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. 

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 have new thoughts all the time, my mind is in over­drive. But in the last week or so, my thoughts return repeat­ed­ly to the ques­tion of time. My own days are extreme­ly long. When I wake up, I grab my phone – like we all do – and I pray with­out even think­ing that I have not wok­en to the death of a sol­dier I know. Even though I also know that the death of any sol­dier is some­one else’s sol­dier they know.” There is still that sharp relief, felt in the top of my chest, when the names I encounter are unfa­mil­iar. Guilt accom­pa­nies the relief. 

But once the pho­tos are added to the ini­tial death announce­ments online, then it will mat­ter less that I don’t know these indi­vid­ual sol­diers. It will be unbear­able regard­less. There are trag­ic deaths of reservists, in their thir­ties and for­ties; how­ev­er, the major­i­ty of the pho­tos fea­ture young men in their manda­to­ry ser­vice, ages approx­i­mate­ly eigh­teen to twen­ty-one years old. A minute ago they were in high school, coun­selors in one youth move­ment or anoth­er. I notice how many were lead­ers in Tzofim, the Scouts, because my son, Shai, has been in the Scouts since sec­ond grade. When I see the pho­tos, I know sud­den­ly that so many of our pho­tos of Shai – an Israeli now for nine years – are the same pho­tos these par­ents have. 

A nine years old set­ting out for his first overnight with the Scouts, with his big­ger-than-him back­pack; Shore­sh water san­dals attached by vel­cro to the side of the pack; brown Blund­stone boots on his feet (when his feet were still grow­ing, we argued about buy­ing fake or the expen­sive real thing, and he set­tled for fake); the required hat on his head, usu­al­ly a kova tem­bel, like he is a pio­neer plant­i­ng orange trees in the ear­ly years of the state. In the back­pack are lots and lots of snacks that won’t melt in the sun (no choco­late unless it is spread on a roll that will be eat­en first thing in the morn­ing), and a can of tuna and pick­les, and a box of cut-up pep­pers and cucum­bers. Bug repel­lent and sun­screen while they are still young enough to allow their par­ents to help pack and orga­nize. An emp­ty plas­tic super­mar­ket bag, prob­a­bly with a crum­pled receipt at the bot­tom, for dirty or wet clothes. A sid­dur, a prayer book. After the age of thir­teen, tefill­in for the morn­ing prayer. On the out­side of the back­pack that is big­ger-than-he-is, a light rub­ber mat rolled tight, to put under­neath the sleep­ing bag, with a name marked on it, maybe a phone num­ber. The sleep­ing bag usu­al­ly goes in a sep­a­rate bag that goes under­neath on the bus. Three liters of water. Required.

These kids have all tak­en the same trips, the same overnights. They have sung lots of the same songs, chant­ed the same chants. They have first been the campers, and then the old­er campers, and then – so quick­ly – they have become the coun­selors. Last sum­mer, Shai for­ward­ed me the record­ing a moth­er sent him after the first overnight for his third-grade campers: Lis­ten, Shai,” she said, you will go far in life. I know this because I saw every­thing you did for my son. He came to the activ­i­ties week after week because of you. There is no way I can thank you enough.” 

I remem­ber Shai’s admi­ra­tion for his coun­selors, and how grown they looked to me as he climbed onto bus­es in the fall, win­ter, spring, sum­mer. I nev­er feared because those teens were as trust­wor­thy as could be. Over the years, Scouts became Shai’s sec­ond home. And this is why, now, every morn­ing, I pray that the fall­en not be from Jerusalem, that they not be from south Jerusalem, that they not be from Shevet Masuot, that they not be pre­cise­ly those boys who helped hoist back­packs too big for Shai and too big for his friends, that passed down their scarves and their uni­forms and their con­fi­dence and love. Their wis­dom on grow­ing up. So when I see the pho­tos that the news­pa­pers and the fam­i­lies and friends post lat­er in the day, I am sim­ply see­ing trans­la­tions to some­one else’s city, some­one else’s neigh­bor­hood, youth group, and so on. And then the pain is less close for me, true, but I know it is out there trav­el­ing and set­tling on some­one else. 

