This piece is one 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.
My library books are long overdue.
I took them out from a kibbutz library near where I live in the Western Galilee, a few weeks before the October 7 massacre. Most of the people on the kibbutz — four miles away from the border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy terror army, has more than 150,000 missiles and rockets aimed in our direction — have left. And the library, with its surprising collection of English books, is closed until further notice.
That’s just one of the many ways my life in a beach village on the Mediterranean Shore has changed so abruptly, a place I’ve lived with my family since 1991.
I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can’t concentrate enough to read a book. And I’ve always loved reading! But what could I read, anyway, during the war? From my bookshelf, I picked up John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl, and leafed through it, finding a few sentences about a character who mused about Israel, asking, “What are we to become… A Jewish homeland or an ugly little Spartan state?” I thought about how we returned to Israel after an exile that lasted nearly 2000 years. We revived the Hebrew language. We welcomed Jews from all over, from Afghanistan to Yemen. We became the start-up nation, fueled by a Do-It-Yourself ingenuity and creativity. We have a diverse population of almost ten million.
As a writer, I want my novels to reflect a perfected reality, and I want reality to be as redemptive as a novel. But living in the Middle East has crushed my romanticism. Israel still has to act like Sparta, even though since its founding in 1948, we’ve kept dreaming about how to beat our swords into plowshares.
So what have I read during the war? The only book I’ve been able to focus on is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s The Devil Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism. It confirms what I suspected: Israel does not cause antisemitism, but rather, antisemitism causes the demonization of Israel. I’ve come to understand that, before October 7, I lived in denial about the power of that hatred. Now, I can no longer pretend that there are those out there who don’t really mean it when they use the same words that Hitler used. Annihilate. Exterminate. Eliminate.
But it’s wartime and there’s little time for reflection. There’s too much work to be done. A few days ago, I started volunteering at a local school to teach English to junior high school students. They come in the afternoon; elementary school kids study there in the morning. The schools where the kids usually study have been closed because of the threat of Hezbollah attacks. There is also a lack of teachers: many of them have been called up for the Israeli Army’s reserve units while others have moved farther south.
The English teacher, Marina, explained to me that the students do not yet have books or study materials; they’re all stored in the school that is now part of a closed military zone. So Marina set up her computer to project vocabulary words on the board in the front of the classroom. I didn’t bring a computer; instead, I took a photo of the words with my phone and then sat with a group of eighth-grade students in the bomb shelter.
The kids were rowdy, unruly, boisterous. Still, I worried about the words they had to learn for a story: crime, scene, blood, evidence.
I asked the students to write sentences using the words, hoping they wouldn’t write about Hamas or the war. They didn’t. They wrote about criminals, robbers, and detectives.
They laughed. They sang “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” They joked. Some of the kids didn’t have pencils. One asked to go to the bathroom because he didn’t want to read his sentences out loud. I’ve given private English lessons but I’ve never taught in an Israeli school before. I improvised the way a neighbor who owns a second-hand clothing store now guards the entrance of our village, or the way high-powered tech executives are now picking lemons and cherry tomatoes in southern Israel because of the shortage of farm workers.
After school was over, I walked outside and suddenly there was an explosion. The boom sounded close.
“If it is outgoing, you don’t have to worry about it,” my husband always tells me.
Outgoing means Israel is shelling Lebanon. Incoming means a rocket or missile from Hezbollah.
I rode back to my village on the shore of the Mediterranean on my 250-cc scooter, the one I usually ride to the library, and tried to act as if I’m a character in a novel who doesn’t give in to fear.
I thought about the books I want to take out and read once the war is over. I thought about the books I want to write. I thought about the history of the People of the Book and the present moment. Something enormous is happening right now, and I am part of it. I am writing the story of my life. I am writing the story with my life.
Diana Bletter is a National Jewish Book Award nominee and author of several books, including A Remarkable Kindness and The Loving Yourself Book for Women. Her work has appeared in Commentary, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.