Both Sons Now

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
— songwriter Joni Mitchell

If nothing’s as whole as a broken heart, it was a moment of hatred, one spring day, that broke mine, and made me whole.

For there are wars, and wars. Some get engraved in our flesh and blood, via knives, axes, bullets and bombs. Mines, stones, and mortar shells, and missiles everywhere. Tunnels and drones, guns, grenades, and rockets in the air.

Others are fought without a sound, out of earshot and out of sight, on invisible inner battlegrounds.

* * *

One spring day when the skies were baby-blue, clouds drifted sweetly, and fragrant trees were reborn and blossoming, a sleep-deprived mother, running on E for Empty, her six-year-old in tow, was rushing out to catch the cheder-van. Mentally composing her note to his rebbe in case they missed it (the second time this week), when something across the neighborhood playground caught her eye and she stopped short.

A warm flame of maternal longing, despairing and happy, had flashed through her.

Danny??

Danny!

Her brain was embarrassed by its own confusion. Danny’s nowhere in the vicinity, silly. He’s not even that age anymore.

But her heart had already flooded.

* * *

Sixteen. Maybe seventeen. That teenage cool, and adolescent grace. Engrossed in conversation.

White shirts, black pants…standard garb in their charedi neighborhood. Danny and Avi walking together. Childhood friends, on the way to yeshiva.

Her mind paused, stumbling over itself a little, then regained balance. What was it he’d said last night? “Up north. In Haifa.” Or near Haifa? She’s pretty sure that’s what it was. Near Haifa.

She’d dozed off on one of the kitchen chairs, waiting for the weekly 10 p.m. call from his base – no cellphones in those days – when the brrllrrling brrrlllrring of the phone blasted like a rocket through the thin membrane of some restless, anxious dream. “Danny! Sweetheart! I’m so happy to hear from you! Where are you?” (Refraining consciously – a form of abstention – from the more selfish I’ve been going out of my mind! I’ve been so worried about you! You said you’d call!)

“Everything’s fine. Nothing to worry about, Mama. We’re up north. Hakol be sheket.”

‘Really, Danny? I’m so relieved! Daddy will be so happy. Where are you?

“We’re up north right now.”

“You mean Haifa?”

“Right. That general area.” Over the crackling connection. “Sorry I couldn’t call earlier. How are you, Mama? Everything’s good?”

“We’re all fine, Danny. How are you? Where are you?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine. Nothing to worry about. How’s everyone? How’s Daddy? Is he home? Can I speak to him?”

“Daniel, Daddy’s in kollel.”

“Yeah, yeah, of course. I forgot. Listen, so everything’s good?”

“Fine, darling. Where are you? I’ve been calling the number you gave me but nobody answers.” The unsaid: I’ve been going out of my mind!

“Up here the connection doesn’t work so well, I know. So don’t worry about that.”

“So Daniel, give me the new number, ok? What is it? I’ve got a pen! What is it, Haifa? Area code 04? Dani?” Commotion in the background. Shouts. “Danny? What’s all that noise?” She hears herself waxing irrational, wanting to shout, Don’t you dare scream at my son like that! I’m his mother! “What’s the number, Danny, go ahead! Danny?”

“Right. The Haifa area…”

“Who’s that yelling? Can’t you move away from them? I couldn’t hea–!”

“Mommy, so listen I love you. I’ve got to go. Give my love to everyone!”

* * *

From across the grassy expanse of yard, she’s drinking them in. Fifteen, maybe sixteen…still children, really…strolling this way, that way along the path. In and out of the light-dappled shade…Her son’s adolescent shyness, that she had always loved…Black white, black white, underneath the trees.

One fair, one dark. One tall. One short. Like Danny and his friend Avi. On their way to yeshiva after dovening.

In and out through the flowery shade, coming toward her now along the path….In and out of the dappled light, through springtime they’re walking.

Heads inclined one toward the other, walking through the leafy light-dappled shade. Impossibly young, and fair. Pure-hearted, idealistic boys.

No reason, of course – walking along purposefully through the green and pink dappled shade – to notice her, one of the neighborhood mothers. Up ahead of them on the path. Rooted there like one transfixed, staring.

They’re coming closer now.

And then – as blithely unaware of her as she is hyper-aware of them – they pass around her. And past her. Like water around a rock.

And for some reason, that’s when she gets it, and with a jolt wakes up. Understanding strikes like lightning, though actually, it had been striking all night long, ‘til the rising of the sun. She’d just chosen to believe the lie.

Up north.

That’s Lebanon, stupid!

Nothing to worry about, very quiet up here. Mommy, can I speak to Daddy?

How could she be so thick?

Lebanon!

Forbidden to reveal the unit’s location over the phone, or he hadn’t wanted to worry her. Couldn’t lie to her, either, though: he knows his mother, how she absolutely detests lies. No tolerance for deception. Insistence on following his own star, as she follows hers…Like mother, like child…

So young, impossibly young. He used to remind her of some sort of dandelion, long-stemmed and gangly, ungainly, inward-looking, unconscious of his own beauty. Leaning here into the wind, and now there. Sometimes in light, sometimes in shadow, inwardly responsive to every breeze…searching for himself. His learning…what she’d always wanted… children who were by nature truth-seekers. Making his way through that magical frontier, the unexplored frontiers, the promising wilderness of no man’s land, post-bar mitzvah. That minefield of unknowns, shimmering with hope, philosophical questions, fear, ambitions. All life ahead of him.