That is wak­ing up. Then there is tak­ing in that first dose of news. There is inur­ing myself against the work­ings of my own gov­ern­ment; what­ev­er new incen­di­ary com­ment, accu­sa­tion, prophe­cy, or offense; what­ev­er new bot­tom peo­ple in charge have reached. As a friend said to me – there is no trig­ger like the trig­ger of look­ing for the adults in charge who will keep us safe and find­ing … no one. Of course we feel sick to our stom­achs. Of course there is no way to feel better. 

Then there is the hour of get­ting chil­dren off to school. You see a lot of fathers on the street push­ing strollers with huge guns strapped to them. Now, with a daugh­ter in the army, I under­stand a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly. You aren’t allowed ever to be sep­a­rat­ed from your weapon. It’s an unac­cept­able dan­ger. Dur­ing her basic train­ing in Sep­tem­ber, my daugh­ter called me one night from her base in the south. She had tak­en out her con­tacts and was already in her glass­es, and a fad­ed red sleep T‑shirt I had just washed when she was home, and she was brush­ing teeth while talk­ing to me, with her phone propped up against a mir­ror or shelf. I looked clos­er and I saw she was wear­ing two guns strapped across her in a V, because her friend was in the show­er. I took a screen­shot. To hold the dis­so­nance. My child, respon­si­ble for guard­ing oth­ers, bur­dened by two auto­mat­ic rifles. Heavy, she says. Even with­out ammunition.

On the streets, you see these armed fathers push­ing strollers and there is no cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. Which, I notice, is itself weird. And you know they are home either for the day or they are head­ed back to the war. Which is about an hour or two away. Time is linked to dis­tance. And both are very, very short.

You see the kids head­ed to school. You see the par­ents in traf­fic. And I think about what my daughter’s ther­a­pist, wise woman that she is, said to us on Fri­day: yes, there is a war here. There have been many wars here. And there is trau­ma now. There is trau­ma around all vio­lence. But it is impor­tant to rec­og­nize, she says, real­ly to take in, that peo­ple here make good lives. That in spite of the vio­lence and the trau­ma, it is not a dys­func­tion­al soci­ety. There is con­struc­tive activ­i­ty, there is laugh­ter and light. There is love. And that is not only a sign of denial. Not only a sign of a peo­ple dis­con­nect­ed from its own deep loss­es and strug­gles, cal­lous to its involve­ments in oth­ers’ loss­es and strug­gles. It is also a sign of health. 

I would add to what she said, that the bal­ance is ten­u­ous. The bal­ance between denial and recog­ni­tion, between the poten­tial immoral­i­ty of accept­ing vio­lence as a sta­tus quo and the gen­uine moral­i­ty of lov­ing life, between forced accep­tance and cho­sen com­mit­ment – all these bal­ances are secret and mys­te­ri­ous and con­stant­ly in need of adjustment. 

But as I am eas­ing out of these ear­ly hours of the day, I am assailed by exhaus­tion. Absolute­ly assailed. And I ask myself if it is wrong to get back into bed and just sleep. Because I will still have plen­ty of time lat­er in the end­less day before me to make all my phone calls to the fam­i­lies who have some­one serv­ing on the south­ern or north­ern front, some­one miss­ing, some­one missed. Some­one who is not there to help with cook­ing or home­work or shop­ping or sleep­ing or bathing. And some­one whose absence is like a slap in the face, a con­stant threat. Because real­ly, we don’t know for sure if they will be back. Last night I heard a psy­chol­o­gist on the radio, and she was say­ing, You nev­er tell a child that Dad­dy went to a far­away place because the child could think, Oh, you mean like Haifa? Oh you mean the moon?’” 

No,”she went on, you say, Dad­dy died. He is not ever com­ing back but we can think of him and remem­ber him and look at pic­tures of him on our phone and know that he loved us very much. But he isn’t com­ing back ever.’”

Ever. That is also a word of time. The time that trumps all distance.

So I will have time for those phone calls even if I hide. And sleep while no one else is home. And so some­times I do. And I make my cof­fee at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. instead of at 8 a.m.

But at some point in the day, I will not be able to ward it off. The hostages. The hostages in time. Day one, day two, day three and now, impos­si­bly, day thirty-five.

