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. 

1. I tell my daugh­ters not to speak Hebrew on the street. They ask why. I explain it’s due to the sit­u­a­tion in Israel. Why does a mas­sacre and a war in Israel have any­thing to do with us here in Cal­i­for­nia?” they ask. I’m not sure how to explain it with­out caus­ing anx­i­ety. Just two weeks ago, I told them about a bar­bar­ic pogrom in Israel, leav­ing them scarred. How do I con­vey that the vic­tim is being blamed, and that some­how, we’re now threat­ened half a globe away? It does­n’t even make sense as I write it. You see, I start, It’s because of the gov­ern­ment… No, you know what? We have a long his­to­ry of vio­lence, and… No, it’s more ancient than that…” I don’t want to say that word; I don’t want them to even know it exists. Why don’t I tell you all about it at home?” I man­age to escape the con­ver­sa­tion. Now, please just keep quiet.”

2. Hebrew. My daugh­ters and I keep our lan­guage a secret between us. At the mall, in the super­mar­ket, at the book­store. It feels like hid­ing a ter­ri­ble crime with­out com­mit­ting one. What are we hid­ing, and from whom? We share a fear with­out giv­ing it a name.

Can we speak Hebrew now?” my sev­en-year-old asks when we park our car by our house.

And now?” she asks again in the liv­ing room. 

Can we speak Hebrew with Grand­pa on the phone?” 

She has no clue why we act the way we act. Is it any won­der she’s so lost?

3. Lost. When we land­ed here at the end of sum­mer, it felt like heav­en. Per­fect weath­er, per­fect beach­es, and per­fect peo­ple from the Jew­ish ini­tia­tive that invit­ed me to teach here for a semes­ter at the uni­ver­si­ty as a vis­it­ing poet. We had beau­ti­ful hikes, and the best was tak­ing an RV to a four-day music fes­ti­val in the desert. We could­n’t stop smil­ing when we reached the fes­ti­val and dis­cov­ered the hip­pie vil­lage of music, art, camp­ing, and free souls. It was there that we woke up the next morn­ing to the news of anoth­er music fes­ti­val in Israel where 260 peo­ple were slaugh­tered. Beau­ti­ful young peo­ple, like the ones that were also around us. Only, in Israel, they went through hours upon hours of pure hell. While we were in silence. Of course, the music was not silent, but the peo­ple were. For days, nobody talked to us about the most bru­tal ter­ror attack in a cen­tu­ry, even while it was all over social media and the news. Did they not hear about it? We shut down with­in our­selves, remained seclud­ed, car­ried our sor­row pri­vate­ly, on our own.

4. Alone. That’s the word I keep hear­ing from Israelis and Jews that I speak to since that black Sat­ur­day in Octo­ber. Togeth­er with our com­mu­ni­ty, but alone in soci­ety. Togeth­er with Israel, but alone in the world. Togeth­er with the US gov­ern­ment, but alone in Amer­i­can acad­e­mia. Pain was always a lone­ly place, but for me here in Cal­i­for­nia it gets even lone­li­er. Our local Jew­ish friends say they have nev­er been scared like this before. My col­leagues from the depart­ment are con­stant­ly ask­ing how I am doing. But that’s so rare. Two weeks into the war, I real­ize that peo­ple are silent not because they don’t know what hap­pened or have no opin­ion about it. They are silent because they are being kind to me, by not say­ing what they have to say. 

As an Israeli, even what I wrote here is too con­vo­lut­ed for me.

5. Israeli. I keep try­ing to hide my name and my accent, to over­come them. But it’s what peo­ple always see first. Where are you from?” The ques­tion is so cheer­ful, so casual.


Ahh­h­hh.” The sigh is always vague. My para­noia begins. Are they crazy about Israel, or are they crazy with rage? Do they see me as a per­son or as the face of my gov­ern­ment, of Zion­ism, of the army in Gaza, or even of the entire Jew­ish dias­po­ra? Ever since my child­hood, I scanned my sur­round­ings, locat­ing the best escape route, the near­est emer­gency exit. Now, some­times I would just say that I come from a coun­try that no one knows too much about. Like Alba­nia. It always works. No need for para­noia. No escape exits need­ed. Thanks to this lit­tle lie, I’m seen for who I am. The con­ver­sa­tion can begin. 

6. Some­times, dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, Hebrew sneaks out of my mouth uncon­trol­lably, like a dog that escapes its own­er. When I catch it it’s too late. The words have been uttered, expos­ing me. I am tight­en­ing my hold on them again, like an inter­nal leash. 

