This piece is one of an ongoing series that we are sharing from Israeli authors and authors in Israel.
It is critical to understand history not just through the books that will be written later, but also through the first-hand testimonies and real-time accounting of events as they occur. At Jewish Book Council, we understand the value of these written testimonials and of sharing these individual experiences. It’s more important now than ever to give space to these voices and narratives.
I have new thoughts all the time, my mind is in overdrive. But in the last week or so, my thoughts return repeatedly to the question of time. My own days are extremely long. When I wake up, I grab my phone – like we all do – and I pray without even thinking that I have not woken to the death of a soldier I know. Even though I also know that the death of any soldier is someone else’s “soldier they know.” There is still that sharp relief, felt in the top of my chest, when the names I encounter are unfamiliar. Guilt accompanies the relief.
But once the photos are added to the initial death announcements online, then it will matter less that I don’t know these individual soldiers. It will be unbearable regardless. There are tragic deaths of reservists, in their thirties and forties; however, the majority of the photos feature young men in their mandatory service, ages approximately eighteen to twenty-one years old. A minute ago they were in high school, counselors in one youth movement or another. I notice how many were leaders in Tzofim, the Scouts, because my son, Shai, has been in the Scouts since second grade. When I see the photos, I know suddenly that so many of our photos of Shai – an Israeli now for nine years – are the same photos these parents have.
A nine years old setting out for his first overnight with the Scouts, with his bigger-than-him backpack; Shoresh water sandals attached by velcro to the side of the pack; brown Blundstone boots on his feet (when his feet were still growing, we argued about buying fake or the expensive real thing, and he settled for fake); the required hat on his head, usually a kova tembel, like he is a pioneer planting orange trees in the early years of the state. In the backpack are lots and lots of snacks that won’t melt in the sun (no chocolate unless it is spread on a roll that will be eaten first thing in the morning), and a can of tuna and pickles, and a box of cut-up peppers and cucumbers. Bug repellent and sunscreen while they are still young enough to allow their parents to help pack and organize. An empty plastic supermarket bag, probably with a crumpled receipt at the bottom, for dirty or wet clothes. A siddur, a prayer book. After the age of thirteen, tefillin for the morning prayer. On the outside of the backpack that is bigger-than-he-is, a light rubber mat rolled tight, to put underneath the sleeping bag, with a name marked on it, maybe a phone number. The sleeping bag usually goes in a separate bag that goes underneath on the bus. Three liters of water. Required.
These kids have all taken the same trips, the same overnights. They have sung lots of the same songs, chanted the same chants. They have first been the campers, and then the older campers, and then – so quickly – they have become the counselors. Last summer, Shai forwarded me the recording a mother sent him after the first overnight for his third-grade campers: “Listen, Shai,” she said, “you will go far in life. I know this because I saw everything you did for my son. He came to the activities week after week because of you. There is no way I can thank you enough.”
I remember Shai’s admiration for his counselors, and how grown they looked to me as he climbed onto buses in the fall, winter, spring, summer. I never feared because those teens were as trustworthy as could be. Over the years, Scouts became Shai’s second home. And this is why, now, every morning, I pray that the fallen not be from Jerusalem, that they not be from south Jerusalem, that they not be from Shevet Masuot, that they not be precisely those boys who helped hoist backpacks too big for Shai and too big for his friends, that passed down their scarves and their uniforms and their confidence and love. Their wisdom on growing up. So when I see the photos that the newspapers and the families and friends post later in the day, I am simply seeing translations to someone else’s city, someone else’s neighborhood, youth group, and so on. And then the pain is less close for me, true, but I know it is out there traveling and settling on someone else.
That is waking up. Then there is taking in that first dose of news. There is inuring myself against the workings of my own government; whatever new incendiary comment, accusation, prophecy, or offense; whatever new bottom people in charge have reached. As a friend said to me – there is no trigger like the trigger of looking for the adults in charge who will keep us safe and finding … no one. Of course we feel sick to our stomachs. Of course there is no way to feel better.