What are the hostages doing? What are they doing in cap­tiv­i­ty? What does a hostage do? Who are they with? What do they know of what is hap­pen­ing out­side the tun­nels of Gaza? Do they know their fam­i­lies and peo­ple around the globe are turn­ing the world upside down? Do they know their own images are plas­tered to sports sta­di­um walls in Ger­many, to the backs of trucks in Chica­go, to strangers’ pro­file pic­tures? Do they know, can they pos­si­bly imag­ine, that in Helsin­ki, in Vien­na, in Flo­rence, in Dur­ban, in New York as well as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, passers­by stare at emp­ty chairs, at strollers with their pho­tos, at beds with stuffed ani­mals, bal­loons, sto­ry­books? What would they make of this? In Gaza last Fri­day, Israeli sol­diers prayed the shab­bat tefillah through a mega­phone, hop­ing that the hostages would hear the prayer and know that some­one had come to save them. But I won­dered if a hostage hear­ing that and rec­og­niz­ing it would won­der if they had lost their mind, if this was the moment at which they would won­der if they still had a hold on reality. 

Last week at the sol­i­dar­i­ty ral­ly with the fam­i­lies of the hostages, I stood among oth­ers in the dark, in the same place we had stood all year. I wore out a good pair of san­dals in three months, walk­ing back and forth from home to this square to demon­strate against a gov­ern­ment who held democ­ra­cy cheap, who mocked its own peo­ple, who called us trai­tors, and who refused the tes­ti­mo­ny of thou­sands of home­grown and inter­na­tion­al experts who raised the flag of alarm. It turns out dan­ger was danger. 

And now here we stand. But we are far few­er now than we were in the spring. Maybe 200 rather than tens of thou­sands. I stood next to a friend and we held signs with the pho­tos of two young sis­ters, hostages, and I felt sick. Nau­seous. I won­dered if I was going to keel over and throw up from the near­ness to human des­per­a­tion and also, the par­tic­u­lar hor­ror com­ing over the loud­speak­ers: It was the hor­ror of par­ents – good par­ents, capa­ble par­ents – absolute­ly pow­er­less to help their chil­dren. When the moth­er from the south said, It could be your child. Every­one must say, it could be my child,” I felt I knew why so few peo­ple had showed up. Yes, prob­a­bly many were wor­ried about sirens and large pub­lic gath­er­ings in the mid­dle of a war that is, of course, absolute­ly still going on. Rock­ets and all. Maybe the absence of close shel­ter kept peo­ple home. 

But maybe also it was that self-pro­tec­tive instinct, not even con­scious, by which we keep dis­tance from the things we fear so much we can’t even allow our­selves to come close to com­ing close to fear. Hav­ing a child swept out of our arms into the arms of a masked ter­ror­ist, anoth­er ter­ror­ist film­ing, as our child is car­ried away on a motor­cy­cle or tossed onto the back of a pick­up truck, then whisked into the vast under­ground tun­nel net­work. A place from which so few sojourn­ers have returned to tell all. 

Thir­ty-five days of no word. No report. No Red Cross access. No clar­i­ty as to life or death. 

I won­der cease­less­ly: how are the fam­i­lies of the hostages get­ting through time? How have they filled thir­ty-five days and nights, sep­a­rat­ed from the peo­ple they love? 

So many of them have been active and resource­ful beyond any­thing I can imag­ine. My friends Rachel and Jon work tire­less­ly. Since iden­ti­fy­ing that their son was tak­en to Gaza, they have not stopped giv­ing inter­views, pur­su­ing con­tacts in glob­al media, mak­ing and post­ing videos on social media, print­ing signs. They have met with Pres­i­dent Biden; they have trav­eled to the Unit­ed Nations headquarters. 

But that is the time we see. What about the silent, pri­vate time they live in par­al­lel with the peo­ple they love, imag­in­ing them? What about the moments in which they think back to the world before? How have they done it, how have they crossed over from nor­ma­tive life to some oth­er realm of expe­ri­ence that not only can I not imag­ine, I active­ly shrink from imagining?