7. Fear. My Face­book feed is a grave­yard of chil­dren, sol­diers, and fam­i­lies. My Insta­gram is an eter­nal debate in reels about Israel’s poli­cies in Gaza. The clips run fast: Israel should stop occu­py­ing Gaza!” But Israel left Gaza in 2005!” Israel should give Gaza elec­tric­i­ty and water!” Seri­ous­ly, what?? Israel gives its ene­my elec­tric­i­ty and water?” Israel should go with all its might for peace!” Israel should go with all its force for war!” 

I read Mat­ti Fried­man in Tablet explain­ing that peo­ple here in the US do not respond to events but rather to the descrip­tions of these events. So, he checked the jour­nal­ism cov­er­ing Israel, just to find that there are no real analy­ses of Pales­tin­ian soci­ety or ide­ol­o­gy, while Israeli actions are deeply scru­ti­nized, and every flaw is aggres­sive­ly report­ed. In one sev­en-week peri­od he count­ed more sto­ries on moral fail­ings of Israel than the total of crit­i­cal sto­ries about Pales­tini­ans in three years.

When I real­ize how many peo­ple are actu­al­ly work­ing in that, in fail­ing Israel, I weaken.

8. Weak. I tell my stu­dents I’m not okay. Since Octo­ber 7, I’m slow, con­fused, and so extreme­ly sad. We all write poet­ry every week, bring­ing our hearts and souls to class. I bring mine, almost burst­ing with tears. My stu­dents are very car­ing. They tell me nice fun­ny sto­ries, bring me cakes, send me heart­warm­ing emails. A stu­dent that escaped Syr­ia comes to me after class and says, I know what you are going through. It’s bru­tal.” But my stu­dents also get invi­ta­tions from the uni­ver­si­ty to par­tic­i­pate in ral­lies against Israel, and the university’s logo is on them. Some find them­selves in Neu­tral” pan­els orga­nized by the BDS because par­tic­i­pa­tion in these pan­els is cred­it­ed in their course. They hear that Israeli reports are always fake. They hard­ly hear any con­dem­na­tion of ter­ror. They wit­ness the tremen­dous efforts made by their own teach­ers to jus­ti­fy a cru­el mas­sacre, as part of resistance. 

Is it enough that they write poet­ry with me once a week? Is it enough to make them aware of com­plex­i­ties? Is this enough for them to be able to stand against all the sup­port for ter­ror­ism around them?

9. Mas­sacre. My grand­fa­ther man­aged to escape a mas­sacre. His tai­lor shop was com­plete­ly destroyed, his neigh­bors wait­ing for him with heavy wood­en beams. He ran and nev­er returned to his home­town in Poland. One time he men­tioned they made him bend over, crawl, and lick the asphalt. At the same time my grand­moth­er’s house in Lithua­nia burnt to ash­es again and again dur­ing pogroms. But it was 1939. Anti­semitism was an old sto­ry of Europe, I thought. Now I recall a wait­er in Rome that yelled at me, my sis­ter, and our moth­er – You cheap Jews, go to where you belong” – just because we asked a ques­tion about the menu. We thought he was noth­ing more than an unpleas­ant anec­dote dur­ing our vaca­tion. But this past week in Cal­i­for­nia, I said the word anti­semitism more times than I had in my entire life.

10. Mas­sacre. Peo­ple’s eyes were plucked out in front of their chil­dren; every­one’s hands tied. Fin­gers were cut. Faces muti­lat­ed with axes. Women raped bru­tal­ly in front of an applaud­ing crowd, then tied to motor­cy­cles and dragged through the streets of Gaza until they died. Elder­ly peo­ple in wheel­chairs shot dead in front of cam­eras. Teenagers raped on top of their fam­i­ly’s dead bod­ies. Piles of heads, arms, toes, scat­tered. A group of chil­dren tied to each oth­er, found dead, burnt, with­out any sign of a shot. And there’s more.

It’s 2023 and for two weeks I have been relent­less­ly explain­ing basic con­cepts to peo­ple around me:

Cel­e­brat­ing a mas­sacre of Israelis by Hamas is not a sup­port of free­dom fight­ers; it’s antisemitism. 

Per­se­cut­ing Jews because they are the vic­tims of the worst mas­sacre in a cen­tu­ry is antisemitism. 

Arrang­ing intel­lec­tu­al pan­els to dis­cuss how leg­i­ble these acts are is not aca­d­e­m­ic research; it’s antisemitism. 

