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.
I can’t sleep more than a few fitful hours at a time. I look at my phone, force myself to put it down, close my eyes, and wait and wait and wait. Somehow I sleep. Then I wake up, check my phone for news, for my daughter to text me from her base. I try to go back to sleep. Wake up, check my phone, get out of bed.
The number of the dead continues to rise. Now it is 1200. My confidence in my government bottoms out every time I check the news. I can taste my anxiety with every swallow. My fear for the future swirls around me when I walk. My understanding of others’ hatred is utterly new and vivid, made of images I wish I hadn’t seen. My recognition that all the old strategies for living are obsolete is as sharp as a recognition can be. I want to fast. I want to pray. I want to put everyone I love in a room and hold them safe and ask them to speak so I can hear their voices. My mind is a mess with thoughts about how we got here and all the things I do not want to happen and all the things I want to turn back time for so that they won’t have happened.
Saturday night, October 7. Jerusalem. We turn on our phones, finally, after a day that began with repeated sirens and quick runs to the stairwell clad in pajamas, the neighbors also in pajamas. Then the thud of Iron Dome, the descent of dead silence on the streets. A decision is made not to go to synagogue even though it is down the block. It is Simchat Torah and all we know is from a neighbor we saw in the stairwell: there was an incident in the south, there are hostages. My older children draw in their breaths when they hear that; they know that nothing that includes the kidnapping of an Israeli is going to end within a day. We moved to Israel in 2014, soon after the “Three Boys” were kidnapped, and I remember trying to figure out how to tell my children about those boys and their subsequent deaths, and the war that ensued. I remember standing in the stairwell in pajamas, the sound of sirens vibrating around us. At the time, my son was seven, my daughters four and ten. Now, my son is sixteen, and my daughters thirteen and nineteen. The nineteen-year-old was drafted into the IDF on August 24. All three know quite well that any kidnapping is not a siren today and school tomorrow.
But I can’t begin to imagine that the “kidnapping” is not one soldier, or three, but hundreds, and that the “infiltration” of a paraglider is a massive attack on the entire southern border of kibbutzim and towns. That hundreds of people are dead. That hundreds of people are missing. That thousands are wounded. That the IDF has lost control over the south and that ordinary people are fighting for their own lives and those of their families. I have not yet heard that there was a rave, in a big open field three kilometers from the border (Why? Who okayed this?), and that we know kids who were there.
In fact, at mid-morning Saturday, I am still wondering if I should have tried to make it to synagogue because I was supposed to read Torah for the holiday: as we finish reading the book of Devarim, each adult gets to come up to the Torah, to say the blessings before and after a short section is sung. I was going to be reading at one of seven stations set up to ensure we can get through the hundreds of aliyot. Divide and conquer strategy. When every adult has gone up to the Torah, the custom is for all the children to go up. They stand under a tallit or a few tallitot that the taller adults hold high over their heads, and they too say the blessings, as a group. And then the whole community asks the angels that save us from evil to bless the children in the names of our ancestors, to let them multiply throughout the land.
I often have tears in my eyes during these moments, as do others — to see new babies who have come into being between the last Simchat Torah and this one, swaddled in parents’ arms; twelve-year-olds who will become adults in the coming year, children holding siblings’ hands. The space protected. Home within a home. It is with the children that we finish the five books of the Torah. They are too young to appreciate endings, to appreciate the poetry of the blessings of the tribes, to feel the loss in Moses’ death. They are mostly thinking about the bags of candy they will get after their aliyah. Which is just fine.
And in the stairwell on Saturday October 7, I am still thinking that when Shabbat is over, I will text the gabbai, my old friend from high school, and I will apologize for not showing up. I am still imagining that maybe I overreacted, maybe lots of other people did show up. I hope I didn’t leave them in the lurch.
But the sirens keep coming. My son says, if there are this many sirens in Jerusalem …. He doesn’t have to finish the sentence, because we all know that Jerusalem always has fewer alarms than the south and central areas of Israel.
We see soldiers running with their duffel bags and guns on the street, some of them still in street clothes. When I look out the window and see my neighbor taking her dog out, quick as she can, I run downstairs, staying close enough to home that I can run back if there is another siren. She says her son has just gotten his call, he is standing ready to be taken back to his base where he serves in a tank unit. It’s not just the soldiers though. Someone rushing down the street sees me and says, it’s a general call up — reservists, everyone.
When we turn our phones on the moment Shabbat ends, the news comes hammering down on us. We watch television, all of us, plus my former husband who came over earlier in the day to make sure we were all okay and then came over again, as soon as Shabbat ended, because we are in a war.
