This piece is part of an ongo­ing series that we are shar­ing 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. 

Decem­ber 2023

I am out walk­ing my dog, think­ing about my twen­ty-year-old son, Nachum, who is going to anoth­er sol­dier friend’s funer­al today — the sec­ond in two months. His first friend killed in this war was named Yair, mean­ing he will light up” in Hebrew, and his birth­day was just last month, dur­ing Hanukkah, the Jew­ish hol­i­day of lights.

The sec­ond young man was named Nir, mean­ing a ploughed field and sym­bol­ic of new begin­nings. Iron­ic, I think. Then I remem­ber end­ings are also begin­nings. At least I hope this one is. I will only know when I reach this end myself and it is too late for me to tell those I’ve left behind.

Both Yair and Nir were Israeli sol­diers fight­ing in Gaza, and both were in Nachum’s co-ed high school grade of about sev­en­ty stu­dents. The per­cent­age of com­bat sol­diers in his grade who have died is already too high, and with this war rag­ing on, no end in sight, it will like­ly be even high­er — ris­ing with the num­ber of Gazans killed as well. 

So much death, more and more peo­ple dying every day — not nat­ur­al deaths, but deaths by human hands, the result of war and ter­ror. Hamas bru­tal­ly mur­dered — but first made sure to rape, tor­ture, maim — at least 1,200 inno­cent Israeli civil­ians, wound­ed thou­sands in body and spir­it, took around 250 hostage, and dis­placed hun­dreds of thousands. 

And now, in retal­i­a­tion, my own gov­ern­ment is bomb­ing Gaza, killing not only Hamas sol­diers who per­pe­trat­ed or sup­port­ed these mur­ders, but also thou­sands of civil­ians being used by Hamas as human shields, in hos­pi­tals, schools, and in their intri­cate net­work of mil­i­tary tun­nels. And all of this, part of an ongo­ing vio­lent con­flict on this land that I, a peace activist, have been work­ing to end. I can­not accept this is the way life, or death, is sup­posed to be.

Nachum’s best friend Tomer — Hebrew for a date palm tree” — was shot in the leg yes­ter­day by Hamas sol­diers who were hid­ing in one of these tun­nels and came out shoot­ing. The surgery was suc­cess­ful, and he should be able to walk again soon, but the sol­dier next to him did not sur­vive. I pray Tomer’s recov­ery and reha­bil­i­ta­tion will take as long as it does for this war to end. I know it’s not fair to the oth­er sol­diers still there fight­ing, but I decide Tomer has done his share.

Tomer and Nachum grew up togeth­er on our kib­butz. Nachum did not serve in the army; he did nation­al ser­vice instead. He received an exemp­tion from army ser­vice because he has FSHD, the genet­ic mus­cu­lar dis­ease I live with and passed on to two of my children.

For a long time, I have done much inner work to accept nat­ur­al ill­ness, suf­fer­ing, and death. Will I ever be able to do enough inner work to accept all the vio­lent human-inflict­ed death around me now, too? Should that even be my goal?

I think of the Seren­i­ty Prayer: God, grant me the seren­i­ty to accept the things I can­not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wis­dom to know the dif­fer­ence.” That’s it: I don’t know the dif­fer­ence any­more. I con­tin­ue walking.

It is a beau­ti­ful win­ter day in the Galilee, the first sun­ny day after a few in a row of heavy rains. This is my favorite time of year. All is green and lush, and the sun is no longer pun­ish­ing, but sooth­ing. So, I go left, towards the exposed fields. For the past sev­er­al months, I had been turn­ing most­ly right, into the for­est, to pro­tect myself from the sun. But now I want to feel the sun’s warmth on my skin — nature’s hug.

As I walk along the path, I feel held by the ear­ly morn­ing fresh­ness, the car­pet of green all around me, the tiny white cro­cus­es start­ing to push their way up through the earth, thanks to the rains. Soon, they will open to reveal their yel­low sun-like cen­ters. A hint of new begin­nings, I hope. One day, when this is all over.