Fail­ing to dis­tin­guish between the Israeli gov­ern­ment and Israeli civil­ians is antisemitism.

11. Night. I keep a long kitchen knife by my pil­low in Cal­i­for­nia. Fear has no lim­its and no sense. Here, I’m a Jew­ish woman in the dark of a for­eign coun­try. Some­one wrote F*ck Israel” in front of the school. Some­one graf­fi­tied a swasti­ka in the park. Hun­dreds of stu­dents applaud­ed cheer­ful­ly in the BDS pan­el at the uni­ver­si­ty, where con­cepts of right and wrong seemed to col­lapse. My own land is bleed­ing. The same knife with which I cut sal­ad for my daugh­ters for sup­per is the one that lies by my head at night.

I don’t know how to tell my girls that bru­tal­i­ty isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly over even after a mas­sacre ends.

12. My girls. Last year we were on a train in Berlin when an elder­ly man asked my girls where they were from. We were on our way back from the Jew­ish Muse­um. My girls didn’t hes­i­tate and said Cana­da. The man said, What a beau­ti­ful coun­try you have!” My girls nod­ded. It was a tiny moment. I could have missed it. But I did­n’t. I saw how my girls under­stood that thing we nev­er real­ly talked about. That thing I was­n’t brave enough to tell. That A” word that in the past week I’ve been say­ing again and again. At that moment, though, star­ing at them, as they sat against the train’s win­dow, my heart broke and at the same time strength­ened: because my daugh­ters know who we are. And because they know how to survive. 

13. Moth­er­hood. I hear online a speech of a young Israeli moth­er in Berlin, speak­ing in a sup­port ral­ly for Israel. She says that in front of the death tribe that Israel is fac­ing today – the ter­ror­ists who glo­ri­fy death and explic­it­ly state that their goal is to achieve redemp­tion in the next world through anni­hi­la­tion of oth­ers – there is our tribe: moth­ers. The tribe of life. The tribe that works in bring­ing life to the world. In nour­ish­ing those lives. We achieve redemp­tion in this world, through care and through love. I think of my great-great-grand­ma who sur­vived the mur­der of her Jew­ish hus­band in Rus­sia. My great grand­ma who sur­vived con­stant loot­ings and burn­ings in her lit­tle Jew­ish town in Lithua­nia. My grand­ma who sur­vived the Holo­caust, her years of escap­ing. I think of my moth­er, who built a high brick fence around our house in Israel, for no rea­son, only because she car­ried with­in her my grand­moth­ers’ dis­place­ments. I start think­ing that maybe that’s a part of our cycle as Jew­ish moth­ers: we get mar­ried, we give birth, we love, we sur­vive. So many moth­ers and chil­dren were mur­dered or tak­en hostage two weeks ago, as if the tribe of life is the great­est threat on the tribe of death. 

For them, it is now our turn to survive.

I still haven’t tak­en off the wrist rib­bon I received at the entrance to the music fes­ti­val in the Cal­i­for­nia desert, a day before the black Sat­ur­day. It’s also black, with gold­en let­ters on it. It says: Rad­i­cal Love.”

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

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Maya Tevet Dayan is an Israeli-Cana­di­an poet and writer. She’s the recip­i­ent of the Israeli Prime Min­is­ter award for lit­er­a­ture for 2018, and an hon­or­able men­tion from the Kugel Poet­ry Prize for 2016. Poems from her three crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed poet­ry col­lec­tions have been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, Span­ish, Ger­man and Chi­nese, and have appeared in Mod­ern Poet­ry in Trans­la­tion, World Lit­er­a­ture Today, Lit­er­ary Review of Cana­da, Gran­ta, Asymp­tote, The New Quar­ter­ly, Rat­tle, Cop­per Nick­le, Cagibi and oth­ers. Her poem For­eign-ness” was a final­ist for the Rat­tle Poet­ry Prize for 2019, and her poem Cot­ton” won the 2021 Rhi­no trans­la­tion prize. She holds a PhD in Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy and Lit­er­a­ture and her trans­la­tions of San­skrit Poet­ry have appeared in var­i­ous venues in Israel, the US and India. Her lat­est book, Fem­i­nism, as I Told it to My Daugh­ters (2023) is a best­selling short mem­oir in essays based on her high­ly pop­u­lar fem­i­nist columns and essays pub­lished over the years in Haaretz mag­a­zine. She is cur­rent­ly teach­ing cre­ative writ­ing and poet­ry at San Diego State University.