His neat and tidy frame. Goodness under cover of cool…The ill-concealed vulnerability and uncertainty. The teenager’s pretense of casual insouciance. Impossibly swift, and young.

His affectation of indifference covering tenderness, sensitivity. The light that she as his mother saw, under his translucent cover-ups.

Mommy, Daniel had told her, when I get called up, I can’t not go. You and Daddy have to know this, I’m going in.

He and Avi were drafted.

And half a year later, when he was home on leave, the first cannonball: Mommy, you have no idea how much my friends in the unit hate charedim.

But Daniel, Torah is the lifeblood of our survival, through the centuries. Our belief in G-d is our power, as individuals and as a Nation, and enables us to prevail over the hatred of our enemies, one after the other, that have sought our destruction, generation after generation.

But she hadn’t found those words.

“Mommy! Come! The bus is here!”

The voice at her skirt, pulling her into the day.

* * *

Who were they, those two? She finds herself awake that night, wondering. From around here? If the tall one’s mother (maybe I know her?) is by some chance awake right now, her insomnia’s not my insomnia, that’s for sure. Not my brand of torment. (The floodwater takes a turn now, to bitterness.) My son’s off fighting Arabs in some horrible place too horrible to name! But if she’s up at this hour it’s for some normal, nicer reason. A child teething….a child climbing into her bed…or a newborn. (Sarcastic thoughts hiss around her now like bullets.) That boy, in black and white, oh…the sun rises, the sun sets….He’s safe and sound, shooting the breeze in the Holy City, strolling along after dovening! Walking along with his childhood friend under the nice leafy trees, preparing for the morning gemora quiz! Not for that mother, some crazy phone call from Up North! My son’s undergoing a different test! As am I! Does she think G-d forbid that mine’s less deserving of a mother’s protection? Not entitled to peace and quiet for learning, the way hers is? Huh? Is that it? I’d trade my insomnia anytime for five minutes of her Tehillim! Oh, you need his name for dovening? No problem! Ask Hashem to bring home Daniel ben Sarah. But I warn you, lip service will not be tolerated, Pray for my son as if he were your own! Because I’ve got news for you: he is.

And for me, too, please, daven. No name necessary. Just say I’m one of our Nation’s thousands of parents thrashing around half-crazed all night. Hashem knows who I am.

* * *

OK, G-d knew, but did I? Where did they come from, such un-sacred thoughts, shooting around through the mind of a kollel wife, whose daughters (and now granddaughters) were Bais Yaacov girls…whose 6-year-old cheder boy, even at that moment, was tugging at his mother’s skirts, pleading, “Mommy, come!”

Who was I, entertaining such thoughts? The same Jew who as a girl had turned her back on America’s secular privileges and pleasures and made aliyah? Whose first destination upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in 1976 – even before construction of her spiritual scaffolding had gotten seriously under way – was the Wall she’d seen pictures of in National Geographic? She wanted to say Thank You G-d!

Amazing what a few sleepless nights can do to someone for whom Torah (typing this on my laptop a few decades later) was, and is, the central pillar of her life. She wondered sometimes: If Nachal Charedi had existed back then, could that have made a difference? Oh, come on, don’t torment yourself. Upon induction into the IDF, your child entered a different world. A different ambiance and society altogether. Shabbos observance? Ha! That was just the first thing to go. Did you expect mechitzas, too, perhaps, for the boys and girls in training? Anyone for a Parasha shiur, out on the battlefield?

Was it I who had once politely asked the innocent American Parent’s classic Bonus Question: How will my observant son hold onto Shabbos along with his machine gun?

ANSWER: (Ha ha!) He can’t!

Oh, to regain my innocent faith in the unity of the Jewish People!

Yes, for she was I and I was she: a religiously observant Jewish mother as pierced to the core by her secular Israeli counterpart’s insensitivity, as my counterpart was pierced to the core by me. Figments of each other’s imaginations…whose lack of compassion, understanding, and respect, aroused each other’s envy and disdain.

Standing on the sidewalk, an expanding bubble of maternal watchfulness…It was in those moments that I was shattered, a microcosm of our divided Nation. To hate that boy’s mother was to hate myself, and be at war with myself.

Right side, left side.

A house divided against itself cannot stand, as the American Abraham famously proclaimed.

* * *

Light years have passed since that morning on the path, when shrapnel from my maternal love ricocheted off and struck a person of my own invention. But that memory – of my highly personalized hatred for a part of myself who existed only in my imagination – is instantly retrievable; no search engine necessary. It was a turning point in my life.

For that’s when I earned my stripes, as a Jewish Mother in the Jewish State. With a glimpse of myself through another mother’s eyes, I became whole in myself, and wholly myself, by becoming someone else. I got a new heart, a broken heart….Left side, right side, big enough for us all.

About the Author
Sarah Shapiro is an author and editor whose most recently published books are "Wish I Were Here: Finding My Way in the Promised Land" and "All of Our Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Writing."
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