The for­est opens onto the fields. Olive orchards to my right, avo­ca­do fields ahead. Saplings just plant­ed stand spread apart, sup­port­ed by plas­tic encas­ings hold­ing them upright and pro­tect­ing them from the elements.

They remind me of the field where the Super­no­va music fes­ti­val was held that week­end of Octo­ber 7 — how it looks now, not how it looked then. Then, hun­dreds of young peo­ple sim­ply enjoy­ing mov­ing their bod­ies to trance music in nature were mur­dered there in cold blood.

Since the mas­sacre, loved ones of these vic­tims — so full of life — have brought wood­en posts with pho­tos of the dead on them, and stuck them in the ground — like these tree sup­ports — as if they are still danc­ing. On Tu B’She­vat, the fam­i­lies and friends will plant actu­al trees there as well. I cry as I walk, think­ing of them. These fes­ti­val goers were some of the most peace­ful mem­bers of soci­ety, there just to cel­e­brate life; instead, they were met with the most bru­tal of deaths.

If only they had pro­tec­tive cas­ings around them, like these baby trees do. Instead, the gov­ern­ment aban­doned them, send­ing hun­dreds of sol­diers to the West Bank to pro­tect set­tlers who had built a sukkah — in provo­ca­tion — in the Pales­tin­ian vil­lage of Hawara, where set­tlers had per­pe­trat­ed vio­lence some months before. The gov­ern­ment had decid­ed to pro­tect provo­ca­teurs instead of peace­ful dancers. I lit­er­al­ly want to vom­it on the side of the path.

But I look up and see a glo­ri­ous day. A sap­phire-blue sky, emer­ald-green fields spread out before me. I want to embrace it all, to believe in the flow­ers, the birds, the sun­shine. But it is hard now. Too hard.

Sud­den­ly, I come upon a large crack in the earth along the whole length of the path for the next fifty or so meters, as if there had been a small earth­quake since my last time here, sym­bol­ic of these times. There had already been so much divi­sion and sep­a­ra­tion in this place; then Hamas’ bru­tal attack hit like a light­ning bolt, the shape of this crack, caus­ing such a chasm I am not sure we in Israel-Pales­tine can cross it. I am not even sure I can.

I decide to con­tin­ue, walk­ing along the length of the crack. The kib­butz ceme­tery is up ahead. I pass it often on my walks, but I rarely go inside. A sol­dier named Rotem (like Tomer, a type of tree in Hebrew) was buried there a month ago, a twen­ty-year-old from a neigh­bor­ing town that shares our cemetery. 

Nachum was at his funer­al, too, although he did not know him per­son­al­ly. So that makes Nir’s funer­al his fourth since the begin­ning of the war. He want­ed to pay his respects to this young man, his own age, who gave his life so Nachum and all the oth­ers — Pales­tini­ans, Jews, and peo­ple of oth­er nation­al­i­ties — liv­ing with­in our country’s bor­ders can live more secure­ly. Yes, Hamas killed and took hostage Pales­tin­ian Israelis, too.

I see Rotem’s grave from afar, the white and blue Israeli flag with its two stripes and six-point­ed star draped over the stone. I feel drawn to enter the ceme­tery, to stand by his grave. These sol­diers are our chil­dren. Our chil­dren are pro­tect­ing us, their par­ents. Isn’t this against the laws of nature?

As I approach the ceme­tery, I notice a bull­doz­er, hard at work. Is it dig­ging a grave? I enter, tread­ing care­ful­ly past fresh mounds of dirt. It is not one grave this bull­doz­er is dig­ging, but a whole group of them. 

My heart drops. I had not checked the names or home­towns of the sol­diers whose souls had left those beau­ti­ful bod­ies I saw beneath the head­lines with their smil­ing faces this morn­ing. Could so many have been locals? I know it shouldn’t mat­ter; all lives are pre­cious. But it does feel dif­fer­ent when I know them per­son­al­ly, or if they live near­by. So, while I mourn all the lives lost, here and in Gaza, too, the far­ther away they are, the more abstract they feel. That is human nature, whether fair or not. Either way, I just want this war to end.

