Praying For Rain in Jerusalem

"Rain, rain, go away," is a familiar refrain of my childhood, evoking images of brand-new rubber boots and a pale purple umbrella with ruffled trim. Or of sitting curled by the window in our living room in Queens, watching as a downpour attacked the world.

So perhaps it's not surprising that when I experienced my first big rainstorm here in Jerusalem, aged 13 and sitting at my desk in a class where I didn't understand a word of what was being said, I rolled my eyes and made a comment about how irritating it would be to get home. I could imagine it: Waiting in the rain by the bus stop. Waiting in the rain at the next bus stop. Running through rain to get home, soaked to the skin.

My classmate rounded on me immediately. "You should be happy it's raining!" she said, scandalized. "We need the rain!"

This was my first inkling that life in the Middle East is more complicated than life in New York for more reasons than land disputes and terrorism. Never in all my twelve years in New York had anyone ever intimated that we needed rain. Rain was a nuisance, pure and simple. Or it was nice to watch if you didn't need to get anywhere, but if you did, complaining about the rain was a thoroughly justifiable activity. Summer rains meant you couldn't go swimming. Spring and autumn rains meant you'd get soaked walking home from the school bus stop. And winter rains, well, isn't the weather already miserable enough?

Rainstorms have been raging throughout Israel in the past week, after a warm and bone-dry winter. Winter, which is the only rainy season in the Middle East. There is no such thing as spring or summer rain, and in autumn it is rare. There is only harsh winter rain, borne by violent winds. Umbrellas are next to useless: a flimsy one will be blown inside-out in no time, while a strong one will try to carry you away like you're Mary Poppins. The sidewalks after a rainstorm in Jerusalem are littered with the spiky remains of broken umbrellas.

Yet in spite of the inconvenience of the winter rain, it is always a celebrated occurrence. And it is an increasingly sporadic occurrence, as Israel faces the most serious drought in its history. Though we thrill to the sound of rain thrumming against the windowpanes, at the same time we mutter tensely, "It's not enough. It's not enough."

Here the land cries out for rain. Even in the cities we feel it, and even atheists offer a prayer of thanks when the occasional rare drops fall from the sky. And it's no coincidence that the Jewish prayer for rain is thousands of years old, commencing at the start of the Middle Eastern rainy season. Between autumn and the beginning of spring, Jews pray for rain every day, three times a day, and did so even when it was irrelevant to them in the more fertile Diaspora lands.

Maybe it's no coincidence that the religions that engulf much of the world first flowered here, in these desert lands where the weather determines our fate. Desalination technology will supposedly save us, but can anything replace the gloriously natural blessing of water pouring out of the sky? No wonder, then, that it has over the years been viewed as a gift from God, or Allah, or Hashem; and its absence a curse.