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.

Octo­ber 7th

There seems to be a before. There seems to be an after. I woke up at 4:00 in the morn­ing. Some­thing doesn’t feel right. I don’t fall back to sleep. Tel Aviv is where I’ve lived for almost my entire adult life, with some back and forth between here and New York. This is the city where I am a moth­er, where I lec­ture, research, and write at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty. It is where our son was born on Octo­ber 7th, six years ear­li­er in a Tel Aviv hos­pi­tal. Hav­ing not grown up here, I am an out­sider in many ways. Yet the city is part of me and I, it. I’ll nev­er know if it was a coin­ci­dence that I woke up so ear­ly, or if some­thing in the air had shift­ed and I was attuned to the shift. Too qui­et

______

Around 6:30 the first loud sirens rang out. Though I was awake, we were caught by sur­prise. Maybe it’s a false alarm. This doesn’t make sense, my hus­band and I say to each oth­er. The sec­ond time they go off we get our son and our small dog, who is bark­ing like crazy, into the hall­way of our build­ing. There is no room designed as a bomb shel­ter in our apart­ment, but the stair­well is pro­tect­ed, so that’s where we decide to go. Var­i­ous neigh­bors are in the hall­way in their paja­mas, look­ing some­what per­plexed. There must have been boom­ing sounds that fol­lowed the sirens and the Iron Dome acti­vat­ing, but I don’t remem­ber. Still— I guess — the before.

______

Then, more qui­et. I’ve lived here for long enough that, even after the sirens, I’m not extreme­ly con­cerned. There are no oth­er alarms in our neigh­bor­hood for about half an hour, so after some delib­er­at­ing, I decide to go to the usu­al 8:00 a.m. class at the near­by gym. Either I believed — or want­ed to believe — that things would be fine. I don’t know. The gym instruc­tor made it there. Stretch­es and weights. Still the before. 

______ 

I kept my phone next to me on the gym mat, just in case (of what, I also don’t know). 8:30 – 8:45 —a flood of texts starts com­ing in. Col­leagues, friends, fam­i­ly. There are sirens in oth­er neigh­bor­hoods, though not ours in north Tel Aviv. They are in shel­ters. I dri­ve home. The weath­er is hot. The sky blank, over­cast. Still the before.

______

The news starts com­ing in. On TV, jour­nal­ists are report­ing that peo­ple in the south of the coun­try are being attacked, hid­ing in shel­ters. There’s gun fire and an inva­sion of armed ter­ror­ists. Fam­i­lies, chil­dren. They are ask­ing, Where is the government?Where is the military?Why are we alone? Who is com­ing to help us? 

______

We keep ear­phones in, so our son won’t hear one sec­ond of the news. His Hebrew is much bet­ter than mine. He was born here, after all. We’d had an ear­ly birth­day par­ty for him in New York, but we were bak­ing a choco­late cake to bring to a fam­i­ly gath­er­ing. He was dec­o­rat­ing a cake with sprin­kles as this news was stream­ing in. Young peo­ple at a par­ty were vio­lent­ly attacked, killed. What? We put a sil­ver can­dle on top of the cake in the shape of a six.

______

All day, jour­nal­ists are report­ing that peo­ple are call­ing and tex­ting. The utter bru­tal­i­ty of the attacks. Mur­ders, and bru­tal des­e­cra­tions of bod­ies by Hamas, women’s bod­ies. Hun­dreds mur­dered. Far beyond what my heart or mind can com­pre­hend. Then, tens of peo­ple tak­en. A dozen. Over a hun­dred. Over two hun­dred. Spar­ing no one. Babies and chil­dren. Sons, daugh­ters, moth­ers, fathers, grand­par­ents. Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish. Bedouin peo­ple and Thai work­ers. A Pales­tin­ian medic. Now over two hun­dred and forty hostages. 

______

Some­time that after­noon, there seems to be no choice but to tell our son that a war has bro­ken out. It was both sud­den and not sud­den. I’m sor­ry, I want to say, but I’m not sure why. It was a Sat­ur­day. So that’s already the after, I guess.