I ask the man in the bull­doz­er about the graves he’s dig­ging. I know him. Abed, from the Arab vil­lage across the road; he does main­te­nance work on our kib­butz and was asked to pre­pare a bunch of new graves. Not for any par­tic­u­lar peo­ple, he tells me. This is what they do when the graves already pre­pared have been filled, he says. They pre­pare more. They dig a rec­tan­gu­lar hole in the ground and fill it with sand, so it is eas­i­er to dig out at the funeral.

I had not known this. Just like I had not known sol­diers do not have taharah, the puri­fy­ing rit­u­al wash­ing of the body before bur­ial. I learned this when study­ing about Jew­ish bur­ial cus­toms as part of the process of my plan to start a chevra kadisha (Jew­ish bur­ial soci­ety) on our kib­butz. Sol­diers killed in com­bat are con­sid­ered puri­fied already by their act of sacrifice.

Sol­diers are also buried in a cas­ket, unlike oth­er Jew­ish or Mus­lim buri­als in Israel. Is that to give them a spe­cial hon­or? Or is it because often their bod­ies are so muti­lat­ed, they need the box to hold the remains?

I think of all the peo­ple so bru­tal­ly mur­dered on Octo­ber 7. The foren­sic team had to use DNA test­ing to iden­ti­fy bod­ies and body parts. I was at the funer­al of my acquain­tance Vivian Sil­ver, a peace activist who lived on one of the kib­butz­im attacked by Hamas on that Black Sab­bath”; there was no body. We had thought Vivian was one of the hostages, only to find out six weeks lat­er she had been mur­dered on Octo­ber 7. It took that long to iden­ti­fy her remains, they had been burned so completely. 

What were her final thoughts? She deserved a beau­ti­ful end. The tears well up again. I step back and look down into the emp­ty holes in the ground, wait­ing for the bod­ies they will hold one day. Wait­ing for more and more death to come.

I go to Rotem’s grave,which is in a spe­cial new sec­tion of the ceme­tery, for sol­diers, and see some­one left a word writ­ten in small stones beside it. I can­not fig­ure out what it says. השלומגורה. Maybe it was his nick­name? I hear he had many friends, a girl­friend, too. I decide it was she who left that word writ­ten in stones. I am not meant to under­stand it; it’s a pri­vate mes­sage to her beloved. My heart can­not take this, but I make myself stay.

Off to the side are a few old, unkept graves, cov­ered in moss. I know their sto­ries. One, Matan, which means giv­en,” was a child of kib­butz founders. He died in his mother’s arms, just short of five months old, from an undi­ag­nosed heart defect. Matan was the first to be buried here; the ceme­tery was cre­at­ed for him. Anoth­er, Rina­tel, mean­ing divine joy,” was born with severe birth defects and died five months after she was born. Yael was two years old and died in a traf­fic acci­dent on a trip to France to vis­it her mother’s fam­i­ly. Her moth­er was dri­ving, I am told. How is she liv­ing with that? I wonder.

I walk around to the new­er part of the ceme­tery, where the graves are well-kept, except for one unmarked grave. I stand over it, won­der­ing whose it is. Abed comes down from the bull­doz­er and walks over to me. Do you know whose grave that is?” he asks. I shake my head.

It’s Sami’s grandmother’s grave.” Sami owns a hard­ware store in Abed’s vil­lage; I’ve shopped there. She was Jew­ish, mar­ried his Mus­lim grand­fa­ther. They lived togeth­er in the vil­lage. You must have heard the sto­ry.” I nod my head.

They couldn’t bury her in the vil­lage ceme­tery. So, they buried her here.”

We both look down at this stone with no writ­ing, cov­ered in moss. We sigh. Abed goes back to work, and I con­tin­ue walk­ing among the graves.