And I am horrified by the numbers – 200 dead. How is this possible? I don’t know what to do first: check the news online, watch the news, read Facebook. I don’t know how to put this awful, awful puzzle together. All the things that were supposed to happen clearly will not. My son will not go back to his high school in central Israel because they are currently under fire. The name of the town is in the list on the right side of the TV of the dozens of towns under attack right now. My daughter’s commander calls and says she will not return to base before Monday, and my daughter apologizes for not turning on her phone immediately. Education Corps, she did not think it could be an emergency for her. And the commander says, keep your phone on and near you at all times now.
And still we don’t understand anything. There was a rave: there were a thousand young Israelis, maybe more? They were in a wide open field, and paragliders came. Really? Paragliders? Bulldozers came and broke down the wall and then lots of Hamas fighters came though. What is lots? Twenty? Fifty? It starts to dawn on us that we are talking about hundreds. They came in white trucks, not random cars or vans. It was a major operation.
Still, we have no idea what major means. 200 dead seems impossible to take in. But then it is 300 and then 400. Already within a few minutes after Shabbat is over, we know that our friends’ child is missing. He was at the rave. It is his father who was the gabbai I was imagining calling to say, I’m so sorry, I should have come to shul. I was imagining him laughing his easy laugh. But no. Now he and his wife will become public faces of the disaster that has befallen us. The hundreds of posts of missing young men and women, and also, full families, and elderly parents, none of whom have been heard from. Maybe they are dead. Maybe they are hiding. Hiding? In hiding? In Israel? I am thinking of the stories I grew up on of the partisans, of the forests of Poland, of Hungary.
From here forward, it is a blur. The last four days: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and today. Wednesday. I no longer know when I learned what. When the death toll rose to 500 and 700 and 900 and 1200. And those numbers simply ceased to be ones I could take in, not in a country this size. I don’t remember when I learned that army bases themselves had been overrun and that soldiers were murdered in their beds. When I learned that people were still barricaded in their homes; that hostages were still under threat of death in a kibbutz dining room. When I understood that the other boy we knew who was missing — my daughter’s close friend’s brother, Aner Shapira — had been with Hersh Goldberg Polin and that it wasn’t two stories but one, and that both had been wounded. When we heard finally that they were alive but in Gaza.
When my son told me that the boy, Ofir, whose photo I had just reposted in a state of shocked reaction – the face, the face – was sixteen, like him, that he lived ten minutes away, that they played basketball together, and that it had been confirmed that he had been taken to Gaza. And I thought, he is sixteen. If he was visiting a friend, and that friend isn’t also missing, then he is now in Gaza alone. Ofir. And I keep seeing the image of this boy, smiling, with his braces that he was probably counting the days to be done with, with his haircut that all the basketball players had been sporting that season. I wonder what surreal world I have entered that my son knows a boy who has been abducted to Gaza. And I wonder how our friends have the wherewithal not to spend every moment screaming or hurling themselves at a wall or ripping their own skin because they can’t get to their wounded child, to save him, now that they know he is alive.
So many deaths behind us. And the horrifying fear of how many more to come, and my inability to imagine anything beyond this moment.
Israelis enter a whirlwind of doing: faster than anything anyone outside the country can imagine. A call goes out in a single WhatsApp group: there are 200 Thai agricultural workers who ran for their lives from the south, they ran with nothing. They are near Netanya, in a hangar there. They need everything from refrigerators to toilet paper to clothing and sheets. Maybe fifteen minutes after the call goes out and I have replied to the man who posted it, he arrives in front of my house with his teenage son to collect an electric burner from me, sheets, towels, garbage bags, kitchen goods, whatever I have been able to find quickly at home. His trunk is already full to the brim. He will drive it straight to the hangar. And that is one needle in a haystack of giving and organizing and donating.
Blood donation lines in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are so long that people stand for hours. From kids to teens to adults not called up, are cooking and packing and delivering food to soldiers. People are offering beds and homes and apartments to families and now half-families and lone survivors from the south. Help for Bedouin communities who have children that lost parents in the battles in the south. I find out from a photo of my son holding a puppet that he was busy entertaining children whose parents are doctors, and that he spent hours with his friends cleaning hotel rooms to get ready for the 1100 people from the south who would be sleeping there on Monday. I know that on Sunday he was loading and delivering supplies back and forth for hours, along with a friend old enough to drive. Some volunteer to phone elderly citizens who live alone. Others volunteer to shop and dog walk and babysit for families who have a parent at the front. Bright, big painted handmade signs appear on the walls of the school opposite our street, directing people to the nearest public bomb shelter, should an alarm go off. The activity is nonstop. Because what if we stopped?
Even as we don’t stop, I think to myself that if we could go back in time, we would put all the children, big and little, under the tallitot, and demand that the angels watch over them. That they be safe in the land.
Ilana M. Blumberg is associate professor of English Literature and past director of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel. She is the author of Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American, Victorian Sacrifice: Ethics and Economics in Mid-Century Novels, and the Sami Rohr Choice Award-winning memoir Houses of Study: a Jewish Woman Among Books.