Galya Gerstman

A World without Goodness Is Unthinkable

I wrote a memoir about growing up with my father, a Holocaust survivor who talked constantly about his experiences during the war, his narrow escapes, the brutal treatment at the hands of the Nazis. The way he discovered how his family died. What I got out of all that, as I’ve previously written, was that being a Jew was something negative, something hateful. It was being an other, an outcast, and ultimately, a victim. I wanted to be none of these, though ironically I was just as much a victim by dint of hiding my Jewishness. Well, I didn’t exactly hide it but I didn’t advertise it either. People often assumed I was of Greek origin, or Italian or Latin, because of my dark hair. Never Jewish because I never mentioned it. And why should I announce to the world I was a Jew, I thought, when it was a very small part of my identity, an almost insignificant one, an accident of birth.

These days, however, I am learning the hard way just how Jewish I am. I am a hated Jew no matter my relationship to Israel, no matter my opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no matter my support for a Palestinian state, no matter whether I am religious or not. I am a Jew, like it or not, in the eyes of the world. But even I am starting to see myself first and foremost as a Jew, in my acute, almost visceral reaction to events in the Middle East. For others, it is viewed with distance, something with no connection to them. They have no dog in this race. For me and those like me, we all know someone, if not someone who in their turn knows someone, who is there, who is directly affected, if only because they have to rush daily into bomb shelters at all hours of the day or night. And those are the lucky ones.

I am also realizing how Jewish I am because before, in my youth, I never wanted to surround myself with other Jews, never wanted to conform to what I saw as a shtetl mentality, always living in fear, I inwardly scoffed, fear of the stranger, the goy. I didn’t avoid Jews, but I didn’t seek them out either. Now, I find myself wanting to be close to my Jewish friends, knowing they feel what I feel, finding comfort in the knowledge that I don’t have to explain, don’t have to defend or justify. Of course, some of my non-Jewish friends have been a great comfort to me, and thankfully, unlike my children, I don’t have to deal with friends who profess that only the Israelis are to blame. For these friends of my children are, like them, young. You see them on college campuses and on the streets, enraged, hoarse with screaming, and absolutely convinced of their righteousness, of their truths, on both sides of the conflict. There is something about being young that enables one to lay claim to certainty in their thoughts and positions and, as a consequence, an unwillingness to listen, an unwillingness to be swayed from their ideas even just a little. There should be a Dunning Kreuger effect with aging rather than intelligence as its parameter, for the older I get, the less sure I am of anything, seeing everything not in black and white but in manifold shades of gray. Indeed, some of my friends of a similar age have voiced their distress at the plight of the Israelis, but also of the Palestinians. I agree with them: the innocent die with the guilty. But whereas for them, the two sides are equal, more or less, I think a large part of that is because the two sides are equally distant from my friends’ lives. Not so for me.

Israelis are no longer the same as they were before October 7th, that goes without saying. But I find that I, in Costa Rica, as far away from the Middle East as one can be, am different too. When I see a baby, my first reaction, as always, is to think “Aww.” Yet now that reaction is immediately supplanted by an image of a beheaded infant. And now, when I see kids playing, I think of them as captives in the clutches of Hamas. Likewise, when I see an attractive young woman, I recall the terrorist caught on video parading a young Israeli woman, bloodstains on the seat of her pants, through Gaza, saying to his comrade that they only took the blonde, pretty ones; the ugly ones they killed. When I go to bed at night, I think of the hostages down in the tunnels. When I wake up in the morning, I think of the dead.

I am no longer who I used to be. My mind goes to dark places, and I have become bitter. Bitter, of course, towards the perpetrators of such vile crimes against humanity, and bitter towards those who support those acts. Bitter even toward a God I was never sure I believed in. How can people still believe in God, at least a benevolent one, I wonder, after such horrors? How could He allow such things? Why wasn’t He there for them? I used to ask my father, who survived the Nazis, the same thing, and he used to answer, “What’s to God is to God and what’s to man is to man.” In other words, this had nothing to do with God. Too true, I would think. With bitterness.

But bitterness is a poison that spreads, and I found myself starting to view the world at large as a threat, as my enemy. I realized I’d begun putting up a wall against even my friends, because they hadn’t asked me often enough how my family is, or because they hadn’t posted on Facebook or Instagram in favor of Israel or at least against Hamas, at least in defense of the hostages. I see now that I was erecting the wall against the world in order to protect myself, because I don’t want to know how many people hate me just because I’m Jewish. And I also don’t want to know if someone I thought a friend thinks the Jews are the problem. Because it would crush me. I already feel beaten down by the venom, both of the terrorists and of their supporters. I couldn’t bear to see that in my friends.

But that is too much darkness and I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be bitter and build up walls. My bitterness, my fear was unfair to my friends, especially to my friends, but also to the world around me. I have to believe that the haters are the minority. I have to believe that the majority of pro-Palestinians are not pro-Hamas. And I suppose that is also the answer to my question about God. It’s holding onto a belief, despite formidable evidence against it. Because what is the alternative? For some, a world without God is unthinkable. For me, a world without goodness is unthinkable. A world without solidarity, a world without love. I have to believe in these things in order to put one foot in front of the other. And luckily I have love, I have friendship, I have all these good things in my life to counteract the bitterness, to dispel it. Instead of walls surrounding me, I have arms wrapped around me, allowing me to hope for healing, for rescue, for peace. This is what the Israelis will need in order to recuperate from their trauma. They will need friends, family; they will need to surround themselves with love. And they will need to believe that things can be right again, good again. That good still exists.

About the Author
Galya Gerstman is the author of the novel Daughters of Jerusalem, based on episodes from her grandmother’s life, to be released Winter 2023-4 by Pleasure Boat Studio Press. She is also the author of the novel Texting Olivia and has had articles published in Scary Mommy, Motherhood Later, and other sites. Galya taught French Literature at Tel Aviv University before relocating to Costa Rica to raise a family. She possesses a PhD in French Literature from Columbia University and a BA in Creative Writing from Barnard College.
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