I spot the grave of my friend, Yonatan, who died about six years ago from can­cer. He was five years old­er than me. I look at the dates, remind­ing myself how old he was when he died. Fifty-four. That is my age now. It feels younger now that I have kept liv­ing. In a cou­ple of months, I will be fifty-five. I will sur­pass him. Yonatan’s wife still lives here, with­out him, in their big house they built togeth­er. The chil­dren are grown. Some are reserve sol­diers now fight­ing in this war. I pray she won’t have to suf­fer the loss of a child, too.

There is the grave of my friend’s fetus from her still­birth. The baby, Lev­av, Hebrew for heart,” had a severe heart defect dis­cov­ered in utero (they had cho­sen her name before they knew this — one of life’s syn­chronic­i­ties that makes me believe there is a Force Con­nect­ing All). Her par­ents, my friends, decid­ed to ter­mi­nate the preg­nan­cy. They buried her tiny body beneath a heart-shaped stone, and the pla­cen­ta behind it, with a tree plant­ed on top.

And there is the grave of a six-year-old girl, Ofir, who died the first year I moved to the kib­butz. She had can­cer. Her par­ents built a park next to their house in her mem­o­ry; it has a huge mosa­ic drag­on to climb and sit on that the com­mu­ni­ty built togeth­er as a project. There are elf stat­ues next to both these graves, as if they are watch­ing over these two pure souls. Does a fetus that dies in utero have a soul? I wonder.

And anoth­er grave of a friend, Col­in, who died of Parkinson’s. He was the guard out­side my kib­butz’ preschool. When I used to bring my son Mishael there in the morn­ings, Col­in would kick a soc­cer ball around with him. He’ll be a pro­fes­sion­al soc­cer play­er one day!” Col­in would say. Mishael is now a seri­ous soc­cer play­er with pro­fes­sion­al aspi­ra­tions, but Col­in didn’t live to see that. He was in his six­ties when he died.

There is the grave of my friends’ son — Daniel was his name. He was a young man in his thir­ties with two small chil­dren. He had brain can­cer. His par­ents live on my kib­butz, but he lived in South Africa with his wife and chil­dren. When his can­cer was diag­nosed, Daniel came here because of our bet­ter med­ical care and social­ized sys­tem. But he did not sur­vive. He died and was buried here. I was at his funer­al; his wife and chil­dren were not. I don’t know why.

There are some old­er folks, too — a man in his eight­ies who loved to dance. His grave­stone has a cou­ple danc­ing on it and says he was a lover of life. Anoth­er lover of life, Moti, died in his six­ties. His love of life knew no lim­its,” it says on his grave­stone. I did not know him, but imag­ine he lived life to the fullest, even at the end. I see a few more graves of peo­ple who died in their fifties and sixties.

And there is June, anoth­er friend’s moth­er. She loved to walk around the kib­butz with her tiny dog. When she grew senile, her fam­i­ly final­ly moved her to a nurs­ing home. When I went to vis­it, she was hal­lu­ci­nat­ing, say­ing that anoth­er kib­butz mem­ber killed her dog and flayed him. I did not want to argue, but also did not want her to think that was true. I told her I had seen her son walk­ing the dog the day before. I don’t know if she believed me, but she would for­get soon, any­way, that I had even been there at all.

And there are my friend’s par­ents, buried side-by-side like twin mar­riage beds in a film from the 1950s. It warms my heart to see them buried this way. I make a note: this is what I want, although with the graves clos­er togeth­er. Cre­ma­tion is out of the ques­tion, not because I believe my body will be res­ur­rect­ed, but because of its asso­ci­a­tions with the Holo­caust, the vio­lence it con­notes for me. But because of my love of water, I had con­sid­ered look­ing into whether bur­ial at sea is allowed in this coun­try. Jacob wants to be buried, how­ev­er, and I like the idea of our final rest­ing place being togeth­er like this.