Octo­ber 8th to 12th

In the first days after that day, it was impos­si­ble to do much else except read the news and more news and check in with peo­ple. And to orga­nize the house for a poten­tial­ly long, seri­ous war. I wished my grand­moth­er were alive, so I could talk to her about what was going on. I get emer­gency flash­lights and bot­tled water. Nobody could say what was going to happen.

______

From time to time as I shop and try to think what we might need–in case in case in case–lines from a poem by Tuvia Rueb­n­er run through my mind. The list of those in Ruebner’s fam­i­ly who were mur­dered in the Holo­caust — a list of atrocities:

My father was murdered.

My moth­er was murdered.

My sis­ter was murdered.

My grand­fa­ther was murdered.

My grand­moth­er was murdered.

I can’t artic­u­late how I am feel­ing or write any­thing, but I vis­cer­al­ly feel the lines by Rueb­n­er. The after.

Octo­ber 13th to 15th

The start of the aca­d­e­m­ic year is post­poned. This has nev­er hap­pened in the twen­ty years that I have been a stu­dent and then fac­ul­ty. I’m sad­dened think­ing about teach­ing. For so many of my fel­low lec­tur­ers, writ­ers, poets, schol­ars, and trans­la­tors, the class­room is a refuge, a space in which to cul­ti­vate (albeit imper­fect­ly) equal­i­ty, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and empa­thy, above all. 

I think about two decades of con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had in class about poet­ry, pol­i­tics, and democ­ra­cy, with stu­dents of so many cul­tures, back­grounds, and eth­nic­i­ties — Hebrew-speak­ers, Ara­bic-speak­ers, Russ­ian-speak­ers, Chi­nese-speak­ers. Read­ing Joy Har­jo and Juan Felipe Her­rera. Marge Pier­cy, Allen Gins­berg, Nao­mi Shi­hab Nye. Tuvia Rueb­n­er. Muriel Rukeyser. Mah­moud Dar­wish. Walt Whit­man — lots of Whit­man. Has this all been lost?

______

I write some­thing on Face­book about how I am grate­ful for the sol­diers who are risk­ing their lives for the hostages and for all of us. And I am afraid that too strong of a retal­i­a­tion will lead to a human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis and poten­tial­ly wors­en any chance for a secure future for gen­er­a­tions to come.

Octo­ber 16th to 17th 

Time is like water. I lose track of an entire Wednes­day. Peo­ple talk about the shock they are expe­ri­enc­ing. The uni­ver­si­ty sends an email ask­ing for one per­son from every pro­gram or depart­ment to report if some­one — God for­bid — is wound­ed or killed in the war. We decide that Dorin, our head admin­is­tra­tor, will do it. And there are deaths from our uni­ver­si­ty and oth­ers. So many oth­ers. The names com­ing in by text and over email, one by one. Ruebner’s list.

______ 

I still can’t write. I recall Whitman’s ele­gy to Abra­ham Lin­coln: When Lilacs Last in the Door­yard Bloom’d,” I mourned, and shall mourn.” I real­ize that oh, I must be in mourn­ing and shall for­ev­er mourn, like Whit­man for Lin­coln, With ever-return­ing spring.” 

______

More news comes in about the hostages. So many peo­ple tak­en, most not returned. So many funer­als. Posters of the hostages’ faces start going up around the neigh­bor­hood and on campus. 

______

Our son has no school. We try to main­tain some kind of sched­ule for him, but it’s near­ly impos­si­ble. We keep the har­ness and leash on our dog, so we don’t have to put it on every time there’s a siren. She learns quick­ly to go to the front door when it hap­pens. Our son holds her leash in the hall­way. We see the same neigh­bors every time with their kids. We talk about the weath­er, and how close or far away the boom­ing is this time. It’s usu­al­ly very loud. 

