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 the first evening, I told my partner that I’m thinking of getting a license for a rifle. It turns out it’s possible. It turns out they sell rifles just two streets away from our home. My partner looked at me with concern. His gaze says, “Who is this woman I’m living with?” I tell him that I probably won’t end up getting a rifle; maybe I’m just writing a story. But my eyes wander to the door. It’s a door that can be broken into.
- I can’t stop thinking about the slaughtered families in the Gaza Envelope. The children. The infants. The girls who went out to dance. The couples. The elderly who were killed in their homes. Entire communities that were destroyed. The kidnapped who were taken with threats and torture – their dignity violated – to Gaza. I’m learning their names, and at this moment in time, I still don’t know what I will learn in the coming days: that there will be more names, more life stories for me to know and mourn. In the south, there are kibbutzim which have been turned into valleys of death. Sderot is a shattered city. A world covered in ashes. I hate all weapons. I’m seriously considering getting one.
- My friend wonders if a gun is a good solution. I hear caution in her voice and tell her maybe I’ve gone mad. But I don’t feel crazy. I’m a woman on the front line now. My friend abroad asks if I have another wooden plank to block the door. She’ll send me a video explaining how to do it. There are rumors of terrorists in Tel Aviv. I read a post that says: “Know that when the bad guys come, you’ll likely be alone.” Women I know are sleeping with a knife under their pillow, they carry an extra knife in their bag. My house is torn apart too. The dead and the captives are my people. In the kitchen drawer, all the knives are dull because I’m almost never careful, and I cut easily. I don’t buy sharp knives either.
- I wake up in the morning and cry, but the rest of the day, I function. There’s no other choice. All of my WhatsApp groups come to life. Initiatives are set up every moment. We collect food for families in the south, supplies for the soldiers, clothes and food for agricultural workers who have nothing left. New immigrants sit shiva for their daughters, and no one can come. We come. Those who can weave flowers are making wreaths for graves.
- I try to stay busy. My partner travels to the south, then to the north to bring food to the soldiers. He, whose political criticism is sharp and bitter. But government institutions are not functioning, and the system that emerged in their place is composed only of volunteers. Most of them are against our government. In one of the bases, they don’t let the volunteer drivers in because the food isn’t kosher. The next day, the government issues kosher certificates for restaurants. The following time, my partner brings platters full of sauce from an events hall to soldiers. There are no events. Part of the sauce spills from the full platters onto the car seats. From now on, we drive with the windows open. The distances are shorter now. The city is empty. The roads are empty.
- I don’t intend to shoot anyone. Ever.
- Everyone says not to watch the videos that Hamas released. You’ll see things you can’t get out of your head. Yet some people watch in order to reaffirm facts— to identify faces and details, or someone from the kidnapped. I study the pictures of the kidnapped and the murdered that grieving families post. There are so many of them.
- I read about the older couple who used to transport Arab patients from Gaza to hospitals in Israel and are now both kidnapped. Here are Ra’aya and Hila Rutman, a mother and daughter from Kibbutz Be’eri, who were kidnapped to Gaza. I look at a picture of them on the beach. Hila is half-smiling; Ra’aya looks worried. On Hila’s black shirt, it says, “the best is yet to come.” Hagit, a mother of three, a doctor of education in science and technology, with whom contact was lost. The last messages on her WhatsApp are: “Terrorists are shooting at me. I’m near Kibbutz Be’eri. Please come.” To the messages written to her “Are you okay? Call me please” and “Please.” There is no answer. Eight-year-old Emily from Kibbutz Be’eri was sleeping with her best friend and was murdered along with her. Entire families were massacred. Parents were tortured and murdered in front of their children and then the kidnappers sat down to eat next to the bodies. So many children die. Each of them could have been my child.
- What poems can we write from now on, aside from elegies or laments?
- In 1920, Berl Katznelson, a leader and educator, composed poem “Yizkor” after the massacre of Tel Hai on March 1, 1920, which portrayed the defenders of Tel Hai. “May the people of Israel remember the pure souls of his sons and daughters.” The duty of remembrance is not placed on God but on the people. “Yizkor,” based on the Yizkor prayer, is recited during Memorial Day ceremonies. Kibbutz Be’eri, once magnificent and beautiful, now burned and broken, is named after Berl Katznelson’s Hebrew name.
- This government doesn’t deserve the people we have, everyone says. When one of those politicians dares to show his face, people cry in tears — you ruined, destroyed, get out of here.
