Grief Enough for All

Predictably, the world has flown apart after October 7th, as tribalism in both directions is driven by escalating emotions. When I post neutral accounts of horrific events on both “sides” of the divide, someone always interprets what I have done as partisanship on my part — as if I am adhering to one or the other “position” in the conflict when I am simply showing that news is underway; that someone somewhere is getting hurt or dying.

So of course, since I promised on my deathbed that if I was allowed to live, I would write what I was most afraid to write, I must complete this essay, though everyone seems to be telling me not to do so.

There is no way, I feel, for a writer to take a position on what is happening, that is simplistic or two-dimensional, though the algorithms on social media, and corrupt leaders on all sides, want us to do just that.

The tragedy is a deeply intertwined one. Media account from one “side” or the other ask you to look at narratives or images as if only one set of truths is taking place. And people are screaming at each other as if only one set of truths can be true.

But in any given conflict area there are a million places one might look at any moment, and see a multitude of injuries, deaths, fear, and great injustices felt, among people on all sides of a divide.

One can’t — I can’t, anyway — from the safety of America, lecture those recently and still under attack in Israel, or those facing attack in Gaza.

The only way for me personally to react to the conflict with any integrity is to hold up a mirror to fragments of my own memory and reflect the broken, enmeshed, entangled, impossible nature of this history and this conflict — and to observe these fragments with a prayer that some kind of history moving toward some kind of peace might become somehow less impossible.

I don’t know a lot of reporters who have lived in Israel as civilians, as I have, and who have also travelled through the Palestinian Territories, as well as through other countries in the Muslim world.

What I learned is that there is grief enough for all.

I was a six year old in Jerusalem in 1968-9, when my father brought us to live in Israel for a year; he had a Sabbatical, and he wanted to teach us about our Jewish heritage. I remember three months of not having any idea what was going on around me in class — since I was put right in with Hebrew-speaking classmates — and then, almost on a specific day, the structure of the Hebrew language coalesced in my consciousness in a multidimensional way, and I found myself suddenly bilingual.

I remember my young mother warning me with unusual severity not to pick up bright toys in the playgrounds, because terrorists had recently disguised explosives as toys. This was the first time my parents had ever warned me of anything serious, and I remember being baffled that anyone would want to hurt a child.

I remember the golden sun on Rehov HaRav Berlin — the warm smell of the pine trees in our apartment’s dusty garden; and the feel of the golden Jerusalem stone, also warm, with which everything at that time was built, in what was called the New — that is, the Israeli —- part of the city. (The “Old City” is mostly Muslim, but it also has Jewish and Christian quarters, and it is enclosed behind 16th century Ottoman-era walls.)

I recall burying our two light-blue budgerigars, dead from the heat, in a tissue box, underneath one of the green-scented trees.

There were old people everywhere, at that time, who still wore their 1940s-style European clothing in this 1960s, Middle Eastern context: old men in heavy dark jackets, with belted trousers —though they had yielded to the new country’s climate by donning white undershirts beneath their jackets. The old women from Europe wore floral dresses, and dark shoes with straps. When you went inside their homes, you would see the mechanical shades drawn against the sun, and heavy wooden furniture, and lace doilies under plates of cookies, and lacy antimacassars on the top edges of fuzzy upholstered chairs. You would feel grief as still and heavy as a shadow.

These elders spoke in heavily German- or Yiddish-accented Hebrew. They often had tattoos of numbers on their arms.

A child would glimpse the tattoos when the elder moved a pot of tea in his or her home, or when the old gentleman who ran the candy store at the end of our street reached up for a jar of chocolate-coated marshmallows on a high shelf.

My mother explained later, in a hushed tone, what the tattoos meant, and again I wondered that the world, into which I had been born so recently, was so cruel. And why, I wondered, had the people to whom I understood that I belonged, been targeted in this way? How was that possible?

I remember my mother arriving home one afternoon in February, 1969, in shock, her eyes wide, her face pale, her curly, then-black hair seeming almost electrified. My distraught father tried to downplay in front of the children what had happened to her. She had been about to enter the “SuperSol”, the local supermarket, and a terrorist bomb had exploded, killing two Hebrew University students inside and wounding nine shoppers. As I remember this, she described the glass shattering outward before her face.

