The French ver­sion of this text was pub­lished in Libéra­tion, France, Octo­ber 172023

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. 

The night before the Hamas attack on Israel, I had been in a state of rest­less­ness, plagued by per­son­al frus­tra­tion and deep sad­ness. In a dream, I found myself sit­ting in a cafe on Ibn Gabirol Street in Tel Aviv, though the ambiance felt strange­ly for­eign, more rem­i­nis­cent of a Euro­pean city. As I watched the din­ers enjoy their meals, engage in live­ly con­ver­sa­tion, and savor their drinks, a dis­turb­ing thought con­sumed me: They don’t know they’re going to die.” It was a men­tal image that caused anx­i­ety, but I man­aged to calm my dis­qui­et by remind­ing myself that it was only a dream.

The unset­tling night con­tin­ued, and when I final­ly reached for my cell phone, I dis­cov­ered a mes­sage from my sis­ter. It read, How are you, dear? The kids are stay­ing with Guy’s par­ents and there haven’t been any sirens in their neigh­bor­hood yet. It’s real­ly scary…”

The next time we spoke, two days lat­er, the weight of the morn­ing of Octo­ber 7 was pal­pa­ble. Those two days had brought aware­ness of the dev­as­tat­ing Hamas attack, and when I answered – it was a video call this time – I was greet­ed by the faces of my fam­i­ly: sib­lings, sis­ters and broth­ers-in-law, and my sev­en nieces and nephews. They were all scat­tered through­out Israel, each seek­ing refuge from the wail­ing of the air raid sirens.

As they looked up at the screen, they saw tall columns and a splen­did­ly dec­o­rat­ed ceil­ing fill­ing the back­ground of my video feed. The chil­dren’s eyes widened at the sight of stat­ues and peo­ple crowd­ing around me, chat­ting ani­mat­ed­ly or snap­ping pic­tures with their cell phones.

The eldest niece, her curios­i­ty piqued, final­ly asked, Uncle Moshe, where are you?”

I am in Paris,” I replied, almost in dis­be­lief at the incon­gruity of it all.

Paris?” anoth­er nephew with round glass­es and curly hair chimed in. But don’t you live in Berlin?”

I do live in Berlin,” I assured him, but I’m in Paris. To be hon­est, I’m not quite sure what I’m doing here now…”

My last words hung in the air, and I was­n’t sure if they had reached the chil­dren. Despite the bustling crowd around me, my focus was unwa­ver­ing on my fam­i­ly, and I did­n’t pause to con­sid­er that per­haps this was not the most appro­pri­ate place or time for our conversation.

My par­ents, sit­ting in their apart­ment in Tel Aviv, my child­hood home, watched the lit­tle faces on the screen, no doubt won­der­ing when they would meet us all togeth­er again in real life.

The chil­dren, how­ev­er, had no inter­est in the wider cir­cum­stances. Their curios­i­ty was run­ning wild, and they fired off ques­tions as only chil­dren do. They want­ed to know exact­ly where I was, their brows fur­rowed as they tried to make sense of the sur­re­al set­ting. The place before them was a whirl­wind of activ­i­ty, per­haps resem­bling a bustling com­mer­cial cen­ter on one side and a palace from their fairy tales on the other.

In the end, the allure of the paint­ings and sculp­tures won out. One of my nephews, who had briefly exper­i­ment­ed with blonde hair dur­ing a sum­mer vaca­tion in Thai­land only to return to his famil­iar brown hue by the start of the school year, asked, Are you in a muse­um, Uncle Moshe?”

I’m not in any muse­um,” I replied, I’m in the Louvre.”

Before return­ing to our home in Berlin, my part­ner and I had a few hours to kill in Paris and decid­ed to seek solace in the eter­nal art of the Lou­vre. How­ev­er, the muse­um was far more crowd­ed than usu­al, mak­ing it almost impos­si­ble to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the world-famous masterpieces.

Now the chil­dren beamed with sat­is­fac­tion at the men­tion of the Lou­vre. For a brief moment, they put aside the strange­ness of the sit­u­a­tion and accept­ed that their uncle was speak­ing to them from inside one of the world’s most famous muse­ums, a place where vis­i­tors are expect­ed to tip­toe and any breach of deco­rum is met with stern looks from the guards, who are quick to demand silence.

The grav­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion weighed heav­i­ly on us, but we chose not to address it direct­ly dur­ing our video call. Instead, it per­me­at­ed every unspo­ken exchange, lurk­ing beneath our smiles. We did­n’t delve into the hor­rors of child abduc­tions, the atroc­i­ties of mas­sacres, the burn­ing of kib­butz­im, or the rock­et attacks. We did­n’t talk about the hours spent in a safe room, the drone of sirens, the eerie silence that fol­lows the fall of rock­ets, or the con­stant fear of more bru­tal­i­ty to come, and of stock­pil­ing food.

