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. 

In this sequence from As Figs in Autumn: One Year in a For­ev­er War (Del­phini­um, July 2023), Ben Bas­tom­s­ki, an Amer­i­can lone sol­dier who enlist­ed in the Israeli Defense Force, meets his adop­tive fam­i­ly at the Be’eri Kib­butz. The lov­ing por­trait the author paints both of his adopt­ed fam­i­ly, and the idyl­lic life on the Kib­butz, ends with the descrip­tion of a bomb shel­ter. This pas­sage marks a time peri­od of a lit­tle more than ten years ago. 

Last sum­mer, the author moved back to Israel. And dur­ing the recent inva­sion of the Be’eri Kib­butz, he hap­pened to be vis­it­ing his adopt­ed fam­i­ly for the hol­i­day of Sim­chat Torah. Ben and the fam­i­ly hid in a for­ti­fied safe room, and it was only through his and Izzy, his adopt­ed father’s deter­mined efforts, that they were able to keep the exe­cu­tion­ers,” as Bas­tom­s­ki calls them, from break­ing through the door. They were even­tu­al­ly res­cued by Israeli sol­diers. As the world now knows, more than 100 peo­ple in Be’eri were killed.

There is in the Negev a fleet­ing sea­son, at the end of win­ter and the cusp of spring, in which the desert erupts into red bloom. These kalan­iot (red anemones) are drawn forth by winter’s cool and rain, and they over­take the land­scape, engulf­ing it in a mes­mer­iz­ing scar­let. Because the kalan­iot will stay only a short time before ebbing into the hills under the heat of spring, many Israelis flock south to be awed by them before they go: in par­tic­u­lar to the west­ern Negev, along the Gazan bor­der, where the con­di­tions bring the kalan­iot to grow rich­est and fullest. I had not before known of the kalan­iot, so on my bus west­ward across the desert, toward bay­it, I sat alone at the win­dow and watched these dunes breathe in red. I had no name for this won­der and need­ed none, instead dis­cov­er­ing for the first time the way the hills bled deep­er and more gor­geous red as I con­tin­ued to draw near­er the border.

I thought about meet­ing Izzy, the father of my new fam­i­ly and the only one whose name I had so far been giv­en. It was a bless­ing he had not answered my call for adop­tion till now, for in this time of wait­ing, my bro­ken toe had healed, my Hebrew had tak­en leaps and bounds, and a sharpshooter’s M4A1 now rest­ed on my lap. Eli had housed me as an infant, per­formed my upsh­erin, shel­tered me in my regres­sion — and yet I was glad Izzy would not meet that limp­ing infant; that he would meet some­thing clos­er to a man, one who would step off the bus and look him in the eye as we shook hands, as a father and a grown son might.

And I found him there on the open green, past the yel­low guard­ed gate at the entrance to the kib­butz, into where rolled the fields and flow­ers and the grav­eled paths. He wait­ed there and he knew who I was, because he had seen my adop­tion mug shot and now saw the way I came, armed and in uni­form but look­ing for home. As I walked to my father but before we shook hands or said a word, he glanced down at the weapon I car­ried, my M4A1 with its scope and bipod. He did not com­ment, but I knew what he knew — and I felt a swell of pride in my jaw as he wel­comed me, and as he turned to lead the way to the home where Noga, his wife and my moth­er, wait­ed for us.

She had baked a plate of cook­ies for me, her sec­ond act of uncon­di­tion­al love. Her third was to wave to me from the front door­way, hug me and say they had been long­ing to meet me, and hoped I would accept to stay. She did not know I had accept­ed them before I got on the bus, accept­ed them again as it rolled past the beds of throb­bing red hills, and accept­ed them once more as Izzy smiled on the field, all before I had found her, call­ing and wav­ing from under the door­way of home.

