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.
I make chocolate; melting dark chocolate pieces together, forgetting how many grams I’ve added. I keep going even when the double boiler water runs dry and the chocolate burns at the bottom. I spoon out what’s still good, and mix the smooth Lotus cookie butter spread in. It will be fine. It is chocolate, it is war – does chocolate matter anymore?
I wish chocolate mattered. At least this chocolate matters. I’m making it for my son who is a soldier and loves my Lotus chocolate. I will deliver it to him and his unit, along with a batch of brownies, an apple strudel cake, biltong. We would have taken more, but my son tells me over the phone that they have too much food. He doesn’t want to gain weight – but still, I make the chocolate, because I am his mother.
I have moved into the numb stage. This is not an essay about what Hamas did, what happened here in Israel. It is all recorded online. I want to tell you some things that are not recorded. Not spoken about enough.
How this morning I met a man whose name is Doron at Russel’s bakery at the Machane Yehuda Shuk. He tells me his mother is ninety-seven ‑years-old. She is a Holocaust survivor, and yesterday as she was being wheeled to a doctor’s appointment she burst into tears. Her daughter-in-law asked her what’s wrong, and she said, “I can’t believe I survived to see it happen here.”
This is why we have Israel, to stop such things happening again.
This is why my grandparents came to Israel in 1951 because the conditions for the Jews in Iraq became too unbearably antisemitic, too dangerous. My parents and 120,000 other Iraqi Jews remembered the Farhud massacre of 1941. They had to leave. They were airlifted to refugee camps in Israel, even though there were no jobs, no food, no houses for them. As Ben Gurion told Shlomo Hillel – the Iraqi Jew who helped them flee – he did not want another Holocaust in Iraq.
A holocaust was averted. Today, there are three Jews living in Iraq.
This is why we are here in Israel. In its fledgling days, the country received over 850,000 displaced Jews from Arab lands, in addition to all the European Jewish Holocaust survivors who sought solace and safety in a Jewish State. This is why we have an army and why our children have to fight. Why it hits us so hard when a massacre happens here.
The number of casualties keeps rising.
We have been conditioned by people who support Hamas to see the IDF not as people, but as Nazis. I want to tell you that our soldiers are not Nazis. They are soldiers from many different cultures and religions who would feed your children chocolate, and protect them with their lives.
When I think of Israeli soldiers and chocolate, I think of how survivors describe the American soldiers who emancipated them from the concentration camps. The act of handing them chocolate.
When 300,000 Israeli reservists were called up, 420,000 mobilized. The army was not prepared for this. So Israel turned into one giant, giving kibbutz. We are organizing and delivering meals to bases. We shop for toilet paper, soap, shampoo, cell phone power banks, head torches, vests, toothbrushes, towels, coffee, sugar, following the long WhatsApp list for what our soldiers need. I add Orbit mint chewing gum, even though it’s not on the list, because I’m thinking of my son.
Up until now we were not allowed to visit our son. I do anything to take my mind off my missing him. We drive down south to deliver sleeping bags and a personal box with a soldier’s name on it. The soldier who greets us thanks us. He is so appreciative, so grateful to have the sleeping bags. I ask him where he is originally from. He tells us his grandparents are from Yemen. What would his grandparents think about what happened here? I can’t help but ask myself. Today there is only one Jew left in Yemen. There used to be over 50,000.
There is a WhatsApp message requesting dessert for an army unit. I make two trays of Lotus chocolate. I write a note. Everyone has been writing notes and slipping them in with the items, between challah rolls and hummus. Thank you for protecting us. May God guard and protect you.
I think of our friend Ivan, he’s from South Africa and is stationed on the northern border. He has two beautiful teenage daughters who love the homemade Lotus chocolate I make. He reports that they are like sitting ducks for Hezbollah. They are trying to stop terrorists infiltrating into Israel. He has not changed his clothes in two weeks. The other day an anti-tank missile exploded by them. It’s a miracle they’re alive, he says. His commander broke his ankle leaping away. Ivan is fighting for his daughters’ future. He does not want them raped or massacred. When he visits I make chocolate to take back to his unit. I make chocolate for his daughters for Shabbat.
I think of the tank unit of female soldiers (the Peled team), a counter terrorist unit who fought in the south like lionesses against the invading terrorists. They saved many lives. I am grateful they were not captured. I am grateful Israel has female warriors.
I am thinking of my Italian friend’s son who is also in the north. He writes a message because his mother buys him a pen and notebook and tells him to write through the darkness — with meaning, without meaning, just write. So he writes. He writes of his journey to the north with eight other soldiers in a boiling tin truck. People came out in support throwing sweets, cookies, notes, games, and a packet of buckwheat which hit him on the head. “Who throws buckwheat?” he writes. On the packet is a message, “Yes buckwheat, we know…but what can we do, we are from Pardes Chana, we hope you enjoy, and apologize.”