There is a grave with a hole carved into the rock, so that it fills with water when there is rain­fall. It is full now. There is a poignant ded­i­ca­tion, carved into the grave, describ­ing the deceased, Noga Or (mean­ing lumi­nos­i­ty of light”), who died at age fifty-one, as lov­ing to rough it in nature. I did not know her or how she died, but in my imag­i­na­tion, she drowned swim­ming in the Sea of Galilee, which is only half an hour from here. 

As a dai­ly swim­mer for most of my life and a rab­bi who runs a mikveh (a rit­u­al immer­sion pool filled with rain­wa­ter), I like the idea of this tiny mikveh on my grave. I make a note of it, too. My fam­i­ly would get a kick out of that. Bury­ing her with her pool,” they’d say. Even in death, she can’t be with­out it.” 

My fam­i­ly has made allowances over the years for my com­mit­ment to my dai­ly swim, and some­times think I care more about it than I do about them. I insist this is not true, but I won’t be around to defend myself after I die. This both­ers me, makes me want to insist on no eulo­gies at my funer­al, no jokes for peo­ple to snick­er about my short­com­ings, or speech­es prais­ing my virtues. I’d rather they just let me be. Or no longer be. To just be what I wrote about myself in my mem­oirs and not what peo­ple made of me in their own minds and memories.

There is a beau­ti­ful grave with a bench next to it, and an olive tree plant­ed at its head instead of a head­stone. I do not know this per­son, Ayelet, but I see she was fifty-eight when she died — only three years my senior — and there is a bird and flow­ers carved into the base stone. She was a nature-lover, too, for sure.

On my way home, I try to take in more nature, for both Ayelet and myself. I try to see the world as she must have if she knew she had only a lit­tle time left — tak­ing in every flower, every bird, every tree. I imag­ine she knew all their names.

I think of my son at Nir’s funer­al at this very moment. I decid­ed not to go to this one; I’ve been to oth­ers since Octo­ber 7. I did not know Nir well, and I’d rather not sub­ject myself to anoth­er funer­al just now. The world is let­ting me down, bring­ing me clos­er to despair. I want to cling to hope.

I reach that crack in the earth again. It is like the flow­ers and the grass — it, too, is a result of the rains. I can’t have one with­out the oth­er. I can­not choose only reju­ve­na­tion. There is degen­er­a­tion, too. 

Death and cru­el­ty. They are part of life. Even in this ceme­tery, there is so much life. And even in this land of the liv­ing, there is so much death. And even in every pure soul there is the poten­tial for cru­el­ty, although we must fight against it with all our will and pow­er. Destruc­tion, whether by nature or by human hands, it’s the oth­er side of the rain.

Back home, I sit at my com­put­er to com­pose an email adver­tis­ing a death café (a gath­er­ing of peo­ple to dis­cuss death and dying, a way of lean­ing on one anoth­er and gain­ing per­spec­tive) I have decid­ed to facil­i­tate dur­ing this walk. An offer­ing in the face of all the hor­ri­ble death around me. I can demon­strate, do social action, work for peace, but I can­not change human nature. This offer­ing is some­thing I can do, at least, to ease some suf­fer­ing and hold oth­ers as they face their mortality.

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

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Havi­va Ner-David is a writer and rab­bi who lives in north­ern Israel on Kib­butz Han­na­ton, where she runs Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul and has a thriv­ing spir­i­tu­al com­pan­ion­ing prac­tice. She is the author of three mem­oirs — Life on the Fringes, Chanah’s Voice, and Dream­ing Against the Cur­rent – and two nov­els — Hope Val­ley and To Die in Secret. She is also the co-author of one pub­lished chil­dren’s book, Yon­ah and the Mikveh Fish, and anoth­er on the way to pub­li­ca­tion, Sabi Could­n’t Find His Car: a mod­ern Hanukkah mir­a­cle. Ner-David is an activist build­ing a shared soci­ety of part­ner­ship between Jew­ish and Pales­tin­ian Israelis in the Galilee. She par­ents, with her spouse Jacob, sev­en chil­dren, and lives with a degen­er­a­tive neu­ro­mus­cu­lar dis­ease that has been one of her great­est teachers.