I thought how close I came to having lost her.

I remember a family who were proprietors of a well-stocked shop in the Old City; a distinguished Muslim family that had lived for generations in that part of Jerusalem. They were friends of my parents’. When I went into the Old City’s fragrant alleyways with my mother and father, we always looked forward to dropping in to visit them. The shop was spacious, and dark in its lofty corners. It was piled high with stacks of colorful embroidered dresses, and white keffiyehs; with baskets of red- and saffron-colored spices, and with heaps of packets of vanilla-scented halvah; with blue-glass beads to ward off the evil eye, and with carved olivewood souvenirs for Christian pilgrims; and with all manner of other treasures.

I recall sitting on a tooled-leather pouf while my handsome, bearded father talked to the patriarch of the family, and my lovely mom, in her trendy, bare-shouldered, color-block dresses, chatted away with the mother — a woman a bit older than she, who for her part wore a long embroidered dress and a headscarf. No one seemed bothered by the cultural differences.

We looked forward to the delicious amber tea with springs of fresh mint, heavily sweetened, for which the father would always call when we stopped by; it was brought in by a boy magically swinging the steaming, filigreed silver teapot and cups from a long-handled tray, without spilling a drop.

I did not understand why we were all enemies, or how that had come to be.

When I was twelve, in 1973, we returned to Israel again, for another year. This time my father was teaching at Hebrew University, and we lived in a modern flat on Rehov Tshernechovsky. I entered sixth grade, at least this time able from the start to communicate with my classmates.

In October 6, the Yom Kippur War broke out.

My brother and I were in our flat; our mom had not yet arrived the country and our father was at the front, reporting on events. A babysitter was looking after us until our father could return; but the sitter had stepped out.

A powerful siren sounded — there was a sudden urgent knocking at the door — and the neighbors dragged my brother and me to the basement bomb shelter. All of the newer Jerusalem apartment buildings had these shelters. Our building’s was dark and damp, and it was very frightening to be there, sitting on benches against the walls along with all of the building’s inhabitants, tensely waiting for we knew not what.

I was old enough to understand now what it meant that we were at war. Preteens like those in my class — indeed everyone — was enlisted in the war effort. We helped to pile sandbags in our school to absorb the possible impact of bombs, and we taped duct tape across the school’s plate -glass windows in a checkerboard pattern, to keep the glass from injuring us too much if it shattered.

Teenagers were taking over postal routes because the postmen were at the front.

My girlfriend Gina and I listened for hours to a quickly-released hit LP — Songs from the Yom Kippur War — whose melodies were instantly everywhere. They were emotional, patriotic songs. “Letter to Mother.” “The Last War.”

At every hour, on the hour, you would hear – even on city buses – the radio update: “Kan kol Israel miyerushalaim.” “Here is the Voice of Israel, from Jerusalem.” Then the war bulletins would be read out to apprehensive listeners.

I was moved by being part of the war effort, which stirred us all and which immediately united the country. I bonded with Israel with a passionate love that year, and was absorbed into a friend group — a “hevreh” — and experienced friendships that changed my life. Life as a near-teenager in Jerusalem in the early 1970s was uplifting, intensely social, deeply affecting.

We learned about the boatloads of Holocaust refugees who had no where else to go until they were admitted to Palestine; we learned about the Irgun — a Zionist paramilitary organization active in Mandate Palestine — as heroes. We learned about the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 as a glorious day of independence, when Jews, tortured for millennia worldwide, at last had a refuge to call our own, and we at last could build up what we learned about as being our land. We learned about feats of agriculture and industry that had turned the nation into a modern powerhouse.

But even as I was moved by the patriotism around me, and fiercely loved “the nation” — “Haaretz” — I wondered a bit at what I was not learning. We learned English and Spanish as extracurricular languages, for instance, but not Arabic.

We went to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust memorial, on field trips, and to see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum, and we looked at Roman ruins and Crusader ruins and Saracen ruins. We did not learn about the now-vanished Arab villages, or about the songs, artwork, or religious texts, of the people who lived among us and also near us on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, who were known as Palestinians.

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