He said I should write about a forest of trees.
Our home in Israel, Day 1.
Sirens penetrate the silence of the holiday. It’s a shock. True, we had sat outside that morning drinking coffee and listening to strange rumbling booms. But blind humans that we are, we had no idea that anything serious was amiss. Through the piercing wailing, my husband and I gather everyone: my oldest son who is home from the army for the holiday, my two teenage daughters, and my two youngest boys. We run down to the safe room and shut the door.
The atmosphere is silly and giddy. Some of the kids are scared, but most assume that this is one passing siren, just as it always has been in the past. We have many worries here in Gush Etzion, but rockets aren’t one of them, thank God.
When the booms are heard (Iron Dome in action), we leave the safe room; my husband gathers up our young sons and heads off to shul, ready for the rest of our normal holiday day. My soldier son is much less oblivious than we are; he runs up to his room to check his phone (yes, on Shabbat), for messages from his commander.
And mere moments later, the scene repeats itself. Sirens wail. We, again, run to the safe room. This time my soldier has news.
“My commander lives in Be’eri. They’re butchering people out there. Terrorists are killing everyone, doing whatever they want. This is bad.”
Of course, I hear the words. But as an average skeptical human, I don’t really believe it. My son must be exaggerating. The picture painted in my mind is of a typical terrorist infiltration – one, two, maybe even three Arab terrorists. Surely, Tzahal has the situation under control. My heart remains peaceful and calm.
But it gets worse. The rockets keep coming, the sirens echoing through the streets. My daughter and son-in-law show up with our granddaughter – without a safe room, they have been on a slow mission to reach ours, interrupted only by frantic scrambles for shelter in neighboring houses along the way. They are scared, and so are the rest of the kids. This has never happened before here in Neve Daniel. I notice my son in full army gear. He takes off in our Toyota Sienna, off to drive soldiers out around the country.
By the afternoon, it is clear that this is no ordinary day. We hear more details from my soldier son – a party in a forest, rampaged by terrorists. Rockets falling everywhere. After Shabbat, he leaves for his base. What on earth is happening? With a long post Shabbat dive into the news, a picture emerges: mass kidnappings, murders (100 Jews!), rockets everywhere – we are at war with Gaza.
I sleep that night peacefully, my gun and two fully loaded magazines on my bedside table. I dream usual dreams. This new reality still hasn’t sunken in.
Day 2. Day 3. Day 4.
The reports we hear paint a bleaker and bleaker picture. Every day the death toll rises: 500, 800, 1000 Jews were killed. Each day, we have new worries – terrorist infiltrations, attacks from Lebanon.
My daughter and son-in-law move in as do my elderly parents, who are here in Israel visiting for a few months. We stock our Mamad – first with a bit of water and a bag of pretzels, then with 90 liters (enough to keep us all hydrated for several days), dates, peanut butter, crackers, games, toys, back up lights, reading material, changes of clothes, toiletries – my kids are taking this preparation seriously. I think it helps them cope with the uncertainty.
My son calls us regularly from base, something he has never done before. He knows we are worried, so he keeps us posted morning and night. So far, his unit is practicing training exercises, every day. As a combat soldier specializing in explosives, he’ll be going into the war zone at some point, but who knows when? I am relieved that he hasn’t left yet.
I try to steer clear of the incessant stream of news. Nothing seems to change anyway – it’s just more reports about the horrible events of Shabbat morning. Families murdered, torn apart. Festival goers, running for their lives, being shot and pursued – like scenes out of a horror movie.
Instead, I focus on our town’s English language WhatsApp group for women, where a steady stream of volunteer opportunities are posted around the clock. My kids bake, and I find soldiers who need the pick-me-up of sprinkle brownies. We gather clothing for evacuees from the south, then hangers for the clothing. And I try to keep up life as usual for the family – I am, after all, one of our supposed pillars of strength. I cook regular dinners and we sit down as a family every night, table set with dishes. For my parents, this is an important part of the day.
There are occasional sirens, occasional scares. I take to walking around everywhere I go (which is never very far) as fully armed as possible – my holster is now filled with all of my bullets. While my youngest son rides his bike, I walk along next to him, scouting out possible safe rooms as we progress down the street.
