Who By Fire

Briefly, I’ve mentioned that I had a fire in my apartment on Rosh Hashanah. My new column in Moment Magazine tries to make sense of that timing:

I’m a rationalist. My grandmother’s mumbled imprecations against the evil eye seemed silly by the time I was seven. I don’t believe in omens. When I read ancient stories, I understand that the characters are frightened by an eagle flying overhead to their left, but I don’t resonate with their fear.

Not normally. But I confess: On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, my rationalist reflexes proved weak when we arrived home from shul and found two cops with flashlights standing in puddles of water and soot in our dark, smoke-filled Jerusalem apartment.

The firefighters had smashed open the front door, drowned the flames and left before we got back. The police were there to give us the bad news. One of them showed us our kitchen with his oversized flashlight. The top half of the refrigerator, as my younger daughter said, looked like a roasted marshmallow. The doors had burned off the cabinets above it where we store our Passover dishes. The dishes were black. Of the bookshelf that had held notebooks full of recipes collected from friends and now-departed mothers and grandmothers over 30 years, only ash remained. After three minutes in the apartment, I was coughing. The cops must have had a different kind of lungs. The one who did the talking spoke in a low calm voice. “There was a short circuit in your refrigerator,” he said. “You have no electricity. You can’t sleep here.”

When you’ve just finished greeting the new year by asking God to inscribe you in the book of blessings, and you discover that meanwhile flames were eating your home, rationalism is a poor defense against the feeling that your request has been turned down. You think (or at least I thought): This is a very bad sign.

Read the rest here; come back to South Jerusalem to comment.

4 thoughts on “Who By Fire”

  1. Mr. Gorenberg:

    I regularly enjoy your and Haim’s writing so . . . please allow me to express my sympathy for you and your family. I teach military casualty notification and although the peace officer may have had the best of intentions, he said one thing I specifically point out not to say: 1) “it will be alright.” That’s almost the equivalent of turning to the chaplain during a notification and saying, “chaplain, would you like to pray now?” I doubt the “no one was hurt” quip was helpful either. I hope your situation gets better and although I can imagine how you feel, I don’t know and will never know your sense of grief; it is yours alone. Living space is at a premium where you live so the intensity can only be magnified and not diminished. And I won’t tell you that it will be alright although that is my sincerest hope for you and your family.

    Best wishes,


  2. None of your family will ever die in a fire. Have I written this before? I once woke up in the middle of the night. The reason: there was a fire a street away. I don’t wake up easy. And it surprised me how deeply the odor is stored in my brain cells as: danger.

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