On Fri­day two weeks lat­er, I came back through the yel­low gate into Be’eri as a res­i­dent for the first time. Today I would also meet Izzy and Noga’s three chil­dren: my sis­ter Paz of ten years; broth­er Arad, eight; and lit­tlest sis­ter Dotan, six, who would all soon be com­ing home from school. For now, moth­er, father, and son sat in the shade out­side and ate ripe oranges from the kibbutz’s orchards, and I began to learn from them of Be’eri, of her work at its laun­dry cen­ter and his as groundskeep­er of its pet­ting zoo down the way. Be’eri was a won­der­ful place to live, they affirmed. Unlike many kib­butz­im, it had been able to remain near to its orig­i­nal social­ist vision, and its resources were owned by its mem­bers and shared by them accord­ing to need. Vital work like theirs was no less or more than the roles oth­ers filled, to meet the community’s needs. Due to Be’eri’s size and resources, it was a cul­tur­al cen­ter in this rur­al region, and its amphithe­ater was a fre­quent stop for musi­cians or speak­ers tour­ing the area. It had about a thou­sand res­i­dents, which was large for a kib­butz, but small enough that there were no strangers. The chil­dren were free to leave and play in the morn­ing and come home in the after­noon, and they locked no doors on the hous­es that did not belong to them any­way. Be’eri had, real­ly, every­thing it need­ed, and cer­tain­ly every­thing that they did.

I sat and lis­tened, and these were impos­si­bly sweet burst­ing oranges, and I was on my third when my three sib­lings arrived home in a sud­den row, one after the oth­er, each of them light­ing up and run­ning with the things they car­ried, down the path to come meet me.

Arad was first home, stocky and bright-eyed, and I stood to hug him as he bolt­ed toward me. We paused to set down our things, I my rifle and he the cray­on draw­ings he had brought from class, so that he could jump into my arms with­out obstruc­tion. I remem­bered then the rule that I was not ever to set down my rifle while away from base unless secur­ing it behind two locks, so I put its strap back on my shoul­der as Arad showed me what he had drawn.

Paz came next qui­et­ly with her back­pack. She came to hug me, and paid an atten­tion to my rifle that Arad had not, stood back with a new look brim­ming with ques­tions. We sat and she start­ed strong, ask­ing why I was here. I was again glad to have grown my Hebrew before arriv­ing: whether or not my fam­i­ly knew any Eng­lish, Hebrew was what they spoke, so it was what I would speak with them. I had not been asked this ques­tion in some time, and this one was eas­i­er than the same one Dror had asked on the bus — eas­i­er to locate Hebrew words, eas­i­er to know which ones I want­ed. She had asked why I was here, not what brought me here: rea­sons, not caus­es, which meant my answer was not lim­it­ed to things I knew before arriv­ing. I began with San­ta Bar­bara, where I was born. Then I had start­ed try­ing to spell out rea­sons, and to name the peo­ple behind them, when anoth­er per­son appeared on the path: my third sibling.

Dotan was last, and car­ried noth­ing. A strik­ing­ly pret­ty lit­tle girl whose blue eyes sparkled in the day­light and blond braids flowed behind her as she ran, and jumped high into my arms for her first hel­lo. Instead of com­ing back down from our hug, she climbed far­ther, swung around onto my shoul­ders, and plant­ed her­self in seat­ed posi­tion. She took hold of scraps of my buzzed hair at the sides of my head and began to nudge them left, right, and for­ward, to direct my move­ment for her joyride, my guid­ed tour.

And so we took off, Dotan and I. And I waved to the oth­ers and said we would be back; Izzy and Noga laugh­ing at the two of us. They did not seem trou­bled that my M4A1 — the one Izzy had known instant­ly — still hung low, unloaded, SAFE, from a leather strap on which their daughter’s legs rest­ed. Dotan, who sat at the helm mak­ing machine sounds while I trod beneath her weight, gave no hint of trou­ble either.