The makolet is short on supplies, but never one to panic about food, I abstain from stress shopping. We’ll eat whatever is available. If there’s no chicken or milk or eggs or bread or sweet potatoes for that matter, we’ll manage without. Still, I find myself shopping again and again in our neighborhood makolet, now full of teenagers and children stocking shelves, taking the places of Palestinian Arab workers. Nothing is done efficiently these days. We are just living moment to moment, in a sea of uncertainty. Who knows what food or baking products we’ll need tomorrow? Turns out, we are never quite prepared.
I have no self-pity, no fear for my own safety — how could I possibly when there are so many people whose lives have been utterly destroyed? How could I feel an ounce of personal pain when 300,000 soldiers have been mobilized to fight the bad guys? My work and my passions are on pause, like so many others. I take to sorting photos during my free time, an activity which I never seem to have time for in my normal life. Our Summer 2022 photo book is now complete.
At night, I can’t sleep. Ever. I mean, of course, my eyes close and I actually accomplish the physical act of sleep. But it just feels like one long nightmare every night. As news drips in, the reality sinks further and further into my consciousness. One night, I dream of a graphic terrorist infiltration. Over and over. The next night, I dream of rockets falling, of fleeing to our safe room with the children while they rain down around us, of holding them close and trying to keep them safe. I don’t feel scared, but I do feel responsible for my family. And also horrified by some of the images in my dreams. I wake up, put my hand on my gun, and then close my eyes again. When I wake up for the last time, I put my gun on the bedside table and pick up my computer – what happened while I slept?
On Day 6, it really hits me.
Even as I bury my head in the sand, the news reports become hard to ignore. Babies beheaded, people raped, families unspeakably tortured. And those are the ones who are already dead. What of the ones being held captive in Gaza, as I pass my days baking cookies and cleaning up after my 2-year-old granddaughter?
Today is Thursday — could we possibly be going back into Shabbat tomorrow afternoon? For us, Thursday is a day of planning, of looking forward, of eager anticipation. Sometimes we order pizza and have a family movie night. We always plan an adventurous hike for Friday morning. Sometimes we invite guests for shabbat, friends to spend time with. There’s always something going on.
Tomorrow, Friday, there will be nothing. I’m usually so good at inventing fun out of nothing, at turning lemons into lemonade — but do I have any right to do that now? It’ll be just another day in a string of endless days of uncertainty and worry. Days when we imagine that perhaps in a week, our town will be flattened, an apocalypse scenario. Or perhaps in two weeks, this will all be over, but at what cost? Bad things will happen — that we know. We just have no idea what they will be.
We have faith in God — He will protect our people. The divine plan will come to fruition, and that is as it must be. But somehow, although everyone in my family knows this, we are all starting to lose it just a little bit. Teenage and adult temper tantrums pepper the otherwise monotonous tune of that Thursday. The kids get scared when they go to bed at night. I cuddle them close for many extra minutes, hoping that my touch will sooth their fears, at least for a moment.
It is during one of the adult temper tantrums late at night that it’s my turn to be soothed. My husband sits next to me on the bed as I cry. Write, he says. Write about a forest of trees. Trees burnt to the ground. What happens next?
He knows me well. This all too familiar image from nature makes me cry. I have seen forests burned to the ground. It is sad and painful, a beautiful world of life turned to blackened soot. Animals and birds and flowers vanish altogether. But even as I walk along a path rampaged by careless forest fire, one thing remains alive — hope. I feel it deep in my heart, because I’ve seen these very same forests years later. They live again — the pathways fill with sprouting growth, trees that seem to pop up as if out of nowhere, in shades of lively green that never seemed possible in the midst of the darkness. The leftover bark of burnt trees becomes a beautiful element of a complete picture of continuity, growth, and renewal. Life is sometimes very hard, but always, always beautiful.
Hope. That’s the thing that gets us through these days. Hope for a better time. Knowledge that what’s happening now, this unimaginable horror, is, unbelievably, a necessary part of life.
There is so much darkness right now. As humans, we never like to imagine that this is so, that evil truly exists in the world. Now, we cannot ignore it.
One day, God willing, we will breathe the fresh air of peace and freedom once again. Freedom from fear and worry and the raw pain of human suffering. Physical freedom to roam our country. One day, we’ll be back to the beautiful routine of daily life, and, with the help of God, our treasured land will be safe once again.
Is this something I can possibly take for granted?