Then there is the hour of getting children off to school. You see a lot of fathers on the street pushing strollers with huge guns strapped to them. Now, with a daughter in the army, I understand a little differently. You aren’t allowed ever to be separated from your weapon. It’s an unacceptable danger. During her basic training in September, my daughter called me one night from her base in the south. She had taken out her contacts and was already in her glasses, and a faded red sleep T‑shirt I had just washed when she was home, and she was brushing teeth while talking to me, with her phone propped up against a mirror or shelf. I looked closer and I saw she was wearing two guns strapped across her in a V, because her friend was in the shower. I took a screenshot. To hold the dissonance. My child, responsible for guarding others, burdened by two automatic rifles. Heavy, she says. Even without ammunition.
On the streets, you see these armed fathers pushing strollers and there is no cognitive dissonance. Which, I notice, is itself weird. And you know they are home either for the day or they are headed back to the war. Which is about an hour or two away. Time is linked to distance. And both are very, very short.
You see the kids headed to school. You see the parents in traffic. And I think about what my daughter’s therapist, wise woman that she is, said to us on Friday: yes, there is a war here. There have been many wars here. And there is trauma now. There is trauma around all violence. But it is important to recognize, she says, really to take in, that people here make good lives. That in spite of the violence and the trauma, it is not a dysfunctional society. There is constructive activity, there is laughter and light. There is love. And that is not only a sign of denial. Not only a sign of a people disconnected from its own deep losses and struggles, callous to its involvements in others’ losses and struggles. It is also a sign of health.
I would add to what she said, that the balance is tenuous. The balance between denial and recognition, between the potential immorality of accepting violence as a status quo and the genuine morality of loving life, between forced acceptance and chosen commitment – all these balances are secret and mysterious and constantly in need of adjustment.
But as I am easing out of these early hours of the day, I am assailed by exhaustion. Absolutely assailed. And I ask myself if it is wrong to get back into bed and just sleep. Because I will still have plenty of time later in the endless day before me to make all my phone calls to the families who have someone serving on the southern or northern front, someone missing, someone missed. Someone who is not there to help with cooking or homework or shopping or sleeping or bathing. And someone whose absence is like a slap in the face, a constant threat. Because really, we don’t know for sure if they will be back. Last night I heard a psychologist on the radio, and she was saying, “You never tell a child that Daddy went to a faraway place because the child could think, ‘Oh, you mean like Haifa? Oh you mean the moon?’”
“No,”she went on, “you say, ‘Daddy died. He is not ever coming back but we can think of him and remember him and look at pictures of him on our phone and know that he loved us very much. But he isn’t coming back ever.’”
Ever. That is also a word of time. The time that trumps all distance.
So I will have time for those phone calls even if I hide. And sleep while no one else is home. And so sometimes I do. And I make my coffee at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. instead of at 8 a.m.
But at some point in the day, I will not be able to ward it off. The hostages. The hostages in time. Day one, day two, day three and now, impossibly, day thirty-five.
What are the hostages doing? What are they doing in captivity? What does a hostage do? Who are they with? What do they know of what is happening outside the tunnels of Gaza? Do they know their families and people around the globe are turning the world upside down? Do they know their own images are plastered to sports stadium walls in Germany, to the backs of trucks in Chicago, to strangers’ profile pictures? Do they know, can they possibly imagine, that in Helsinki, in Vienna, in Florence, in Durban, in New York as well as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, passersby stare at empty chairs, at strollers with their photos, at beds with stuffed animals, balloons, storybooks? What would they make of this? In Gaza last Friday, Israeli soldiers prayed the shabbat tefillah through a megaphone, hoping that the hostages would hear the prayer and know that someone had come to save them. But I wondered if a hostage hearing that and recognizing it would wonder if they had lost their mind, if this was the moment at which they would wonder if they still had a hold on reality.
Last week at the solidarity rally with the families of the hostages, I stood among others in the dark, in the same place we had stood all year. I wore out a good pair of sandals in three months, walking back and forth from home to this square to demonstrate against a government who held democracy cheap, who mocked its own people, who called us traitors, and who refused the testimony of thousands of homegrown and international experts who raised the flag of alarm. It turns out danger was danger.
