This piece is part 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.

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. 

Jew­ish tra­di­tion teach­es that the dead must be tak­en care of; and so we do, even as the war rages on between Hamas and Israel.

I rode my bicy­cle on a recent after­noon to the ceme­tery that sits at the edge of our vil­lage, Shavei Zion, in West­ern Galilee, Israel. I went to help pre­pare a neigh­bor, nine­ty-five-year-old Elma Erlenger, for her burial. 

I’m a mem­ber of the chevra kadisha, the holy soci­ety that per­forms the rit­u­al wash­ing and dress­ing of the dead in our vil­lage. There is no funer­al par­lor, only a small bur­ial house in the ceme­tery. In many small towns in Israel, it’s usu­al­ly vol­un­teers who han­dle the prepa­ra­tions for buri­als. In our vil­lage, the men take care of the men and the women take care of the women. We’re all vol­un­teers. It is con­sid­ered the great­est mitz­vah, or good deed, that you can do for some­one else, because the dead can nev­er thank you. There are about 1,300 res­i­dents in Shavei Zion, which was found­ed in 1938 as a farm­ing col­lec­tive, and we usu­al­ly know the women and their life stories.

Elma was born in Egypt, one of eight sib­lings. She spoke Ital­ian with her father, who came from Cor­fu, and Greek with her Crete-born moth­er. Elma spoke French out­side the house, and learned Eng­lish in a high school run by Irish nuns. In 1946, she fled Egypt and came to Israel where she learned Hebrew; after mov­ing to Shavei Zion, she mar­ried a man from Ger­many — and learned German. 

She was well-liked and remained active in the com­mu­ni­ty up until a few weeks before she died, when she cooked and baked for the Israeli sol­diers who have been sta­tioned in our vil­lage since the start of the war on Octo­ber 7. That day, 3,000 Hamas-led ter­ror­ists infil­trat­ed Israel from the land, air, and sea, killing more than 1,200 peo­ple, rap­ing women and girls, and seiz­ing some 240 hostages, many still being held cap­tive in Gaza. The Hamas mas­sacre echoes so many oth­er attacks against Jews through­out his­to­ry. In fact, two years after Elma left Egypt, Egypt­ian mobs killed three rab­bis by split­ting their throats in a Cairo slaugh­ter­house, and mur­dered more than one hun­dred oth­er Jews, often in grue­some ways.

Shavei Zion, set on the Mediter­ranean Sea, is about thir­ty-eight miles north of Haifa and ten miles south of the bor­der with Lebanon. We’re not in the fir­ing range of Hamas, but we are in the scope of Hezbol­lah, Iran’s proxy ter­ror army, which has more than 150,000 mis­siles and rock­ets point­ed in our direc­tion. Hezbol­lah sol­diers have pub­licly vowed to infil­trate our area and com­mit equal­ly bru­tal atroc­i­ties. Our vil­lage is on high alert. We know that we are tar­gets. We could be next.

In the bur­ial house, we said intro­duc­to­ry prayers and then washed Elma from her head to her feet. We sprin­kled water start­ing from the right side and then the left. Kab­bal­ah, Jew­ish mys­ti­cism, explains that the right side is the side of mer­cy; the left side is of judg­ment. One last time, we combed Elma’s hair, and then cov­ered her face with a head bon­net. We gen­tly dressed her in spe­cial cot­ton shrouds. We tied the sim­ple gar­ments with­out knots because, it is taught, that is how the soul can escape.

When we fin­ished, we asked Elma for for­give­ness if we hurt her in any way. 

One of the women in the chevra kadisha is in a What­sApp group that receives a dif­fer­ent psalm each day. The psalm for that day was Psalm 121, and she sang out in a love­ly voice, God will guard you from all evil, God shall pro­tect your soul.” 

While I stood there, lis­ten­ing, I felt an odd sense of peace in the midst of the war. I thought about how vol­un­teers in Israel spent weeks after the Octo­ber 7 slaugh­ter – after Hamas ter­ror­ists raped and behead­ed women, cut off babies’ limbs – try­ing to find pieces of the vic­tims’ bod­ies to be iden­ti­fied and then buried. Each part of the body is holy. 

Elma was lucky to die with dig­ni­ty, her body intact.

She was about to be low­ered into the earth, in one piece. 

I couldn’t help feel­ing relieved. She was safe.

The views and opin­ions expressed above are those of the author, based on their obser­va­tions and experiences.

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Diana Blet­ter is a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award nom­i­nee and author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing A Remark­able Kind­ness and The Lov­ing Your­self Book for Women. Her work has appeared in Com­men­tary, The New York Times and The Wall Street Jour­nal.