I made aliyah in July 1990, and it took time until Saddam Hussein gave me my “Welcome to Israel” present. Six months after my arrival, the Iraqi meshugana fired 39 Scud missiles into Israel. Sirens went off and, like all other Israelis, my family and I sat in our sealed rooms, hoping and davening that we would be okay. When we heard the siren, the first thing we had to do was to put on our masks – big, bulky, and scary looking ones! Israel’s security services were worried that Saddam had armed the missiles with chemical warheads, so every citizen, resident, and tourist was given a gas mask. We went everywhere with them, because we never knew when this evil person would press the “fire” button. That was life back in early 1991.
Fast forward to 2020. A lot has changed in the world, and things we use daily didn’t even exist back in “those good old days.” Amazon, Google, Kosher Pizza Hut… how did we survive? Do you realize that in 1991, Carlebach was the only one davening Carlebach, nobody knew any vegans, there was a “one-hour photo” on every block in Manhattan, and the coolest way to send a letter was by fax? Well, after all that technology and modernization, one thing hasn’t changed: I’m still schlepping around a mask!
Yes, the mask has gotten smaller and folds neatly into my pocket (could never do that with my gas mask), but it’s still a mask. Like everyone else, I have a spare mask in my talis bag, car, office, and pants pocket (never had a spare gas mask, by the way), but it’s still a mask. Today’s mask comes in different colors and shapes and many have logos and messages, but no matter what you do to it, it’s still a mask. In short: I wore a mask in 1991 and am still wearing one in 2020.
While these masks are quite different in design and purpose, the reaction to them is pretty similar. In 1991, I was an anti-mask guy. I saw the gas mask as a capitulation to terror. I did not want to sit in my room listening to the radio about where the Scud was expected to land. I wanted the radio to report about where our Israeli missiles were landing in Bagdad. I wanted the enemy to wear gas masks – not us. I prayed that Israeli fighter jets would fly into Iraq, as they did a few years earlier to blow up the nuclear reactor. Instead, sirens went off, we gathered up the crying kids, ran into the sealed room, and put on the masks. Yes, I did this (well, most of the time… just not at 2:30 a.m., when I concluded that it’s better to get hit by a rocket than wake up sleeping kids), but I really didn’t like it. To me, the mask was symbolic of weakness and fear, and I had made aliyah to be strong and unafraid! Baruch Hashem, we made it through those challenging days and the gas mask was stored away.
It is now more than 29 years later and, this time, we don’t wait for sirens nor do we wear our masks inside our homes. In 2020, our masks are worn primarily outside, when we are around other people, and not because of Saddam Insane, but because of a different enemy: a super-tiny, unseen virus called coronavirus, COVID-19, or my personal favorite, coined by President Trump: “the China Virus.” Once again, the mask controversy is front and center with people saying yes, no, and everything in between (whatever that means). Believe it or not, while I was a very anti-mask guy in 1991, I am actually a pro-mask guy in 2020 – but for a completely different reason. I am not pro-mask because I believe it helps keep me, you, or anyone safe. I am “pro-mask” because I know how important it is to my neighbors. Period.
In 1991, if I didn’t wear a mask, nobody said “boo,” because if a Scud hit and was filled with a chemical that I should have learned about in 11th grade, the one without the mask (I) would have been the only one affected. Therefore, people looked at me like I was weird (I’m used to that) but really didn’t care if I put on the mask or not. In 2020, it’s a whole different ballgame. People look at a non-mask-wearer and see danger for themselves, and guess what? Perception is reality! If someone perceives that he or she is in danger, then they are! It doesn’t matter what the facts are or what some anti-masker says. People today are nervous, anxious, and full of tension, and whether or not these fears are justified makes no difference. Therefore, if I can alleviate some of those fears and help calm my neighbors by wearing some silly mask, I will do it with a smile… even though you can’t see me smiling!
In conclusion: In 1991, while waiting for a Scud, I didn’t follow the rules and instead drank a Bud – but in 2020 I am ready for the task by caring for neighbors and wearing my mask.
Let’s get through these challenging times together and emerge from these days stronger and more united than before.
Am Yisrael Chai!
Shmuel Sackett is a 100% product of Queens. He was born in Middle Village and moved to KGH shortly before his bar-mitzvah. He graduated from YCQ (1975) and YHSQ (1979). He was Havurat Yisrael’s first Youth Director (4 years) and started the first 2 NCSY chapters in Queens. Shmuel made aliyah in 1990 and co-founded Manhigut Yehudit, together with Moshe Feiglin. His website is www.JewishIsrael.org Sackett is married with 6 children and 4 grandchildren. He lives in Herziliya Pituach.