Personal Sugar Defense Kit
by Sari M. Boren
I sat on the hard wood bench at the Israeli Army office with my friend Melissa, waiting to pick up our Personal Protection Kits. Back in the U.S., a Personal Protection Kit given to two twenty-something women would likely contain a Proctor & Gamble treasure trove of condoms and tampons, but in Israel, on the eve of the first Gulf War, these government-issued cardboard boxes were packed with a gas mask and filter, gauze pads, decontamination powder, and an automatic atropine syringe.
When our number was called, a young woman soldier modeled how to use our gas masks, tugging the straps across her brown ponytail and illustrating the proper fit by sliding her fingers under and around the thick, military-green rubber where its edges sealed to her fair skin. Melissa practiced pulling the mask over her blond curls, me over my dark brown ones, as the soldier warned us to remove the caps from the mask filters, lest we suffocate ourselves. The straps snagged and yanked at stray hairs; the rubber smelled acrid. The soldier paused to yawn and pat down her mussed hair, then demonstrated the ingeniously color-coded atropine syringe: the yellow end, like the sun, pointed up; the green end, like the grass, pointed down, to jam into one’s thigh to counteract deadly nerve gas exposure.
We were thrilled to get our kits. The government had delayed issuing kits to tourists, even long-term tourists like us, for weeks after residents got theirs. Taking a cue from the neighborhood kids, we decorated our cardboard Personal Protection Kit boxes with symbolic “Please Don’t Nerve Gas Us” collages assembled from cut-up magazines and centered around photos of Benjamin Netanyahu, the then handsome, reassuringly English-speaking Israeli politician, not yet the alarmingly aggressive hawk he later revealed himself to be.
Melissa and I were less thrilled about the actual war, an exotic foreign experience for which my travel guides and New Jersey Zionist summer camp had left me grossly unprepared. When we’d left home a few months earlier for this traditional Living in Jerusalem American Jewish Adventure the threat of war was real, and, at the same time, the idea we would live in a war zone completely unreal.
Strange to remember it now, but we knew when the war would start. George Bush the Father (and UN Resolution 678) had set down a deadline for the recalcitrant Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991. Or else. Bush’s deadline became our countdown: six weeks to war, four weeks to war.
But first, Hanukkah! The Festival of Lights!
As American Jews, we knew from Hanukkah. But several weeks before the eight-day, December holiday commenced, we started hearing murmurs of an unfamiliar Hanukkah treat, its name like the sound of winged fairies flitting through snowflakes: sufganyot, sufganyot. Like a magical incantation, the Hebrew word sufganyot conjured other-worldly delights: soof-gahn-YOT.
Sufganyot, abracadabra, I love you. Mellifluous in the mouth.
While Melissa and I waited our turn at the Israeli Army office to receive Official Protection, we built sufganyot castles in the air, imagining this Middle Eastern delight: date-filled, pistachioed, sweet cheese wrapped, sesame coated, honey-glazed. Our Israeli friends had mentioned it casually, with no more regard for its incandescent properties than if they were describing zwieback cookies. Then our friend Miri off-handily offered to bring us her homemade sufganyot the first night of Hanukkah. This set off our imaginative frenzy.
In the weeks leading up to Hanukkah, with Bush’s deadline hard on its heels, Melissa and I parsed likely sufganyot constructions with Talmudic intensity. We tossed the name back and forth walking to our Hebrew language ulpan class. On the bus, with the unceasing public soundtrack of radio news blaring in the background, we dissected possible pastry vs. candy taxonomies. But in an unspoken agreement we never asked anyone to describe sufganyot; I avoided bakery windows. The anticipation was too delicious, too distracting. We were enraptured by the thought of a novel addition to the traditional holiday. Something novel made of sugar, not anthrax.
Sufganyot, missile defense, sealed safe room.
On the first night of Hanukah, the commemoration of, let’s face it, a kind of mundane miracle, when oil burned in the Eternal Light for eight days, when it should have only burned for one, Melissa and I set out our hannukiah with its candles (our American word, menorah, had been disparaged and corrected by several Israelis) and put on our nicest outfits. We turned on our inefficient space heater to take the chill out of the room, an attempt so futile it was Judaic in its ritualistic gesture; the apartment building committee had decided to forgo central heat that winter due to rising fuel costs.