And now here we stand. But we are far fewer now than we were in the spring. Maybe 200 rather than tens of thousands. I stood next to a friend and we held signs with the photos of two young sisters, hostages, and I felt sick. Nauseous. I wondered if I was going to keel over and throw up from the nearness to human desperation and also, the particular horror coming over the loudspeakers: It was the horror of parents – good parents, capable parents – absolutely powerless to help their children. When the mother from the south said, “It could be your child. Everyone must say, it could be my child,” I felt I knew why so few people had showed up. Yes, probably many were worried about sirens and large public gatherings in the middle of a war that is, of course, absolutely still going on. Rockets and all. Maybe the absence of close shelter kept people home.
But maybe also it was that self-protective instinct, not even conscious, by which we keep distance from the things we fear so much we can’t even allow ourselves to come close to coming close to fear. Having a child swept out of our arms into the arms of a masked terrorist, another terrorist filming, as our child is carried away on a motorcycle or tossed onto the back of a pickup truck, then whisked into the vast underground tunnel network. A place from which so few sojourners have returned to tell all.
Thirty-five days of no word. No report. No Red Cross access. No clarity as to life or death.
I wonder ceaselessly: how are the families of the hostages getting through time? How have they filled thirty-five days and nights, separated from the people they love?
So many of them have been active and resourceful beyond anything I can imagine. My friends Rachel and Jon work tirelessly. Since identifying that their son was taken to Gaza, they have not stopped giving interviews, pursuing contacts in global media, making and posting videos on social media, printing signs. They have met with President Biden; they have traveled to the United Nations headquarters.
But that is the time we see. What about the silent, private time they live in parallel with the people they love, imagining them? What about the moments in which they think back to the world before? How have they done it, how have they crossed over from normative life to some other realm of experience that not only can I not imagine, I actively shrink from imagining?
At the protest, I held the photo of that child, and thought about how she was somewhere, living through time (we hope, we hope, she is alive). Because she is a child, I was hoping she had enough to eat. I was thinking that her mind had to have shut down in a variety of ways in order for her to be able to survive. That even if she was fed enough and dressed warmly or coolly enough, and allowed to wash, and able to sleep, and could stretch her legs and move around, and maybe hear a story in her native language – if all these unlikely conditions were met – she would still, with every passing second, be amassing trauma. Her body is encoding it.
And that makes me think of my own body and my own children’s bodies.
There is a phrase, I don’t know where I first heard it but it keeps coming to mind: “skin in the game.” I have “skin in the game.” What this means to me is that not a single consideration about the massacres of October 7, the kidnappings, the war, the government disaster, the volunteerism, not a single consideration, is theoretical for me. Nothing is symbolic. Nothing is less than massively consequential. A colleague of mine read an essay I wrote and said he felt a disturbing, albeit sublimated, drive for vengeance in what I had written. It disturbed him that I did not write more about the Gazans and only once mentioned a Palestinian friend. But he said it from the West Coast of the United States of America. Now, living in California does not discount judgment and it is fair to say that those at a distance can have a perspective that is more measured, and perhaps more subjugated to certain kinds of logic. I believe that. My thinking right now is compromised. Without any doubt. But part of the reason it is compromised is because everything, everything, is at stake for me. And that is a truth as well. Because all my thoughts, my choices, my affiliations, will be tested by reality.
My body is at stake. And my children’s bodies, my friends’ bodies, my friends’ children’s bodies, my values, my faith, my future, my past, everything that has ever meant anything to me could be emptied out just like that and left to drop to the bottom of a pit, as if it held nothing and never did.
There are many outcomes of any day right now that could change the givens of my life. And I go into each day knowing that. Which is why time feels as it does. And which is why my bed beckons.
This does not mean that there aren’t moments of respite. Thank god, there are. And I am trying so hard to follow the advice of wise, dear teachers and friends who remind me that there is goodness in this world, and there is beauty. And it is okay to feel it. It is good to feel it. I must feel it. A friend unexpectedly brought me flowers before shabbat. And my eyes were smarting from cutting onions when I came to the door, but somewhere between the onions and the white and purple lisianthus; between her children, younger than mine, standing next to her, and my children, in the army, on the cusp of the army; somewhere in between tears of one kind and another, I breathed in the smell of freshness, of growing things, of things we are allowed to cut and clip and put on our tables to adorn, to add to what we have. I see the flowers out of the corner of my eye right now. And they are in a ceramic vase that my beloved mentor gave me as a gift twenty years ago. Yes, life is good.
