This piece is one of an ongoing series that we will be sharing in the coming days 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.
In collaboration with the Jewish Book Council, JBI is recording writers’ first-hand accounts, as shared with and published by JBC, to increase the accessibility of these accounts for individuals who are blind, have low vision or are print disabled.
A. The Mall
This is a story of a broken birthday party, an admirable and malicious bread maker, and a library put together from scratch in less than twenty-four hours. This is under no circumstance a story about the worst terror attack Israel has ever suffered; it’s not about the perpetually scorched sights of horror, nor is it about the inability to inhale and exhale, or the constant feeling that we, Israelis, are all going to die in the next few days. It’s not a story of rage, not about a kind word one may say to a panicked stranger in a supermarket. It might be just about the perfect response to the question “how are things?” when it’s presented in Israel at this time.
Two days prior to the hellish, nightmarish attack in the western Negev, I was in the local mall in Givatayim (a town next to Tel Aviv) with my ten-year-old child, Enoch. We were looking for a big-enough birthday present for my wife. Like all men in this predicament, I felt completely lost. Finally, the idea of a bread maker hit me and we went and got it. We bought her two more small presents as insurance against disappointment and headed towards the last hours of life as we knew it.
We were happy. About a week from that day, we were supposed to fly out on our first family vacation abroad to the isle of Santorini in Greece. Enoch has an acute milk allergy, and we never dared going abroad with him. But we had finally come to the realization that life can’t be run by fear. Now it sounds ironic but at this time everything in Israel sounds ironic, hitting these keys sounds ironic, so does breathing.
B. The Attack
We woke up to the wailing of sirens and dashed to the safe room. I was closing the window, a heavy rolling metal plate across a double-glazed window. It’s usually Enoch’s room and so my wife, Ravit, was bringing in our other two children, our daughter Sivan and our youngest son Maayan. I rushed to the steel door, flung it shut and locked it firmly. We have ninety seconds till Hamas’s missiles hit our town, but we are in the safe room in about twenty. We are well-drilled.
Homeland security says wait ten minutes before it’s safe to come out; we waited eight because we’re rebellious by nature. Watching the living room TV afterwards we realized it’s not safe, it’s not going to be safe for a long time, and it was never safe.
The scale of the tragedy was slowly unraveling throughout the day. Rage, fear, helplessness, accompanied by repeated dashes into the safe room. The kids decided to stay there and as evening fell, we filled balloons with air for the decorations for my wife’s birthday party, the next day. What a day to celebrate. Mechanically, my wife was baking a cake, because I’m a disaster at baking. Finally, the eldest hit the hay, and there were just the two of us.
I poured us some whiskey and made a toast for the ones murdered and those kidnapped and those fighting for us. My wife sat down, eyes miserably glued to the screen. I was hanging “Happy Birthday” ribbons all over the house. At midnight, I poured us another drink and said “L’chaim”– to life. “Happy birthday”, I stupidly added.
D. The Cake
There was a lot of hiding from the kids to do. No school today, we announced and, astonishingly, they didn’t seem upset. We brought in the cake, and my wife blew out the candles and I just don’t know how she did it, because air didn’t seem to come out of her lips. I’m sorry we have a war on your birthday, I said. “It doesn’t matter,” she replied, “it’s not important.” Then she opened up the presents. She was very happy, all things considered, with the new bread maker.
E. The Bread Maker
We baked the first loaf together, and it came out shrunken yet tasty. From that moment on we made experiments that ultimately yielded the perfect bread. We looked at the news on the TV when the kids were in the safe room and bread was in the making. We were measuring olive oil when sirens came. We were adding water when rumours of rape were turning into facts. We were carefully adding yeast when the first tidings of babies being beheaded arrived. We were baking really good bread; I made one with chestnuts.
I did more stuff. I went to give blood. They said: sir, we’re fully-booked for the next three days, the line is stretching out to the street. I did countless pro-bono Zoom shows for kids and lectures for adults. I applied for a firearm license. I volunteered for the neighborhood watch. I asked my old commanding officer to redraft me to my reserve unit, from which I was discharged at forty as is typical. I was ready to drive a tank again, if necessary. I was in a rage.
None of this happened. Our flight was finally canceled about forty-eight hours before takeoff, so that gave me some blessed bureaucracy to sink into. Canceling the hotel reservation, the car rental, the travel insurance.
And I baked bread. Bread is life, bread is the future. I kept going to the store to get flour. There was a siren when I was waiting in line and one of the women started yelling and crying. “We have ninety seconds, ma’am, come with me to the safe room,” I said. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said mortified, “I’m from the south. We only have fifteen seconds.”
F. The Library
I had an idea about books. Before October 7 we escaped our lives with social media; after October 7 we escape social media back into our lives. And our lives aren’t pretty, so our minds really have nowhere to hide. Books are the perfect escape. Always, and now more than ever. Like bread, books are also our future and our past. Books are our soul’s bread.
I wanted to organize a donation of children’s books, for the thousands of families who were evicted from their homes in the warzone. They were all put into hotels in safer regions of Israel, some got there barefoot, with not so much as a clean pair of underwear. Then I saw that iCast, an audiobooks company in Israel, was giving away the books they’ve already recorded for the evacuees. I went to their headquarters, got two big crates of books and made a few phone calls. It turned out my childhood neighbor, Shirly, is helping out refugees from a moshav called Shokeda, who were evacuated to a hotel in the moshav where she lives, Neve Ilan, about twenty miles west to Jerusalem.
G. The Disappointment
“What’s in there?” inquired the lady in charge of the refugees’ supplies at the hotel. Books, I said. “Books, huh?” She nodded skeptically. “I don’t expect they’ll be in a reading mood right now.” Well, that took the air out, I was in this Messiah mood of saving their spirits, bringing these poor desolated people the bread of the soul and so on. “Just put them in the Carmel lounge, that’s where they’re hanging.”
I pulled the trolly to the Carmel lounge. A teenager came towards me. “What’s in here?” she asked in an eager treasure-hunting tone. “Books,” I replied sheepishly. “Oh, thank God! Books!” she said happily.
The Carmel lounge was filled with moms and infants and the unmistakable scent of diapers in need of change. Donated clothes, toys, and a cluttered disarray of items so dense we didn’t even know where the crates could go. We just moved some empty baby strollers. Frankly, I just wanted to leave. You hear about evacuees on the news, but seeing the reality is different.
Shirly sent me a picture after two hours. All the books were labeled with the name of Shokeda, the moshav of the evicted people, very neatly placed on a bookshelf unit someone had donated. These people did not have a home to come back to yet, but they already had a library.
H. The Perfect Answer
I texted one of my old army buddies a few days ago. I asked: “How are things?” He replied: “Tolerable”. I thought that’s the perfect answer for this question. That, and bread baking.
Jonathan Yavin is an Israeli novelist and writer for children and YA. So far, he has written 17 books that were translated into several languages. His book “Pumpkin the Kitten” entered many educational programs as a textbook and sold over 200 thousand copies. The American edition of this book, along with the American edition of “A Night at the Playground”, were published In the USA 2023 (Gefen Publishers, Ohio-Jerusalem). In 2012, Yavin was awarded the Prime Minister Levi Eshkol Prize for Writers and in 2006, his children book “Oh, Brother” received the Israeli Museum Prize for Illustration (art by Gilad Soffer). In 2022 Yavin founded “Mellel Publishing House”, launching his 4th fiction novel, “Loyal to None but Himself”.