I had splurged on the newly published English language book, Chemical Warfare: A Family Defense Manual, since I could depend on my conversational Hebrew in wartime only if defense strategies involved buying olives by the half kilo or screaming at incoming missiles, Reyga! Wait! (the Swiss army knife of Hebrew words—for getting on or off a bus, crossing a street, or waylaying a saleswoman taking her third break in an hour). I highlighted key passages—nerve gas vs. mustard gas treatments; basement bomb shelters for normal missiles vs. above-ground sealed rooms for chemical warfare—and dog-eared the pages for quick mid-attack retrieval.
For our Hanukkah celebration, I discretely tucked the book out of sight.
The doorbell rang. Miri swept into the room, bundled in scarves, carrying a large, blue glass bowl filled to the rim with what looked like jelly doughnuts and set the bowl on the dining table. As Miri unwrapped herself, Melissa picked up a still-warm pastry and examined it.
“I think it’s a doughnut,” she muttered.
I took one and bit into the plump, fried, sugar-dusted, doughnut-like cake.
With her mouth full, Melissa confirmed what I could taste for myself.
“There’s jelly inside. It’s a jelly doughnut, ” Melissa said.
“They’re doughnuts?” I looked at Miri.
She shrugged, a cross between What else? and Why do Americans need everything explained? “It is doughnuts—sufganyot.”
The fanciful transformed into the mundane.
The sufganyot were less dessert than the appetizer, the initiation, into our Israeli lives, where the strange became familiar, the surprising became routine.
We no longer looked up when sonic booms of Israeli jets rattled our ulpan classroom windows, but continued translating the simplified “new immigrant” page of the Israeli newspaper. Book bags over our shoulders, we trudged home from the open market shuk, balancing giant packages of toilet paper rolls on our heads, stockpiling for the war. Undeterred by my limited Hebrew, I deployed my Jersey girl gesticulations and prodigious volume to negotiate the price of pickles.
When the war finally arrived in January as promised—and with it the long crescendo whine of the air raid siren that yanked me from sleep night after night with a racing heart—our late-night scrambles from our beds to our sealed kitchen “safe-room,” gas masks in place and radio on, would soon feel as common as waking to the yowling stray cats fighting by the trash cans.
One night, my father back in New Jersey turned from a CNN report of a new attack on Israel to call and check on me at 3 a.m. Jerusalem time. I had just barely fallen back asleep after the second siren that night pulled us from our beds. We had stumbled into our sealed room to sit on the floor in our pajamas, sweating beneath the rubber masks and half blind behind the fogged-over plastic eye pieces, waiting over an hour for the all-clear to go back to bed. Now more crazed from sleep deprivation than fear, I screamed at my father over the long-distance line, “Did they say Jerusalem, was bombed? No? Then why are you calling?”
Living under the threat of missile attacks grew routine enough that I could mostly suppress my fears to go about an ordinary life. When we were released from the initial war-time curfew that kept us trapped at home for a week, grateful that the endless, random reruns of Alf, Family Affair and Little House on the Prairie were subtitled in Hebrew and not dubbed, Melissa and I returned to our ulpan classes and shopping at the shuk. Personal Protection Kits slung over our shoulders by their black plastic straps, we compared our collaged boxes with those of the neighbors while we all waited for the bus.
Sufganyot, sugar dusted, sweat drenched.
Months later back in New Jersey, I was washing dishes in my parents’ house when the sound of the volunteer fire department’s noontime siren bled through the closed kitchen windows. The rising and falling wail strung me into a jittery sweat.
Every day at noon, for the three weeks I stayed at my parents’, my squirrley subconscious and adrenal glands reminded me that my intimacy with war-time living did not mean I had grown accustomed to threats, or jets, or actual night terrors. The familiar could still be arresting.
That first Hanukkah night in Jerusalem the blue glass bowl on our dining table glowed from the holiday candles. I licked sugar from my fingers and ate another of the sufganyot. The cake was light and airy, with barely a hint of the oil it had been fried in. The sweet, slightly tart strawberry jelly, liquid from the heat, lingered in my mouth. I realized I’d never eaten a homemade doughnut before.
“These are really good,” I said.
“They’re amazing, “ Melissa agreed. “So much better than Dunkin Donuts.”
They were doughnuts, for sure, but they were more fragrant, more tasty—I would even say sublime—and much more sufganyot.
|Sari Boren is a writer and museum exhibit developer. She's created exhibits for dozens of history, science and children's museums across the country, including the National Park Service. Her essays and feature stories have appeared in War, Literature & the Arts, The Unesco Courier, and US Air Magazine.|