With war, Baltimorean in Israel spends time listening WAR IN THE GULF

MARYLANDERS IN THE GULF

January 21, 1991|By Holly Selby

To Baltimore native Saul Rotenberg, war has come to mean listening.

The shrill sound of a telephone woke Mr. Rotenberg as he slept in his home in a Tel Aviv suburb. "In the middle of the night, the war began," said the 29-year-old theology student. "My in-laws called to say the war has started. And what can I tell you? What could we do?"

Since then, sound has dictated the rhythm of his life and that of his family: Air raid sirens mean time to don gas masks. Army radio reports signal when to take them off.

"The radio is on 24 hours a day, even all night," Mr. Rotenberg said in a telephone interview. "What can I tell you? You see, in the early night we begin to listen more closely. You try to rest, but the radio can't get turned off. You try to stay busy, but there is always the radio."

Mr. Rotenberg, who grew up in Northwest Baltimore and attended Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, went to Israel nearly 10 years ago to study theology. He now lives in Bnei Braq, just southwest of Tel Aviv, with his Israeli wife, Ester. His 6-year-old son was born at Baltimore's Sinai Hospital when Mr. Rotenberg came to visit his mother, Rena Rotenberg, director of the early childhood education department of the Board of Jewish Education. His 1-year-old son was born in Israel.

For the Rotenbergs, life -- disrupted by war -- has taken on an eerie pattern: "The children don't go to school. Parents don't go to work. You go about the house. Every once in a while be ready for a beep: Everyone gets in a sealed room," he said. "My wife takes the oldest and I take the baby, and we go."

At the sound of sirens, everyone wears a gas mask except the youngest, who is put into a protective box "that looks like an aquarium made of cloth . . . The walls have windows like filters and it closes like an envelope."

At the instruction of the Israeli government, a room in every household has been sealed against chemical warfare: Windows, normally equipped with heavy plastic shutters, were first taped to guard against shattering caused by sonic booms, then shrouded in more heavy plastic and sealed again with tape. Once inside the rooms, "we put tape all around the doors," Mr. Rotenberg said. "And on the bottom of the door, there are rags wet with a solution of baking soda. Light doesn't get in. Nothing gets in."

And the Rotenbergs' contact with the world is the radio.

Despite these preparations, on the evening of Jan. 17, when the Iraqis first fired Scud missiles on Tel Aviv, the alarm caused pandemonium.

"It was a terrible time around here. No one knew what would happen, no one. You see, along with the masks, they give out shots -- in case nerve gas is fired. You keep the doors of the house open in case emergency vehicles have to come and pick up people for care. They prepared everyone for the worst," he said. That time, the Rotenbergs and the rest of nation stayed inside the sealed rooms for as long as four hours.

And prepared or not, they will never become accustomed to wearing gas masks. His wife and eldest son are the most affected, said Mr. Rotenberg. Mrs. Rotenberg is upset because she understands the meaning of a gas mask; the child because he doesn't.

"For him -- he doesn't ask about war -- it kind of confuses him. But at first, when he put the mask on he would vomit a little bit. He didn't know why. He was so tense and he didn't know why."

Things have gotten calmer because his wife's family came to stay with them, Mr. Rotenberg said: His father-in-law served in the Army and "knows about all this."

Still, each day stretches longer than the last as the family that has grown to seven members takes refuge in the small two-bedroom house. Emotions rise and fall with the occurrence of air raid sirens -- Mr. Rotenberg couldn't remember how many have sounded so far -- and news reports on the radio. "The alarm is very sensitive right now," so many alarms were false, he said.

And few go outside.

"We do only what must be done. Only the very urgent things. The only people who go to work are involved in food or medicine. Some pharmacies are open. At the store you can get bread and milk. There's enough to go around . . . Nothing in shortage -- the government is very careful," said Mr. Rotenberg. "It is so awkward over here. Hopefully, it won't go on much more."

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