Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The earth saw and trembled

30 hours after the strongest earthquake in Japan’s history we are still shaking. The massive earthquake was followed by tsunami and by an alert from a nuclear plant damaged by the quake. And now we are waiting: for that elusive radioactive cloud and for a stronger earthquake that could hit Tokyo’s area. Fun!

We realized that this was not one of the usual muscle-twitches that regularly shake Japan when, on top of everything trembling really violently, the seismic alarm of the building went off. At that point we knew we had to go out. I rushed towards the exit door, hoped my ID was in my wallet, checked my pocket for the cell-phone while the floor was shaking underneath our feet and the walls looked as if moving towards us. At first I felt real fear, the kind of fear that grabs you at the stomach, hits you like a punch, and takes your strength away. But as I put my left shoe on it dawned on me I had nowhere to run, no way to get close to my parents for a comforting word, so fear was not going to help me in those circumstances, it would just harm me. Coming down the steps of the building, watching things sway all around me I thought I was in a movie, or someone else’s life.

Next to the JCJ there is a parking lot, that’s where I headed. The cars were bouncing, the JCJ was coming towards me and back, like a giant slow yoyo; the fire-escape of the school across the street was rattling loudly, louder than the alarm of cars that the quake set off; in the middle of the empty street three passers-by stood paralyzed, I hadn’t noticed them earlier when I ran to the parking lot. A strange thought crossed my mind: “Wow, I bet it was like this for Korach!” I said the blessing over earthquakes “shekocho male olam” and immediately I second-guessed myself “Or was it shekocho ugvurato male olam?” Does it really matter?

In the parking lot there were only a Japanese construction worker and me. The man might have been on a cigarette break, and was listening to the radio. He turned to me and said something I didn’t understand, but he repeated it patiently as many times as I asked him to until I got it: “Magnitude seven.”

Finally it was over. We went back inside and started looking for news online. Our office manager tried to get in touch with her children who were at home alone, and our security guard with his wife and daughter, but no one answered. We watched the first images streaming on our screen, telling each other that it was over, yes, there would be aftershocks, but hopefully not new earthquakes. Half an hour later another big quake set the alarm off again. All out again.

The second earthquake was shorter and weaker, and this time we went all together to the parking lot, so it felt a little like a company picnic. As soon as we returned back in the office the images of the violent waves sweeping everything they found along their path were more terrifying than the quake's. In the past 30 hours I have seen those videos dozens of times, because during this Shabbat that arrived despite the earthquake and the tsunami the TV was on as we were waiting for that alert notice that luckily so far hasn't come.

At Kabbalat Shabbat there were only three of us for services, but we sang much of the prayers anyway. As for myself I was looking for comfort in the words and the melodies, but I had a hard time with the images evoked by two verses of the Psalms included in the liturgy. The earth shaking in God's presence and the roaring waters shattered the fragile calm I was struggling to achieve.

We had nothing ready for dinner because our cooks left soon after the second quake, not that anyone was really in the mood to eat. All we could find was challot, pineapple and strawberries. Our security guard, thought we should at least eat in the lounge overlooking the city, which by itself added to our meal a more festive atmosphere. All we could talk about around the table was the quake, the aftershocks, and the radioactive threat. Same menu and same conversation today at lunch...

Our dinner was interrupted twice by a piercing buzz lasting a few seconds: the quake alerts coming from our cell-phones. That buzz has become the soundtrack of this Shabbat and I'm afraid it will keep us company for a while. Last night every time it rang I had to open my eyes to figure out where the quake was and then, finally, having found the area of the epicenter, try to fall asleep again.

Earlier this afternoon a little walk in the neighborhood brought back to my mind memories of Jerusalem. Yes, of Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon, when some stores are already closed, other still open; the streets are almost empty with only a few cars and very few people rushing for the last errands, and in the air there is this feeling of waiting for something that is about to come.

Written on Sat March 12.