At the protest, I held the pho­to of that child, and thought about how she was some­where, liv­ing through time (we hope, we hope, she is alive). Because she is a child, I was hop­ing she had enough to eat. I was think­ing that her mind had to have shut down in a vari­ety of ways in order for her to be able to sur­vive. That even if she was fed enough and dressed warm­ly or cool­ly enough, and allowed to wash, and able to sleep, and could stretch her legs and move around, and maybe hear a sto­ry in her native lan­guage – if all these unlike­ly con­di­tions were met – she would still, with every pass­ing sec­ond, be amass­ing trau­ma. Her body is encod­ing it. 

And that makes me think of my own body and my own children’s bodies. 

There is a phrase, I don’t know where I first heard it but it keeps com­ing to mind: skin in the game.” I have skin in the game.” What this means to me is that not a sin­gle con­sid­er­a­tion about the mas­sacres of Octo­ber 7, the kid­nap­pings, the war, the gov­ern­ment dis­as­ter, the vol­un­teerism, not a sin­gle con­sid­er­a­tion, is the­o­ret­i­cal for me. Noth­ing is sym­bol­ic. Noth­ing is less than mas­sive­ly con­se­quen­tial. A col­league of mine read an essay I wrote and said he felt a dis­turb­ing, albeit sub­li­mat­ed, dri­ve for vengeance in what I had writ­ten. It dis­turbed him that I did not write more about the Gazans and only once men­tioned a Pales­tin­ian friend. But he said it from the West Coast of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca. Now, liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia does not dis­count judg­ment and it is fair to say that those at a dis­tance can have a per­spec­tive that is more mea­sured, and per­haps more sub­ju­gat­ed to cer­tain kinds of log­ic. I believe that. My think­ing right now is com­pro­mised. With­out any doubt. But part of the rea­son it is com­pro­mised is because every­thing, every­thing, is at stake for me. And that is a truth as well. Because all my thoughts, my choic­es, my affil­i­a­tions, will be test­ed by reality.

My body is at stake. And my children’s bod­ies, my friends’ bod­ies, my friends’ children’s bod­ies, my val­ues, my faith, my future, my past, every­thing that has ever meant any­thing to me could be emp­tied out just like that and left to drop to the bot­tom of a pit, as if it held noth­ing and nev­er did. 

There are many out­comes of any day right now that could change the givens of my life. And I go into each day know­ing that. Which is why time feels as it does. And which is why my bed beckons. 

This does not mean that there aren’t moments of respite. Thank god, there are. And I am try­ing so hard to fol­low the advice of wise, dear teach­ers and friends who remind me that there is good­ness in this world, and there is beau­ty. And it is okay to feel it. It is good to feel it. I must feel it. A friend unex­pect­ed­ly brought me flow­ers before shab­bat. And my eyes were smart­ing from cut­ting onions when I came to the door, but some­where between the onions and the white and pur­ple lisianthus; between her chil­dren, younger than mine, stand­ing next to her, and my chil­dren, in the army, on the cusp of the army; some­where in between tears of one kind and anoth­er, I breathed in the smell of fresh­ness, of grow­ing things, of things we are allowed to cut and clip and put on our tables to adorn, to add to what we have. I see the flow­ers out of the cor­ner of my eye right now. And they are in a ceram­ic vase that my beloved men­tor gave me as a gift twen­ty years ago. Yes, life is good.

But even as I feel that, the respite is only a respite. I can’t for­get the time, the date, the fear, the frac­tures. And some­one in Cal­i­for­nia might very well be able to for­get all that and take their kids trick-or-treat­ing, or cel­e­brate a recent pub­li­ca­tion, or drink an excel­lent glass of wine, and be free. Free of my news. Free of my Jerusalem. Of my Kib­butz Be’eri. Free of my West Bank. And my Gaza. And my politi­cians. And my friend who is hunger fast­ing until the Red Cross gets access to our hostages. And my friend whose son’s high school prin­ci­pal was killed last night in battle.

I do not feel free.