Kadi­ma (For­ward)!” And we were off down the path, Dotan point­ing left and right, nam­ing the hous­es of friends we passed, the gar­dens, the ched­er ochel (com­mu­nal din­ing hall), the play­ground before it. This was where my func­tion changed, because she dis­mount­ed to run to the swing and called for a big push. I gave her one and then anoth­er, and it was between these push­es, stand­ing on the sand while she held on and flew, that came my first spare moment to col­lect all that had welled up with­in me in the hour since arriv­ing through the yel­low gate. T’nadned oti (Push me)!” I gave her anoth­er push, and she laughed and flew again, high­er than before. The sun­light had grown orange around us, and I had not thought how long we had been there. But I remem­bered I was hun­gry when she said we should go get ready for Shab­bat din­ner. She began to lead us back toward the house, paus­ing first along the way to name a new stop on the tour.

Do you know Tze­va Adom?”

I did; I was famil­iar with this term. Red Col­or. Despite its plain name, it referred not to a col­or but to mor­tal dan­ger: it was the name giv­en to the auto­mat­ic alarm sys­tem of Be’eri and oth­er com­mu­ni­ties in the region that came under the shad­ow of rock­et attacks from Gaza. Qas­sam, Grad, Katyusha, and oth­er rock­ets, of vary­ing range and capac­i­ty, all of them inca­pable of pre­ci­sion, all of them fired for pre­cise­ly this rea­son. Fired for this unsta­ble lethal­i­ty, so that nei­ther prey nor hunter could tell you where was safe and where was death; fired for the way those two thus began to blend bound­aries, for the way this crude rocket’s death­li­ness was not con­tained but leaked, crop-dust­ing tiny bits of death as it flew. Fired by a hunter aim­ing less to kill his prey than keep it bound­ing wide-eyed for­ev­er; fired for the vio­lence the rock­et inflict­ed while still soar­ing high in the air, spread­ing its black and grow­ing shad­ow on the earth below.

And so upon detec­tion of a fired rock­et, this alarm fired on loud­speak­ers grip­ping the kib­butz, suf­fi­cient to jar you from sleep or where else you may have drift­ed. No shrill siren, no ear­split­ting horn — instead, in one record­ed female voice, Red Col­or, words a six-year-old knew. She called four times, and though she kept one calm tone through­out, her first call was a warn­ing and her last a procla­ma­tion punc­tu­at­ed by explo­sion: Tze­va Adom (and time to drop every­thing and run, shel­ter­ing time vary­ing by loca­tion), Tze­va Adom (but in the case of Be’eri so near the bor­der, about fif­teen sec­onds), Tze­va Adom (screams fill­ing the space between her words), Tze­va Adom, impact.

Yes, I know of it.”

Good, you know, if you are at the play­ground when you hear it, you run to this shel­ter and leave your things behind no mat­ter what.”

She had stopped and point­ed again, and I had not noticed what we walked past as we left the play­ground — but it was a con­crete shel­ter, a red sign at its entrance. I stopped now, too, there with her as she point­ed at the bold red let­ters on the shel­ter and wait­ed for me to read.

Excerpt­ed from As Figs in Autumn: One Year in a For­ev­er War by Ben Bas­tom­s­ki. Pub­lished by Del­phini­um Books. 

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

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Ben Bas­tom­s­ki, a South­ern Cal­i­for­nia native and Israel Defense Forces vet­er­an, moved to San­ta Mon­i­ca, CA to prac­tice law after grad­u­at­ing from Har­vard Law School in 2015. In the years since, Ben has become an accom­plished civ­il lit­i­ga­tor, while pur­su­ing a par­al­lel career as a fash­ion mod­el with a Los Ange­les tal­ent agency. He has recent­ly returned to live in Israel and is now based in Jerusalem. Ben was raised in a Jew­ish home with a love of fur­ry and feath­ered ani­mals, cre­ation myths, and the out­doors. Among his most beloved child­hood mem­o­ries were the sign­ings he attend­ed at his favorite local book­store, Chaucer’s Books. As Figs in Autumn is his debut book.