At one point, my young niece, a wall climber who fears noth­ing, sug­gest­ed an unex­pect­ed diver­sion: Take us to see the Mona Lisa, Uncle Moshe!”

The Mona Lisa?” I exclaimed in sur­prise. I could bare­ly get a glimpse of it myself. The room is so crowd­ed with vis­i­tors that it’s a chal­lenge to get any­where near it, and the guards are strict about main­tain­ing order.”

But when the chil­dren set their minds on a par­tic­u­lar goal, not even the dev­il can get it out of their heads. The Mona Lisa!” they insist­ed, Uncle Moshe, take us to see the Mona Lisa!”

What else could I do? Nav­i­gat­ing the crowd­ed Lou­vre, I ven­tured into the Mona Lisa room. Although I could­n’t get too close, I held my phone high above the crowd to give my nephews and nieces a glimpse of the icon­ic mas­ter­piece. After all, as a gay uncle, it was my unspo­ken duty to respect their whims and obey their commands.

Once their wish was grant­ed, a hushed silence fell over our video call. We said good­bye with vir­tu­al kiss­es, and grad­u­al­ly my fam­i­ly’s faces dis­ap­peared from my screen. I left the busy gallery, away from the throngs of tourists, and ven­tured to see The Raft of the Medusa” by French Roman­tic painter Théodore Géri­cault, a larg­er-than-life paint­ing depict­ing the after­math of the ship­wreck of the French frigate Méduse off the coast of Mau­ri­ta­nia in July 1816. At least 147 peo­ple were set adrift on a makeshift raft, where only 15 sur­vived after endur­ing star­va­tion, dehy­dra­tion, and can­ni­bal­ism due to the cap­tain’s wide­ly accused incompetence.

As night fell, I tried to sleep, think­ing about the video call with my fam­i­ly. My mind wan­dered to a dis­tant mem­o­ry: the birth of my eldest niece in Tel Aviv, some fif­teen years ago.

My sis­ter’s last cry echoes through the hos­pi­tal walls at 4:50 in the morn­ing,” I had writ­ten in my jour­nal that day. After that cry, new cries pierce the air, the cries of a new­born baby, a lit­tle girl, my first niece. I lis­tened to my sis­ter’s cries for half an hour, her voice now over­shad­owed by the new life she had brought into the world. I entered my sis­ter’s room to find the first light of dawn fil­ter­ing through the win­dow, cast­ing a soft glow on the baby’s del­i­cate pur­ple skin. She lay in my sis­ter’s arms, wrapped in the soft hos­pi­tal blan­ket, her tiny legs peek­ing out. Her mouth had already begun to suck­le for nourishment.

I put my hand on my sis­ter’s shoul­der, as we did when we were chil­dren, when we rec­on­ciled, after the bang­ing of heads against the wall, the deep cuts in the flesh, when I took my tongue out of my mouth and licked the red blood from my skin, and then waved a white flag of sur­ren­der, of a cease-fire. It’s all over now.”

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

Sup­port the work of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and become a mem­ber today.

Moshe Sakal lives in Berlin, Ger­many. He is a nov­el­ist acclaimed by NBC, Le Monde and Haaretz, and has pub­lished six nov­els in Hebrew. His nov­el The Dia­mond Set­ter (Oth­er Press, NYC 2018) has been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Jes­si­ca Cohen, win­ner of the Man Book­er Prize. His nov­el Yolan­da (Stock, 2012) has been trans­lat­ed into French by Valérie Zenat­ti. Anne Birken­hauer has trans­lat­ed excerpts from his forth­com­ing nov­el into German.

Sakal’s var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions include the Ger­man lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Sinn und Form and the Ger­man news­pa­per Frank­furter All­ge­meine Zeitung (FAZ).

Sakal’s writ­ing delves into diverse themes such as exile, immi­gra­tion, dias­po­ra, bor­der cross­ing, queer life and inter­gen­er­a­tional rela­tion­ships. His work has earned him two nom­i­na­tions for the pres­ti­gious Sapir Prize and the Eshkol Prize for his artis­tic con­tri­bu­tions. Sakal was also award­ed a Ful­bright Schol­ar­ship to par­tic­i­pate in the Inter­na­tion­al Writ­ing Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa, where he was named an Hon­orary Fel­low in Writing.

In 2021, Sakal was award­ed the Lit­er­a­ture grant of the Berlin Sen­ate Depart­ment for Cul­ture and Europe in sup­port of his forth­com­ing novel.