- My whole body aches. Tension, adrenaline, and grief, but the reasons don’t matter much. At night, I see a floor covered in blood. It doesn’t matter if my eyes are closed or open. I taste ashes in my mouth. Women who struggled to sleep through the night are now sleeping like stones. Sleep overpowers them. Most people I know can’t sleep. There’s always more news. More young and beautiful faces — of a girl who was killed; a child who was kidnapped; babies who hid in a closet, and their parents were murdered; an art student who was killed; an elderly woman now held captive in Gaza. The words from the Book of Lamentations echo in my head: “She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks.” In the daytime, we’re like wandering souls, gazing into an empty space. But it seems we all do something. If we don’t, we’ll fall. We find out who needs help. Who arrived from Sderot or from Kfar Aza without glasses. Without shoes. We collect children’s books. Toothbrushes. Hygiene kits. My friends distribute supplies and cook in restaurant kitchens. More and more food. Musician friends perform for displaced children. Some travel to rescue the kibbutz’s remaining dogs in the war zone. There are children for whom the dog is the only family they have left.
- I attach a chair to the door. I press it under the handle. My partner asks what I’m doing. He says the door is locked, and I’m scaring our daughter. I move the chair and continue to stare at the door.
- We hear about the fate of slaughtered babies. About the gentle children who were kidnapped. The ancient text of the Book of Lamentations is unfolding before our eyes. “Her young children are gone into captivity before the adversary.”
- No one asks how anyone is doing. It doesn’t make sense. We’re in hell, they say. I read Dante’s “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I’m forming a group to read the divine comedy. I read alone.
- On CNN, they’re interviewing Shaily Atari, a young woman worried about the fate of her husband, Yahav. While the camera is on her, her mother asks to speak to her. Screams are heard. They just informed Shaily that Yahav was killed. I read these words and cry.
- The sirens sound like a banshee howling. I hug my daughter. I look at my partner. Everything we knew, everything we thought would never happen, happened. During the sirens, the windows shake. Our dog tries to escape but our cats remains indifferent. I write to everyone, we’re okay. When the sirens sound in the north, my sister writes to me. A few hours later, the dog still lies curled up. We don’t have a bomb shelter, but I don’t want to stay in another house. I don’t want to leave here. Most airlines have stopped flying. I look for flight tickets. I almost book and then stop myself.
- We’re still alive. Needless to say, we are the lucky ones.
- I’m reading a poem by Dahlia Ravikovitch, my beloved poet, in Hebrew. She asks the whole world, the city of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and even the mountains to return her child to her. She wishes he would come back to her like the soul returns to the body when the eyes open. Twelve years ago, when my daughter was born via a cesarean section, she was taken from me while I was recovering. I murmured to myself PJ Harvey’s song: “Little fish, big fish swimming in the water, come back here, man, gimme my daughter.” Within a few hours, they placed her on my chest, but then it felt like they took my daughter away. As I write these words, she is sleeping in her bed. In Gaza, a child named Eitan Yahalomi is held captive. He is the same age as my daughter. They were born just two months apart. Like her, he played soccer, and the first result when you search their names on Google shows them in their team’s uniform. In a photo of him that was posted, he is holding a kitten. Little fish, big fish bring him back, just like the soul returns to the body.
- It seems like we’re not breathing anymore. The streets of the cities are empty, not only because of the fear of missiles and the threat of terrorists walking around; the few times I went out into the street, I saw a profound sorrow, almost unimaginable, registered on every face. An existential dread. But the body carries on and understands before the soul. Every day, another horror is revealed, as if the waters are receding, and we discover what’s hidden there. Five members of the Kutz family– the parents Livnat and Aviv, and the children Rotem, Yiftach, and Yonatan – who returned from Boston a few years ago and built a home in kibbutz Kfar Aza. They were all killed. I want to write all their names, all their stories. Ruth, a sixteen-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who went to a party with her father, Eyal. Their car was shot, and since then, they don’t know anything about their whereabouts. Her wheelchair is empty. Sagie was supposed to get married next week to his partner. They played his wedding song at his funeral. I read: “Itay is still missing.” The last time anyone saw him was at a party. The day after, his family wrote, “Thank you for all the efforts and searches, unfortunately, Itay is no longer alive.” I hear thrilling stories of heroism, which I wish were not necessary. Suddenly, I stop. I have no strength in my body. I’m scrolling through social networks. “Don’t open your Facebook account,” I tell my sister. “It’s like walking into a graveyard.”
