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Despair replaces bravado in Israel

The rabbi at Irit Rahamim's wedding offered a special prayer. Standing under the bride's canopy, he thanked God for allowing her to live to see this day.

Not 48 hours earlier, Rahamim and her friends were pinned under a table as a Palestinian sprayed her bachelorette party with bullets. Three people were killed before the gunman was shot.

But life goes on.

For Israelis trapped in some of the bloodiest days of their nation's history, the rituals of daily existence have grown fraught with uncertainty and risk. Many insist on putting on a brave face. Focusing on routine is the way they preserve their sanity. Defiance, not surrender.

Among a growing number, however, despair has replaced bravado. Confronted by attacks that multiply, move closer and target the innocent at their most unsuspecting moments, these Israelis are changing their habits. They stay at home more, restrict their children, shun public transportation, operate with fear.

Life in Israel has always been a contest between maintaining normality and protecting yourself. Never has the struggle been this stressful.

In a poll, 68 percent of respondents said they had reduced their visits to crowded public places and 78 percent expressed fear that a family member would be hurt.

Kindergartens have armed guards. Jerusalem streets and coffeehouses that once bustled are virtually deserted. The demand for guns in a well-armed society is up 75 percent.

Palestinian militants in recent weeks have targeted the core rituals of Jewish life _ weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs _ and attacked elite neighborhoods and cafes that once seemed immune.

Each new outburst means adjustments. Family members check with one another several times a day by cellular telephone. In at least one cafe, the management has designated a safe room where the staff can hide from a suicide bomber.

Especially in Jerusalem, where most terrorist attacks have occurred, Israelis think twice before going out at night, attending public events, even buying groceries. It used to be the norm to allow children to travel to and from school on their own. That has changed.

Donna Shalev has reprogrammed every minute of her day to make sure that her daughter is safe. She takes her daughter to school, lingering every day just to be certain the 9-year-old is safe. Then she catches a taxi to work and rushes back in the afternoon to fetch Ariela. No more buses.

Shopping and recreation also are a challenge. You can't just go out. You have to think about where to go and the route to take.

Trying to decide where to buy shoes the other day, Shalev eliminated a downtown store near Jaffa Street, the site of several gun and bomb attacks. Then she eliminated the Talpiot area of strip malls, because bombs have gone off twice there. Finally, she chose German Colony, a relatively unscathed section of town, and bought her shoes. Two days later, an aspiring suicide bomber walked into one of German Colony's most popular restaurants. Fortunately, he was thwarted.

Schools have canceled recesses so students aren't congregated in exposed playgrounds. Hours have been staggered at some schools so that large numbers of pupils aren't arriving or leaving at the same time. At kindergartens, which are not automatically entitled to city-provided guards because of their small size, parents have been raising money to hire protection.

Malls and large supermarkets have had armed guards for a long time. But now, even the corner market is likely to be guarded.

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