On a gorgeous warm fall day in Montclair NJ, I attended a vigil for the release of the hostages kidnapped by Hamas. The long street was taken up with a replica of the now famous Shabbat table, decorated with a white paper tablecloth, the back of each chair graced with a hostage’s photograph, an expression of solidarity, love, and hope.
The three-hour gathering included speeches, prayers, and songs. Politicians issued carefully worded proclamations of support for the hostages’ return, while noting concern for innocent Palestinians, and hoping for peace. The recognition of the town’s diversity coming from the councilwoman and mayor was met with tepid applause, the abandonment of the Jewish people by our friends and allies hanging in the air. It is a deeply dark time of grief and fury, the gloom of the alternate universe I now inhabit follows me, as the world has transformed into a nightmare marked in time – October 7, 2023.
I experienced the pre-October 7th world as a celebration of diversity in the New York Tri-State area; its happy reality found in ordinary daily life, in supermarkets, parks, drug stores, and my daily commute to Manhattan. Whatever separated the residents of different cities and towns fell away on the train, where commuters included people from all races, religions, ethnicities and ages, sharing a ride on a rolling old train, enduring snowstorms and heat, catching up on work or allowing one’s seatmate to put on makeup, meditate or snooze a bit. The commute framed my day, generating a sense of energy and belonging.
Day-to-day routines led to acts of kindness and relatedness. Standing together on the platform, we looked at our phones until the train approached and somehow hundreds of people would board, one person at a time, all of us politely working to avoid the middle three-person seat. We stood for mothers with strollers who traveled during rush hour to get to work and take their kids to school. The ticket collectors waited patiently, or sometimes not so patiently, as commuters struggled with phones or dug into their purses or wallets for cash.
Trauma alters perception. Following October 7th, while on the train into Manhattan I watched myself watching other people, the same people whose differences gave me joy and whose presence transformed a long commute into a comforting experience of humanity. The train ride now is a dark experience of feeling hated and alone; an understanding that in the diversity of the Tri-State area, I no longer belong.
Jewish communal and religious life are now my safe spaces, where I mourn the people killed, and the loss of a world I want, as I try to stay sane in the Hobbesian nightmare of the moment. After the speeches, the singing, and the praying, the vigil organizers encouraged those present to take a small card displaying a photograph of a hostage; of one person to think about and pray for. While standing next to the Shabbat table holding my husband’s hand, a volunteer with the cards approached. I selected a small 2X4 card. I expected to see someone who looked like me, a Jew. I looked down and was surprised to see beneath the heading, “Kidnapped by Hamas,” the face of a 26-year-old Thai worker, from a country I have never been to and know virtually nothing about.
I took in the card and remembered the foreign nationals caught in someone else’s nightmare and resisted an impulse to take another card, a card that met my need to stand with the Jewish people. Instead, I took in the person in the photograph, a handsome young man with a head of thick black hair. According to the Times of Israel he is from the village of Mae Fah Luang and a member of the Hmong minority. He came to Israel in November 2022 to find work to help provide for his family. The war is as absurd as it is tragic, pulling in people unrelated to the conflict.
For those of us deeply connected to Israel the war is a nightmare. It is hard to be Jewish right now and the temptation to withdraw completely into the safety of community is strong. It is however the destiny of the Jewish people to be committed to humanity. I remain devoted to something better than the nightmare upon us. It is a world where my heart, no matter how broken, remains open to the possibility of unity and love, a vision that is God-given, an article of faith that humanity is one, a core tenet of Judaism.
It is a world represented in my love of a crowded commuter train and in a photograph of a Thai national placed on my desk, where our differences are cause for joy and an affirmation of life. It is a vision that is too precious and too true to let go.