Octo­ber 18th to 19th

Biden arrives. I’m hop­ing it some­how medi­ates the response by the cur­rent gov­ern­ment, which is filled with many peo­ple that I have lit­tle faith in, sad­ly. My moth­er calls and asks if we’ve had sirens that day. It’s almost rou­tine. The whole fam­i­ly abroad is scared for us. I say it’s worse on the news. That is sort of true.

______

I have always been avid­ly opposed to the right-wing pol­i­tics of this coun­try — any coun­try. That is not new for me or for hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple here. What hap­pened to the march­es for democ­ra­cy? It seems like the hash­tags have gone from #noa­cad­e­my­with­out­democ­ra­cy to #bringth­emhome in the blink of an eye. I had always hoped for two peace­ful co-exist­ing states — is that idea irrev­o­ca­bly shattered? 

Octo­ber 20th to 21st

We start light­ing a third Shab­bat can­dle every Fri­day night in hon­or of the hostages. We haven’t yet had to explain the hostages to our son. We say that the third can­dle is for the chay­al­im—the sol­diers. That is also true. One day he will know more. The can­dles glow white against the dusk. The after. 

______

I don’t sleep much. I wor­ry about my fam­i­ly and friends every­where. When they write to me, as many do, I tell them to be care­ful, too. I fear the vio­lence that might be trig­gered by what is hap­pen­ing here. I wor­ry about anti­semitism increas­ing in so many places, in schools, cam­pus­es, syn­a­gogues, and online.

Octo­ber 22nd to 27th

Sari comes to Tel Aviv for a few days to work on a sto­ry about the hostages. We walk on the board­walk, for­get­ting that we might have to run for cov­er any moment. We talk about the word in Hebrew for siren—aza­kah. Ash­ley calls and texts from L.A. Are you okay? I say some­thing like, No, but we’re doing bet­ter than a lot of peo­ple. We talk about the war and pol­i­tics and writ­ing. She asks why we don’t leave Tel Aviv — go to New York for a bit. A rea­son­able ques­tion. I maybe say some­thing like, Our fam­i­ly, our lives and liveli­hoods are here. We are root­ed here in a mil­lion ways.

______

Things start to open bit by bit. One of the instruc­tors at the gym cries at the end of the class. A bunch of peo­ple gath­er around her. She has friends who were killed. There is a song she starts play­ing in Hebrew at the end of every class, Na’avor gam et zeh…ze katan aleinu. We will get through this too…it’s noth­ing we can’t han­dle. The after.

Octo­ber 28th to Novem­ber 2nd

Peo­ple seem to be more anx­ious and on edge. A guy at the gas sta­tion yells at me to move my car, but I can’t. It was blocked by anoth­er emp­ty car. Do I sim­ply for­give him because of this pro­found­ly stress­ful time? I don’t yell back, but nei­ther do I move until I get gas. What are the bound­aries and bor­ders of compassion? 

______

On the way home from the gas sta­tion, I think about Theodor Adorno and writ­ing poet­ry after Auschwitz. I still can’t write, which maybe has some­thing to do with what Adorno says about poet­ry after the Holo­caust being bar­bar­ic. The gap between this war and the poet­ic feels unbridge­able to me. I also ask myself whether — as a Jew­ish Amer­i­can female writer, with fam­i­ly who per­ished in the Holo­caust, who makes a life in Tel Aviv — it is a type of priv­i­lege to be able to think about Adorno. Yes. And no. The after.

______

Our son starts to have school a few hours a day. The teach­ers are trained to get the kids into shel­ters at school when there are sirens. That hap­pens many times. Par­ents get a text dur­ing or right after.

______

At the play­ground, he sees a poster of a tod­dler-age hostage tacked to a tree, with a yel­low rib­bon on it. What is that?Is she lost? he asks. I say it has to do with the war. I don’t have time to think of what to say. He has to get into school before I have time to answer hon­est­ly, yet dis­hon­est­ly. I feel as if I’ve failed him.

Novem­ber 3rd to 6th

Yel­low rib­bons are tied to cars for the miss­ing hostages. Posters of those who are miss­ing are every­where. Their faces are on the round­about between my son’s school, cam­pus, and home. 

