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.
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October 30. Day 24. Things keep spinning. The sun mostly keeps shining. Here and there, we have had droplets of rain. A bit of gray skies. But mostly it is that awful dissonance of beauty and pure pain, a dissonance apparently so powerful that still today, people remark about it when we remember 9/11. Yesterday, in the fourth week of this war, I did some ordinary things: I woke my child, gave her breakfast. We walked to the orthodontist (all uphill). At the orthodontist, no one was in a good mood. The line for this form of socialized medicine was long and tempers were very short. It seemed to me that everyone was trying to figure out how to be both in utter emergency mode – shutdown of the unnecessary senses, extremely alert to danger, focused on the task at hand – and also to be doing the ordinary things that need some social lubrication and a little forbearance. I couldn’t do it. I felt extremely tempted to scream at the receptionist who, even on good days, is highly unresponsive. I felt extremely tempted to overturn something – a plant, a chair – to throw something, to hit the television. I felt both combative with the receptionist and in solidarity with the other unhappy parents and children waiting.
Meanwhile, my daughter in the army is answering phone calls in eight hour shifts, from similarly unhappy, anxious, frightened Israelis. Where is the nearest shelter, can they take their children to school or nursery, why is the shelter near their home locked, and so on. She looks up the answer on a computer and tries to offer it to them. But most of them are not easily bought off by information. They want something else. They called a three-digit number. Emergency. Answer me.
And the mind goes back to October 7 and all the people calling three-digit numbers, and being told to hold out, to wait, help will be there soon.
The day or two after that black shabbat, that non-joy-of-the-Torah day, when somehow we were functioning so early on in this loss that I shrink from remembering it, a friend of mine who is a Shoah educator said – before we were all saying this – that the day had been reminiscent of the Shoah. I said, yes, people were begging for help and no one came to help them, and this is the modern State of Israel, this was supposed to be the thing that would never happen again. The helplessness, the aloneness, the abandonment to fate.
She said, no, for her, it was the cruelty and the savagery.
Maybe I couldn’t look at that piece of it because it was too absolutely terrifying. In general, I gloss over some of that because it is too completely horrifying. An enemy delighted to kill. To torture and to take control through terror. A philosopher of war might say something different, and millions of people around the world are saying something different, but to me, it is not the same to murder with your bare hands, to tie children together and then set fire to them, as it is to bomb from the air, to shoot from a tank. It’s not the same, though its end is also death. And it’s not because the tank or the bomb can’t be done with glee. They can. And their distance is part of their obscene attraction, the disembodied logic. If you kill someone with a bomb or from a tank, you have still killed them. And what went on in your heart only you know. And God, if you believe. But I am guessing that many people who are capable of killing from a distance would not be capable of killing up close, and that is one reason an army that depends on hundreds of thousands doesn’t go to war with knives. Most people I know – so many of whom are in uniform right now – would not be capable of repeatedly stabbing or setting innocents on fire with their own hands. Of raping corpses. Some would be. Yes. I don’t have illusions about who “we” include. But most would throw up. Most would give up.
I remember 9/11. I remember the immediate thought that bright morning, that hospitals would be overwhelmed, that massive numbers of doctors would need to volunteer, that blood drives would need to run nonstop. But then it turned out that the mass casualties weren’t embodied in that way. Thousands of people died but their bodies had not been attacked, one by one, nor could they be attended to one by one. A plane brought their building down in fire and brimstone. No one hacked at them. No one could save them by attention to detail.
Maybe the distinction really doesn’t matter, and dead is dead. Maybe this is my blind spot, right here, front and center. But I stand by this: the trauma is a different trauma. The nightmares are different nightmares.
People here have been very, very busy for the last three weeks. For twenty days or so, I have sat with my phone, adding scores of unfamiliar numbers to my contacts, calling mostly women and some men whose spouses put on uniforms and took up arms and left home, some by choice, most because they were called up. I offered them hot meals, cooked by someone else; some other hands chopped parsley, some other mind decided what went with what, some other legs went to a store (maybe just to the corner so as not to get caught somewhere scary with not enough time) and then the meal arrived. Sometimes, a babysitter arrived. Help arrived. “It warms the heart,” is an expression you hear a lot here. And it does. It warms the heart.
Other people did a lot of driving, and ferrying things back and forth. Other people did a lot of sorting, of donations and goods: foods, toiletries, clothing. Other people gave blood: yes, in this war, there is a need for blood. There are damaged bodies. There will be more. Others sat by hospital beds. My friend Vera took shifts so that a Nepalese student would not find himself alone at any point with his traumatic memories of an attack whose geopolitics he has not spent a lifetime absorbing which left him immobilized. He managed to stay alive over fifteen hours of hiding, wounded in both legs and in searing pain, because he remembered certain protocols from the television show E.R.
Others raced around the country and the world in order to say, “Our children are hostages! This hasn’t ended yet. It is not ending. We can’t wake up. It is still that very dark nightmare. Help us wake up. Bring us our children and parents and siblings and loves.”