- On the highway, there’s a sign on the side of the road, standing alone. Red letters on cardboard. I read: “We are dead.” As the car approaches, I see that it actually says: “Sweet pineapples.” There’s no stall. There are no pineapples.
- In my online French lesson, every sentence talks about babies that need to be covered. To conjugate the verb couvrir. Are you going to cover the baby? Is the baby covered? In Yehuda Amichai’s early poem “Rain on the Battlefield,” translated by Robert Alter, he wrote:
Rain falls on the faces of my friends;
on the faces of my living friends
who cover their heads with a blanket –
and on the faces of my dead friends
who cover no more.
Who will cover the babies?
- Over 1300 casualties in Israel. More than 1050 civilians slaughtered brutally, including children, women, the elderly, and foreign citizens. The number will continue to rise. I tell my partner, “Do you remember when we were worried about forty casualties last Saturday? Do I have to remind myself that forty deaths is horrifying?” Again and again, they write that since the Holocaust, there haven’t been so many Jewish casualties in one day. I think about the days to come.
- It’s Saturday. A week has passed since the outbreak of the war. We are going to the bar mitzvah of a thirteen-year-old boy, a friend of my daughter, in the grand synagogue of Tel Aviv. The young boy in a white shirt reads the portion of Bereshit. Someone thinks she hears gunshots, but no one is shooting. Before we throw candies at the boy, the cantor sings with the public in the synagogue: He who maketh peace in his high places, may he make peace for us. Almost everyone is crying.
- We continue from the synagogue to the street in front of the Ministry of Defense. Avichai Brodez, whose wife and three children were kidnapped to Gaza, sits on a plastic chair with a hand-written sign “My family is in Gaza. Hagar, Ofri, Yuval and Uriya, father is waiting for you.” We came to stand with him. We stand by his side. Thousands will stand with him until late afternoon. There, in the night, they will light memorial candles.
- My grandparents were born in Warsaw in September 1939. They fled to the Soviet Union. My grandmother was the only one from her family to survive the Holocaust. From my grandfather’s family, a few survived. I read the testimony pages my grandmother filled out with trembling hands. I recognized the names of her parents, her brother, her sisters, and her nieces. All were murdered in Treblinka. After the war, when they were in a DP camp in Germany, my grandfather received two flight tickets from his relatives. They were tickets to America. My grandfather, who was a Zionist, tore the tickets. They came to Israel, where my mother was born. Sometimes I still think about that pair of tickets. What kind of life would they have had? My mother? Even me?
- This past summer, we were in Rome. The peculiar hotel we stayed at was not far from the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the Jewish captives and the loot taken from the Temple. Titus’s younger brother, who ruled after him, erected it in his honor. Some argue that those captives were not actually prisoners in the bas-relief but rather the Roman soldiers who plundered the Temple. Roman Jews, over the years, have refused to walk under the arch until the UN declaration on the establishment of the State of Israel. On what stone will the faces of the captives from October 2023 be carved? Children, women, men, infants, and young ones. I understand the Roman Jews. Irrationally, I want the arch to be broken. I want everyone to return in peace. I contemplate what’s called , the balance of terror. There is no balance. The fracture cuts through everyone. Can we still hope that this torn and scarred land will become just a dull, uneventful piece of earth?
- Suddenly the military confirmation for my mandatory service in the IDF arrives. I forgot that I asked for it. I forgot that I thought I would apply for a weapon. How I hated being a soldier. I sat among other soldiers and we interviewed boys and girls before enlistment. I only shot twice at the range at cardboard targets. Now, my nephews are being drafted into the army. I am not buying a gun.
- Eight days have passed since the massacre. The count of the dead does not stop. Someone writes that in Israel it is still six thirty in the morning on October 7th.
- After a long summer, the rain comes. We waited for it as thirsty people. The rain falls on the scorched fields, the broken houses, and the body bags lining sides of the breached border. Today, graves are dug on the land of Kibbutz Be’eri, at the graveyard of Sderot. Funerals are held in almost every city in Israel. On the wall in front of the Ministry of Defense, people hang signs with the names and faces of the abducted. I raise my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help.
Yaara Shehori is an Israeli novelist and poet. She has been an editor of Hebrew literature at Keter Books since 2013. In 2015, Shehori was awarded the Prime Minister Levi Eshkol Creative Writing Prize for Writers and Poets and the Minister of Culture’s Prize for Upcoming Writers. She holds a PhD in Hebrew literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and a fellowship from the University of Iowa International Writing Program. In 2017, Aquarium was recognized with the Bernstein Prize for the best original Hebrew-language novel.