On Sunday, the town where I live hosted a Bring Them Home Now vigil, complete with speakers, prayer, Israeli-flag-draped participants, and a table stacked with black, white and red Bring Them Home Now T-shirts for sale. The centerpiece of the vigil was the (already famous) empty Shabbat table, lovingly and elegantly set for 200, with the names and photographs of the kidnapped hostages affixed to the empty chairs. At one end of the long table was a display of empty baby-strollers, representing the babies held captive by Hamas. On the other end, a display of small, blindfolded teddy bears. If you’re heart wasn’t already breaking before you got there, a display of blind-folded teddy bears on the other end of the long Shabbat table was guaranteed to break it into shards.
I must confess, though, that though I wouldn’t have so much as considered skipping the event—solidarity in times of horror—once I got there, I was rather meh. But not because the event wasn’t significant or without symbolic power. Kol hakavod for those who organized it and brought it to our streets and will no doubt be bringing it to many other communities as well. Yasher koach for those who thought it up to begin with. Thank you to the many speakers, setter-uppers, and our local police who kept an eye out to keep us safe.
Talk about cognitive dissonance. Because here we all were, members of our three local synagogues as well as others who’d come to pay their respects, waving to each other across the table, taking snaps and videos, enjoying the warm sunny day, and despite the gravity of the occasion, doing what we Jews almost always do when given a chance: shmoozing. How are the kids? The grandkids? How was your trip to Portugal? The new hip? That wasn’t all of course: plenty of people were rendered duly miserable and therefore all but mute by the awfulness of what brought us together. As for myself, I could barely talk at all. Words seemed so insufficient, and even if they weren’t, what more was there to say? This wasn’t some impoverished town in some god-forsaken state that worships Elvis: this was the chattering-classes suburbs of New York, complete with its (generally extremely informed) chatterers. I myself have taken to reading three newspapers a day, which is really nuts, particularly considering that 1. I’m not worried, angry and worked up enough? and 2. they all report much the same thing, with sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle differences around spin and commentary. (My newspapers of choice are the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Times of Israel.)
The vigil was followed by a concert at our synagogue by the magnificent American String Quartet, with a program of work by Franz Schubert and Ernest Bloch. The concert had been planned months earlier, and thus had no connection or meaning vis-à-vis either the day’s vigil or the larger backdrop of fear, death and misery. It was a quiet Sunday in the blissfully quiet suburbs: why shouldn’t the place be packed? The music was magnificent. Art lives!
Art lives; so does hope; so does decency, kindness, generosity. But even here in the most successful (if extremely flawed) democracy on earth, a country that welcomed my great-great grandparents just as the Civil War was winding down and has welcomed and nourished generations of my family ever since, we Jews seem to be flocking more tightly together. Not for safety in numbers, I don’t think. But rather, because when someone in your family dies, someone you love and cherish, and who you assumed would be around for a good long time to come, you don’t much want to have to explain yourself—the way you feel, the complexity of your relationship to the departed loved one—with outsiders. You keep it in the family, and in the family circle.
We grieve, how we grieve. And yet the sun still shines and new people keep appearing on earth, swaddled in blankets and smelling like magic. My own first grandchild was born as dawn was breaking on a Friday in October, and our entire family woke to the joyous news. The next day was October 7.
How do you celebrate the wonder of life at such a time as this? I don’t know. All I know is that it’s worth a shot.