When they arrive in the north, he describes how they begin digging trenches. It sounds like a World War I movie. He writes with dark humor, saying that they are digging their graves. They joke that they should say kaddish, the prayer for the dead. They joke that they come from dust and return to dust. Jewish wisdom. What war reminds us of.
He asks, “How do I stay sane?” He writes that he needs to find the points of light in this darkness.
We are all looking for light. He is one ray of light. All our soldiers are sparks. Sparks of so many mothers and fathers who have nourished them. Who don’t want them at the front, but who know we have no choice.
My own son does not want to be written about. I respect that. I think of the song that a therapist tells me was sung when she was a little girl in the Yom Kippur war. It’s by Uzi Fux and its Hebrew title translated to English is, “You Have Nothing to Worry About.” It sounds happy and hopeful, and in it Fux sings a message from the soldiers, where they say they are living like animals but fighting like lions. He sings about what the soldiers say they need, “Send me underwear and vests.” When I ask my son what he needs, he replies, “Underpants.”
We have been through many wars. Israelis are remembering what it was to be a child in the Six Day War, in the Yom Kippur War. To hide in shelters. To say goodbye to fathers and brothers and sisters.
The soldiers now are growing mustaches like in the Yom Kippur war.
We receive special permission to visit my son. I pack underwear along with the chocolate. We visit and sit on plastic chairs together, watching young IDF men and a couple of girls playing ball on the basketball court. Watching trucks drive by with fully equipped soldiers in camouflage, running drills. My son tells us that on Friday before Shabbat the families of the fighting soldiers visited the base. Mothers, fathers, wives, and children. “They were all crying when they had to say goodbye,” he tells us and he repeats, “Everyone was crying.”
Writing this makes me cry.
My Moroccan friend’s grandson is at the Gaza front and has been pulling dead bodies of soldiers out. Other soldiers have to visit the families and break the news.
Every soldier who dies hurts. It hurts so many.
This is an army of our sons and daughters, fathers, brothers, sisters who fight for all of us. I am on my son’s unit’s parents’ WhatsApp group. Mothers and fathers message, wondering when they can visit their sons. I feel too guilty to admit we had special permission to visit ours.
There is a barrage of WhatsApp messages — which base are the boys moving to now? Do they have enough food? Someone shares pictures of our boys enjoying burgers that have been cooked up by a famous Israeli chef. Famous burgers make them feel special and seen.
We smile when we see the photos. It’s a relief to smile in between the weeping and howling over what has happened here.
Many soldiers have been given twenty-four hours leave this week. I walk in the streets of Jerusalem and see soldiers in their fatigues hugging their wives tight as they hold the hands of their small children. The children look like the pictures of the children who have been murdered, who have been kidnapped. I cannot stop thinking about those murdered and kidnapped children every time I see a child. It could have been any of them.
One of the soldier’s eyes are heavy and bruised-looking with lack of sleep. He looks like he’s walked out of a war movie. I wish he had. I wish this was a movie, but it isn’t.
I think about what God wants from us. I think of the words I learnt as a child that have always stuck in my mind, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
I read about a five year old Bedouin boy, Attallah Abu Madigam, who survived the massacre thanks to the commander of the Police Negev Desert force Magen, Chief Superintendent Ronen Halfon. Attallah says from his hospital bed, as reported by Y‑Net news, that he wants to be a police officer when he grows up.
I want you to know some of the stories of the soldiers who make up the Israeli army.
I call my son asking if the soldiers enjoyed the chocolate. I am hoping he does not say it tasted slightly burnt. He says they loved the chocolate, and I am happy.
We are all losing our minds. I cannot stop making chocolate.
The parents of the WhatsApp group announce that we have permission to all visit one evening. We share a list of homemade dishes we will bring for the boys’ supper. We cook for all of them. Kibbutz style, a feast is set up on folding tables at the base’s parking lot. Someone knows to bring lights, someone else brings chairs and Turkish coffee on a gas camping stove. The table is heavy with chicken kebabs, meat in a big black pot, rice, salad, meat bourekas, roast vegetables, a cooler bag of ice pops. None of the parents eat that much. We wish the boys ate more. We worry for the lone soldiers without their parents here.
What is this need to feed our children? What is this obsession with food?
“Eat,” my Iraqi Jewish grandmother always beseeched me. “Eat.” She knew what it was to be hungry in a refugee camp. Jewish love is telling our children to eat. Jewish love is telling our children to live.
For this meal I made another batch of Lotus chocolate. I’ve made this chocolate so many times and this time it feels different, more careful. Not just because last time I burnt it, but because it feels like maybe this is what our army runs on — love.
Sarah Sassoon was raised in Sydney, Australia, surrounded by her loving Judeo-Arabic speaking Iraqi Jewish immigrant family. When she married, she immigrated to Johannesburg, South Africa and with her husband and four sons, made Aliyah. She lives in Jerusalem. Sarah loves writing poetry and stories about crossing borders and other worlds. Shoham’s Bangle is Sarah’s first children’s book.