Today in an invalu­able Zoom meet­ing (how few these are), a schol­ar of phi­los­o­phy who is also an edu­ca­tor for inter­group rela­tions talked with fac­ul­ty from my uni­ver­si­ty about what to expect when we get back to the class­room. When we sit togeth­er, Jew­ish and Arab stu­dents. She said: there can be recov­ery, but for recov­ery to come, the vio­lence would have to be over. And it isn’t. For those of us here in this region, Octo­ber 7 isn’t over and done with. We are eat­en up by its loss­es, its deaths. We are liv­ing with intense fear and anx­i­ety for our­selves and our fam­i­ly mem­bers. We are threat­ened by vio­lence of many sorts. We are still miss­ing our chil­dren and our elder­ly. They are not in their beds where they should be. We can’t sleep at night. Peo­ple take drugs to sleep or, by con­trast, sleep symp­to­mati­cal­ly, so deeply they find it dif­fi­cult to wake up. Peo­ple are still attend­ing funer­als, vis­it­ing mourn­ers. Bod­ies and body parts are still being iden­ti­fied. More than 30 per­cent of our Jew­ish stu­dents are cur­rent­ly in army uni­form, some sleep­ing in tanks, going days with­out show­ers, com­ing home for a few hours break, trav­el­ing from the immer­sive world of war to the new­ly sur­re­al world of home. Many Arabs are afraid to leave their homes. They are torn up with fear and anx­i­ety, too. They are in mourn­ing for their dead, among our dead, and ter­ri­fied by the future.

And here was the crit­i­cal piece: in cir­cum­stances like this, she said, col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty is stronger than usu­al for peo­ple. You wake up and you think, I am a Jew. You wake up and you think, I am Pales­tin­ian. Com­pli­ca­tions to your iden­ti­ty that might imme­di­ate­ly emerge on ordi­nary days emerge far more slow­ly, less read­i­ly. And even more impor­tant, very, very few peo­ple have the band­width for empa­thy for more than one group. Because you feel fear. You sense vio­lence in the air. And while you are still liv­ing under those con­di­tions, it is near­ly impos­si­ble to hold com­pas­sion for oth­ers at the same time. So those nice lit­tle Face­book say­ings, Your heart can break for more than one group at a time,” well, it turns out that if you are liv­ing in the epi­cen­ter of a rag­ing con­flict, your heart might not be able to break for more than one group at a time. 

I def­i­nite­ly know out­liers. Peo­ple who feel as much for inno­cents in Gaza as they feel at our funer­als, our many funer­als. I have heard imme­di­ate sur­vivors of the hor­rors of Octo­ber 7 who not only hold onto the pol­i­tics of peace, but refuse to dis­count the loss­es in Gaza, no mat­ter whether Hamas has refused to pro­tect its own peo­ple or not. These are exem­plary people. 

For myself, I have been hor­ri­fied by the fact that when I see pho­tos from Gaza, I know that I do not want more death, but I am not brought to tears. I’m limited.

Yes­ter­day, my son, six­teen-years-old, with so many old­er friends and broth­ers of friends fight­ing in Gaza, so many alum­ni of his high school and Scouts, he said to me angri­ly, Why in this house­hold do we always care about the oth­er side? Don’t you under­stand how dan­ger­ous it is for our sol­diers?” And then he said the thing that was the tell for me. He said, Even the hostages don’t need the same amount of wor­ry as the soldiers.” 

He said this because he believes, with some degree of log­ic, that Hamas knows the hostages are a card to play and so they will not harm them. But when he said that, I knew he was out of band­width, because any rea­son­able per­son can­not but trem­ble for the fate of baby hostages. My son had run out of avail­able emo­tion. He couldn’t be afraid for the sol­diers and the hostages, let alone any­one on the oth­er side. He only had enough fear, enough love, enough atten­tion, for the young men he is grow­ing up to join. And he was too fright­ened to imag­ine what it might be like to be a hostage. He couldn’t come near to com­ing near to the fear.

Instead, he is con­cen­trat­ing all his pow­ers of mind and heart on very, very young men, the ones who lift­ed the back­pack that was big­ger than he was. He is will­ing them to stay alive, to steer clear of dan­ger. He can’t divide that focus for a moment or some­thing ter­ri­ble might happen. 

We are liv­ing right now in an inten­si­ty of fear that lim­its who we are. It won’t always be that way. And that, too, is a prayer for prayer.

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

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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.