As thousands gathered for Eli Kay’s funeral, on November 22, 2021, one could almost be forgiven for believing the recent New York Times article profiling Israel as a dismal and frustrated country. Though a tongue in cheek social media campaign panned the article with ironic posts detailing the beauty and warmth of “sad, sad Israel,” neither humor nor irony were present at Monday’s funeral. Murdered by a Hamas terrorist who opened fire (and wounded an additional two civilians and two border police officers) in Jerusalem’s Old City this past Sunday, Kay was described by friends and loved ones as a bright soul whose death left an unfillable void in the lives of those who knew him.
In the parking lot of Jerusalem’s Har HaMenuchot cemetery, the familiar faces of grief gathered in place. Friends from childhood, army buddies, reporters, politicians, and the many who never knew – and will never know Eli, but who felt his soul call out to them.
If you live in Israel long enough, this scene can become unbearably familiar. In a tiny country, everyone knows someone who was killed or who knew someone killed at the hands of terror. Tears stream freely as mourners speak in hushed uncertain tones, their cracking voices betraying deep heartbreak. Sad, sad Israel.
But only for those who are tone deaf.
An hour before the funeral began, the growing crowd, bolstered by the young students spending their year in yeshivas, seminaries, and other gap year programs, began to raise its voice in song and wrap their arms around each other. Ancient Jewish lyrics of belief, steadfastness, resilience, and unity filled the cold concrete plaza and the heavy silence of an unanswered “why?”
“The family,” the first speaker announced when the singing ended, “requests that no eulogies be delivered. Only words of strength.”
Don’t be sad for Eli,” his brother Kasriel said, “but think about what you can do, in your own way, to keep the light of his memory alive while strengthening the country and People he loved.
Inspired by this charge, my colleagues and I set out the next day from Jaffa Gate down to the scene of his murder. In our hands was a bright pink bag from the nearby Roladin bakery, filled with sufganiyot donuts, for the security forces stationed in the area.
Unlike in Gaza, where Hamas terror supporters distributed sweets to celebrate the cold blooded murder of Eli, we passed out donuts and kind words in a celebration of life; remembering the light that Eli was to so many, and thanking the brave defenders whose instincts, quick actions, and selflessness saved countless innocent lives from the spray of terrorist bullets.
A symbol of the soon-to-be Hanukkah holiday, the deep fried sufganiyot recall the miracle of the oil that defied expectations and continued to light up the nights. Together with the Hanukkah candles, these two symbols remind us of what Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi once said, despite times of darkness, war, and persecution, “a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness.” And they sweeten the bitter flavor of loss with the taste of life.
Indeed, Jews as a whole and Israelis in particular, have an intimate knowledge of sadness, but long ago, we learned to smile through the tears. We have lived through countless trials and tribulations, yet we have always found our way to light a path through the darkest of times with our hopes, belief, and perseverance.
Eli’s horrific murder is another chapter of darkness for us, but the image of his bright smile, the stories shared by his friends and families, and the legacy of kindness and compassion that he leaves behind are a tiny candle that we now use to dispel the darkness and bring in the light.