______

Sud­den­ly, all I can think about is writ­ing some­thing. A tes­ti­mo­ny. A per­son­al, par­tial nar­ra­tive of what hap­pened from my sub­jec­tive, lim­it­ed stand­point. In a lot of ways mean­ing­less, but at least my own. Per­haps in the telling itself there is pow­er. Also, there are peo­ple start­ing to ques­tion and deny the vio­lence and sex­u­al assaults, against women in par­tic­u­lar, on Octo­ber 7th. 

Novem­ber 7th to 14th

I come across a song by a singer, Rose Betts, on Insta­gram. One of the songs has a line, Take this body home. I lis­ten to the song over and over. It’s one of the only times that I can’t stop crying.

______

It’s announced that Vivian Sil­ver, the peace activist, was amongst those mur­dered. How does one go about mak­ing peace now? Maybe at the gas sta­tion. Maybe still through poet­ry, lit­er­a­ture, and lan­guage. In the class­room. I decide to make a choice to keep try­ing when I can in minis­cule ways. A per­son­al, dai­ly peace, if that mat­ters at all.

Novem­ber 15th to 19th

News sites that I read all day announce a deal for a cease-fire and pos­si­ble return of some of the hostages. I pray that this time it’s true. The start of the aca­d­e­m­ic year is post­poned again.

______

Our son stares up at the posters of the hostages in our neigh­bor­hood. Why is a baby in a war, Mama? he asks. What my hus­band and I have decid­ed is to say some­thing like: There were hostages tak­en on a spe­cif­ic day, and there are peo­ple work­ing hard to bring them back. This was a war that start­ed before you were born, before we were born.

I would give any­thing to give him and chil­dren every­where safe­ty and peace. 

______

There is more to say, less to say. 

Novem­ber 20th to 30th

Some of the hostages come back, includ­ing chil­dren. Col­lec­tive breaths are inhaled, exhaled, inhaled, exhaled. Some are let free. Some, but not all the women and chil­dren. We hear heli­copters over­head bring­ing them to hos­pi­tals around Tel Aviv. Hallelujah.

______

Many, many are cap­tive still. The sit­u­a­tion is worse than ever. There was a cease­fire and it’s about to be over. So much has gone hor­ri­bly wrong. I don’t know what comes next, exactly.

______

My son says to me one after­noon, There are so many posters, my brain hurts. I say, Yes, I under­stand. My brain hurts, too, my love.

______

The after, after, after.

______












Notes

Excerpts and ref­er­ences in this piece are from, in the order they appear: Tuvia Ruebner’s unti­tled poem that starts My father was mur­dered” from In the Illu­mi­nat­ed Dark: Select­ed Poems of Tuvia Rueb­n­er, trans­lat­ed by Rachel Tzvia Back (Hebrew Union Col­lege Press, 2014), pp. 203 – 205; Walt Whit­man, When Lilacs Last in the Door­yard Bloom’d,” Leaves of Grass (189192), The Walt Whit­man Archive, whit​ma​n​ar​chive​.org; the Hebrew-lan­guage song Ze Katan Aleinu” (זה קטן עלינו) by Liraz Rus­so and Jor­dan Peleg; and the singer Rose Betts, who can be found on Insta­gram (@rosebettsmusic) and elsewhere. 

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

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Dara Bar­nat is a schol­ar of poet­ry and a poet, who holds a Ph.D. from Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty, where she is a senior fac­ul­ty mem­ber and serves as Head of the Divi­sion of Lan­guages. Dara is the author of three poet­ry col­lec­tions: The City I Run From: Poems of Tel Aviv (2020), In the Absence (2016), and Head­wind Migra­tion (2009). Dara’s schol­ar­ly book, titled Walt Whit­man and the Mak­ing of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Poet­ry, was pub­lished by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Press (Iowa Whit­man Series) in 2023. Oth­er work appears in The Oxford Hand­book of Walt Whit­man, Walt Whit­man Quar­ter­ly Review, Poet Lore, Los Ange­les Review of Books, and else­where. darabar​nat​.com