Others sat in their homes, darkened in all ways, and waited for others to come to them. To sit with them for seven days of mourning. They talked. They clucked. They crooned. They screamed and wailed. They curled up in their beds at night and slept or didn’t. They held their other children and tried to approximate being reasonable people.
Some people, unable to sit still, and absolutely unable to wait passively, began PR campaigns: producing slogans and websites and posters of the more than 200 hostages.
Some people – many people – identified bodies and body parts. Their days did not end at night and their nights did not end at day.
Many, many people from the south of Israel found themselves away from home, in hotels of varying degrees of utility and luxury. In landscapes unknown. So this is Jerusalem. So this is Eilat. The Dead Sea. So this is what Israelis across the country live like. My son and I swore we could identify the non-Jerusalemites on the streets with their children in the last two weeks. Non-Jerusalemites at the suddenly crowded parks, after mortal fear subsided enough that hotel rooms had to be burst out of. To the outside. To spaces with grass and trees and butterflies. And yelling and soccer balls and fighting over swings.
Some people said, we have to be in this together. Let’s get behind our leadership. “Yachad n’natzeah.” Together we win. Others said, that approach is what got us here. Our leadership needs to go.
Within a week – or was it two? – the war seemed to be glossy. Posters produced by the Jerusalem municipality featuring the Israeli flag hung everywhere. They looked good, you had to give them that. There were still homemade signs affixed to buildings and street crossings by kids whose parents had been trying to find something for them to do in the absence of school and the presence of high anxiety. Homemade signs that said, “Am Yisrael Hai,” the people of Israel live, or “Am Hanetzah Lo Mefahed,” the eternal people do not fear. But they looked a bit worn now. Like our fear. In place of the crayoned posters, glossy posters appeared on the backs of buses. The buses were still fewer and slow to arrive, but back on the roads. Corporations were also promising we would win. Supermarkets, too.
A glossy war. Is. A. Mistake.
As someone I know suggested, the municipality should have taken that budget and reduced the property taxes of reservists for the month. My son, sixteen-years-old, laughed when I told him that, as we were driving down a Jerusalem boulevard and he counted twenty-seven large posters on just the right side of the road. Who needs it, I said. You think we need posters to go to war? He said, “Ashkara,” which means a lot to a mom of a teen. It means, “Actually, mom, you’ve got a point.”
Ashkara. My Israeli son will sometimes concede the point to me.
Not my Israeli daughter. She is serving in this army, and loss, failure, Shoah imagery, and poetry: none of that is for her right now. And I can respect that.
I ask her to send me a photo of herself because it has been two weeks since I have seen her and the casual photo she sends me is so beautiful that I catch my breath. I know we have many friends who would feel better about life if I shared her photo with them. But the last thing I will do right now is put the photo of this nineteen-year-old on facebook. On my feed, for more than three weeks now, such photos have one meaning only: this person is now dead. Or missing. Living nineteen-year-olds we cherish privately.
What about others of us? I have done very little imagining of the people, residents of the south, who suffered that unimaginable breakdown of everything they believed to be real on October 7. I don’t think I can get that close to them. I have been to none of their funerals. A friend of mine from a small WhatsApp activist group was one of the first to know her child, Hayim Katsman, had died in that mini-war of October 7. On October 7, at night, she posted that she believed he was in Gaza, but already on the morning of October 8, she had been informed he was dead in his kibbutz, Kibbutz Holit. It was days before his funeral. But at least she knew she was in mourning. That he was dead. (A problem, because his name, “Hayim,” means “life.”) She took immediately to posting everything she could about him on facebook. Photos. Papers. All the messages and stories and descriptions that came pouring in from people who had known him in Israel and around the world. His dissertation. A chapter that was about to come out in a book. I felt I got to know this curly-haired free spirit of a man. Lanky legs. Principled. Musical. Content in a very, very small kibbutz. That’s a certain kind of person. A very, very small world. But clearly a very, very big mind. No lack of curiosity. Just an ability to center himself in a spot of the world he loved. To commit. His mother keeps posting and I keep being grateful.
But I didn’t go to his funeral even though there was a bus from Jerusalem. I know that many people went who had not known him or his family personally. To “hug” the family, as they say here. I understand it. I respect it. But to me it felt inappropriate. To me, funerals are less public events, more intimate gatherings, even if there are hundreds. The intensity of feeling seems a luxury in the case of someone who is not deeply connected. I know I would have wept at his funeral. With genuine loss. I think it was for this reason that I preferred to weep as I looked at his photos on the small screen of my computer. A screen clearly too small for such a man. Such a soul. His mother keeps posting. And I wonder: she raised a person so small and so big – able to put his feet down in Kibbutz Holit but also able to connect to people around the world in profound ways. What is it like to have brought that into the world? What is it like to outlive it?
What children have I raised? It makes you ask the question.
Children. Wars and children. Little bundles buried. Is it better for a whole family to disappear than for one life to be saved?
The disloyalty that death imposes on us. We will go on living. Even in the absence of people we loved unbearably much.
I hate that. I hate that disloyalty. And it does not seem to me silly or romantic or just youthful to want to throw oneself into a plot of earth with someone you love. Because you know there will be moments later you do not and cannot think of them. I thought this at the funeral of a man who was twenty-three, whose girlfriend could not believe she wouldn’t see his face again.