But even as I feel that, the respite is only a respite. I can’t forget the time, the date, the fear, the fractures. And someone in California might very well be able to forget all that and take their kids trick-or-treating, or celebrate a recent publication, or drink an excellent glass of wine, and be free. Free of my news. Free of my Jerusalem. Of my Kibbutz Be’eri. Free of my West Bank. And my Gaza. And my politicians. And my friend who is hunger fasting until the Red Cross gets access to our hostages. And my friend whose son’s high school principal was killed last night in battle.
I do not feel free.
Today in an invaluable Zoom meeting (how few these are), a scholar of philosophy who is also an educator for intergroup relations talked with faculty from my university about what to expect when we get back to the classroom. When we sit together, Jewish and Arab students. She said: there can be recovery, but for recovery to come, the violence would have to be over. And it isn’t. For those of us here in this region, October 7 isn’t over and done with. We are eaten up by its losses, its deaths. We are living with intense fear and anxiety for ourselves and our family members. We are threatened by violence of many sorts. We are still missing our children and our elderly. They are not in their beds where they should be. We can’t sleep at night. People take drugs to sleep or, by contrast, sleep symptomatically, so deeply they find it difficult to wake up. People are still attending funerals, visiting mourners. Bodies and body parts are still being identified. More than 30 percent of our Jewish students are currently in army uniform, some sleeping in tanks, going days without showers, coming home for a few hours break, traveling from the immersive world of war to the newly surreal world of home. Many Arabs are afraid to leave their homes. They are torn up with fear and anxiety, too. They are in mourning for their dead, among our dead, and terrified by the future.
And here was the critical piece: in circumstances like this, she said, collective identity is stronger than usual for people. You wake up and you think, I am a Jew. You wake up and you think, I am Palestinian. Complications to your identity that might immediately emerge on ordinary days emerge far more slowly, less readily. And even more important, very, very few people have the bandwidth for empathy for more than one group. Because you feel fear. You sense violence in the air. And while you are still living under those conditions, it is nearly impossible to hold compassion for others at the same time. So those nice little Facebook sayings, “Your heart can break for more than one group at a time,” well, it turns out that if you are living in the epicenter of a raging conflict, your heart might not be able to break for more than one group at a time.
I definitely know outliers. People who feel as much for innocents in Gaza as they feel at our funerals, our many funerals. I have heard immediate survivors of the horrors of October 7 who not only hold onto the politics of peace, but refuse to discount the losses in Gaza, no matter whether Hamas has refused to protect its own people or not. These are exemplary people.
For myself, I have been horrified by the fact that when I see photos from Gaza, I know that I do not want more death, but I am not brought to tears. I’m limited.
Yesterday, my son, sixteen-years-old, with so many older friends and brothers of friends fighting in Gaza, so many alumni of his high school and Scouts, he said to me angrily, “Why in this household do we always care about the other side? Don’t you understand how dangerous it is for our soldiers?” And then he said the thing that was the tell for me. He said, “Even the hostages don’t need the same amount of worry as the soldiers.”
He said this because he believes, with some degree of logic, that Hamas knows the hostages are a card to play and so they will not harm them. But when he said that, I knew he was out of bandwidth, because any reasonable person cannot but tremble for the fate of baby hostages. My son had run out of available emotion. He couldn’t be afraid for the soldiers and the hostages, let alone anyone on the other side. He only had enough fear, enough love, enough attention, for the young men he is growing up to join. And he was too frightened to imagine what it might be like to be a hostage. He couldn’t come near to coming near to the fear.
Instead, he is concentrating all his powers of mind and heart on very, very young men, the ones who lifted the backpack that was bigger than he was. He is willing them to stay alive, to steer clear of danger. He can’t divide that focus for a moment or something terrible might happen.
We are living right now in an intensity of fear that limits who we are. It won’t always be that way. And that, too, is a prayer for prayer.
Ilana M. Blumberg is associate professor of English Literature and past director of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel. She is the author of Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American, Victorian Sacrifice: Ethics and Economics in Mid-Century Novels, and the Sami Rohr Choice Award-winning memoir Houses of Study: a Jewish Woman Among Books.