse? Were we making the wrong decision climbing through? There are moments that last a lifetime.
There are no words to describe what the front of Sbarro’s Pizza looked like in the immediate aftermath of that explosion. A woman was lying near the steps to the back. Her eyes were staring straight at me, following me; so full of pain and longing, sadness and despair. I dropped down beside her trying to elicit a response to see if she could speak. And then I watched the life just drain out of her. I tried to get a pulse, to no avail. She died there, on the steps in front of me. She was lying by the table I had decided not to sit at.
There were bodies everywhere, and those images are in my mind; they won’t let go. A child’s body under the wreckage; a baby-carriage; limbs and a torso; A woman holding a motor-cycle helmet and screaming next to a person on the floor who had obviously been someone she was with.
And then the mad rush to help the ambulance and emergency crews get the wounded out. They were obviously afraid of a second bomb, so there was no medical effort inside, beyond getting the wounded on to stretchers and out. A religious Jew missing at least two limbs, in tears and shock; what do you say? “Yehiyeh Be’Seder” it’ll be all right? Will it?
I happened to sit a bit to the left as you walk towards the back, and so the wall behind me shielded me from the blast. Another fellow whom we went back in to get wasn’t so lucky. Sitting only five or six feet to my right, he caught the full force of the blast and was thrown in the air. When we got him on the stretcher he was bleeding profusely and was missing a leg. There are no words to describe what that man’s hand, clenched around my arm, felt like. He just kept looking, from me to his leg and back again. I started saying Tehillim (psalms).
So many mixed emotions fill my head today. I came home last night and gave each of my children a very long hug. But there are so many families today who are waking up to the reality that life will never be the same. 15 funerals with friends and families saying goodbye to those they loved so, whose only crime was a desire for a slice of pizza on a beautiful Jerusalem afternoon.
I recall once, reading a story of a boy who was saved from a near drowning, by a stranger. As the fellow carried him ashore, the boy looked up and said, “thanks for saving my life, mister.” To which the man responded: “Just make sure it was worth saving.”
Tonight we celebrate Shabbat. All over Israel, in 8 hours, parents will bless their children at the Shabbat table. I imagine we will all hug them a little tighter this week.
In a few hours we will light Shabbat candles. This Shabbat, in the wake of all this darkness, the Jewish people will do what we have been doing for 4000 years; what we have always done. We will pick up the pieces and light our candles, because that is all we have ever wanted; just to bring a little light back into the world.
After 2000 years of dreaming, we have come home. So many nations, and so many empires tried to stop us from getting here but here we are, nonetheless. Home; that word has such a beautiful sound to it, to a people that has wandered the globe for so long. We are not leaving. We will be here to celebrate this Shabbat and next Shabbat, and forever, until the end of time, here, in the hills of Judea and Gush Etzion and Jerusalem.
May Hashem, who in His infinite Wisdom, saw fit to allow me the privilege of celebrating one more Shabbat with my family, in the hills of Jerusalem, see fit to put an end to all of this pain and all of this suffering. Wherever you are, and whomever you are, you should be with us here, in Yerushalayim, and offer up a prayer for all those who lost loved ones in this terrible tragedy.
Yehi Ratzon, May it be G-d’s will, that soon, we will find the road to the peace we have longed for, for so long.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem
Rav Binny Freedman, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City is a Company Commander in the IDF reserves, and lives in Efrat with his wife Doreet and their four children. His weekly Internet ‘Parsha Bytes’ can be found at www.orayta.org