I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the 1985 film, “Plenty.” Meryl Steep stars as a British woman who volunteers as a courier for the French Resistance during World War II. Returning home to London after the war, she finds herself deeply dissatisfied and increasingly mentally unraveled. The plenty or comforts of postwar life never match the intensity of her wartime experiences.
The film spoke to me because I first saw it as a 23-year-old recent college graduate “seeking my identity,” to use a favorite phrase of my psychiatrist father. I was drawn to those 1980s films in which characters planted themselves in the midst of larger-than-life political struggles like “Reds,” about a couple who are American socialist idealists and writers covering the Russian Revolution. I didn’t want a staid life that focused on security or a high salary. And moving to Israel was partly to recapture some of that higher purpose in life. In trying to sell me on the idea, my husband said here I could make a difference. And yet the past 30 years have been lives of plenty in Israel and I didn’t feel my being here made any difference or required any special contribution from me. Until now.
As we mark a month since the war began, life here continues to be supercharged for better and worse. I don’t mean to be blithe and sugarcoat the awfulness of this. There are so many people mourning their dead and worrying about those taken hostages or the safety of their soldiers. There are so many people uprooted from communities besieged by missiles. Some people have lost or will lose jobs. We all suffer from being turned into international pariahs by those who don’t have to stare daily at the posters of the small children held hostage.
Every morning my partner brings me a coffee and tells me “We lost Bolivia/Chile/Honduras,” meaning some other country has recalled their ambassador in protest. The Foreign Ministry has for the first time cautioned Jewish Israelis from traveling abroad. Anywhere.
And yet just breathing the air here, despite the frequent streaks of missiles coloring the sky, feels easier. The many months up to October 7 were ugly times. Family dinners and friendships were marred by noisy disagreements. There was very much an “us,” and “them,” the enlightened and elite against the ignorant and bigoted. Events, like the disruption of Yom Kippur service taking place in Dizengoff Circle, not far from my house, with separate seating for men and women had starkly different interpretations. And now we’re all finally living in the same country reading the same book and seeing the same plotline.
But it’s more than that. And here’s what triggered my thoughts of beret-clad Meryl Streep running around in the French woods: Most people in the world today don’t have the opportunity to live out a cause with clear moral imperatives. There’s an intensity or life force to that which can never be equaled by the daily struggles of trying to get ahead professionally, buying a new apartment, planning the next trip abroad.
For me this war has been about stepping out of my comfort zone and doing something useful like picking avocados for a kibbutz that lost a fifth of its community or spending eight hours sticking ketchup packets into kits for combat soldiers. It’s also been about not staying silent in the face of online critics, but instead to wade into the viral conflict.
There are so many moments when I’ve barely recognized myself and that’s been a good thing. I like this version of myself better. All that past petty chatter in my head — about getting a story published, continuing my nine year-long lawsuit against the co-owner of my building, lamenting that I hate all my clothes or gained weight– has been dimmed down. The internal radio station is broadcasting more important news.
Like everyone, I desperately want this war to be finished and for the country to return to some kind of normalcy. But I’m also hoping that it will result in something shifting permanently inside me. I don’t want to go crazy like Meryl Streep did in “Plenty.” Practically, this means that I want to continue volunteering and so contributing to this place I call home. In a bigger way, I hope we’ll continue to know that despite all our differences and disagreements we’re all equal in the eyes of our enemies.
As a new grandmother, I also think a lot about the effect of this war on the new generation. Recently, as a siren pierced through my Tel Aviv neighborhood, a woman grabbed a tow-haired child and abandoned his stroller on the street as she joined the rest of us running downstairs in a nearby apartment building. We were five strangers — me with a coating of hair coloring glop from the unfinished visit to my hairdresser — caught in a few moments of time. As the woman tried to comfort the child, a man reminisced about being a five-year-old going down to the bomb shelter with his grandfather during the Yom Kippur War.
“I wonder how much of this he’ll remember,” mused the woman.
Not as a formed memory which starts later in life. But infants and small children are greatly affected by any circumstances in which their basic needs for security and love aren’t being met. And children will be parented differently. There’s also a lot more fear being a parent now especially with this war when several young children and even babies were taken hostage. That’s a first for everyone here.
Yet my daughter, the future child clinical therapist, reminds me that people are resilient and adaptable. Most children in Tel Aviv will be fine dodging missiles just as, it seemed, had that man who’d been a child during the Yom Kippur war.
So, on this day, one month into the war, we, on the home front, wait, obsessively watch news and refrain from engaging in many of the pleasures of everyday life. Should we go out for brunch at our favorite restaurant which recently reopened? “I can’t do it knowing soldiers are dying,” my partner says. I can barely concentrate on Netflix or books. My book club and writing group are on permanent hiatus. All I can do at home besides write is crank out food. More and more food. Because food is life-affirming. We hosted a big shabbat dinner, our first in weeks, because being with others feels comforting and right.
As we were cooking the meal, I was surprised by the delivery of a lovely bouquet of flowers sent by my partner’s nephew, a combat soldier in the reserves whose parents live abroad. The note, not addressed to me personally, suggested the delivery was part of a donation by some floral company or individual, a lovely way to link the home front and the warfront.
“To our loved ones, we’re protecting you and strong in our strength. Together we will be victorious.”