Young widows and widowers will likely remarry. Young women and men will likely meet others. Parents even bear more children. Everything changes. Time passes, as Virginia Woolf said.
Why is health wrapped up with warding off pain? I understand that it is and I believe that it is right to do vital things – to plant flowers and water them, rather than watch them shrivel up and die. To learn a new skill, to practice an art. To walk along the sea. To cook something rich. To make a salad with the freshest ingredients. To wear a new piece of clothing and to give away an old one. All of this is a way of affirming aliveness. But it hurts.
The dead and the living are mixed up in my mind right now; the borders between them are weak. I have been emailing with a former student of mine, now a friend. She is Palestinian and an Israeli citizen. This young woman is at her wits’ end. All looks very dark to her. The world seems full of hatred. I write to her, “I have a small idea, and maybe it’s stupid. Do you want to exchange names of people whose safety we are worried about?” She says it’s not stupid. She gives me two names of Gazans she hopes are still alive (and the name of a hostage, a Jewish Israeli peace activist she has heard of but does not know personally), and the name of one person, a female novelist, Heba Abu Nada, who is already dead. I give her the names of two Israelis held hostage in Gaza, and tell her about Hayim from Holit. It all hurts, she tells me.
And some of us, in these last three weeks, have just been preparing food nonstop. My friend Yael made 240 liters of salad yesterday. As I said to her, no one can take that away from you.
But underneath that truth there is also the question: does it matter? What would have changed if you had stayed in your bed and drawn the curtains. The bed is soft. The blanket is heavy. The pillow forms to your head. Close the door.
And others, still, have written. I write because it’s easy. It comes naturally. The words spill out, one leading to the next to the next to the next. It’s the easiest thing I know. Then it is pleasure. Because once the words have spilled out, I can read them and work with them. And because this is one thing I have spent my life doing, when I do it now I feel alive and time goes by so quickly. I don’t know hours have passed. Writing is the only thing I have done for weeks in which time has flown. Every single other thing has been the most elongated experience. Except for a few drives in the city when there was still absolutely no traffic and I noticed how quickly a deserted, frightened city can be navigated.
World War II was very long. Years long. People lived in it. Through it. With it. Also with bombings. With the crush of impossibly bad news and more death than anyone could imagine. People came out of it. Readjusted to life after the fact in the absence of war. Yael says this to me when we meet outside the kitchen where she is making her famous 240 liters of salad for displaced families and soldiers, and we talk about how we will manage the time of this war. The way in which it could be very long. A war in which you do lots of ordinary things and also take on new habits that are obviously wartime habits. And they get sewn in alongside the things that you would do one way or the other.
Maybe I will begin to ride a bike.
At the beginning, anything you do is worthwhile. It is. You bring toiletries to a street corner because people evacuated from the south need them and you know you have done something. You donate money and you believe it is going to an immediate need. You match up a volunteer with a desperate family and you can sleep easier at night. But then these things become less sufficient. Being a cog in a machine – the machine of great need, of not enough time, of staunching the blood – that yields a bit.
Then suddenly you realize that this war looks a lot different across the world. And things that seem wholly symbolic – letters, statements, even protests – are actually other people’s lives. They still seem really distant but you begin to have the bandwidth to get it that these symbolic structures are resulting in material insecurity in other places. That Jews are at risk in a new and different way than in the last seventy-five years. So some people, including myself, dedicate ourselves to trying to explain from where we sit why we need to do what we do. Who the enemy is. Who the enemy is not.
I hate the name someone gave this war. Haravot Barzel. Swords of Steel. A mistake on every possible level.
I make one major breakthrough in my own thinking. I come to understand that for me, the ultimate aim of my life is to increase human flourishing. It is a phrase I encountered in the book A Secular Age by the philosopher Charles Taylor. And he used it to describe a certain mode of secular, as opposed to religious, thinking. What it means to me is that my historical commitments and my ideological programs don’t determine as much as they might. I belong to a people, the Jewish people. That belonging is very important to me. I won’t abandon it. I live in Israel where people of my faith have located their ideals and obligations since the faith began. But at the end of the day, what I want is not an idea. It is also not a bourgeois capitalist soap bubble of middle-class security. What I want is more and more human flourishing.
I don’t want to prove a point. I don’t want to shut people out. I don’t want to police people. I don’t want to be us and them. I want to be able to express my religion and celebrate my peoplehood and have access to the foods I eat and mark my holidays. But I want to live on Kibbutz Holit, so to speak, and to imagine other human beings as human. And to build something sustainable. In the deepest sense of that term. To raise a child like my friend did. A child who turns into a man who is small and big. In one beloved place, but also ready to embrace a world that he doesn’t find threatening, that he doesn’t perceive as needing to be subdued. I want to have coffee with him (probably tea, made from herbs from the garden), with very, very hot water. Lie back in a chair that is not new and not old. Music. Maybe chocolate. Maybe salad. Neighbors. Some old friends. Some new. All the time in the world.
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.