Esther Altmann

Holding One Thing

Even before sitting in their cafe chairs, the Israeli women I met for coffee were already apologizing, either that they had no reason to complain or that they were not doing enough, often saying both in the same breath. 

The truth is that they had far too many reasons to complain and that they were doing far too much, holding unremitting fear about the safety of loved ones in the army, distress about the hostages, and the excruciating pain of the overwhelming loss that surrounded them. What possible response could there be to such an emotional load? How much loss, anxiety, and distress can one person hold? How does one prioritize one’s own worry list while carrying a whole country’s heartache?

As I listened, the mantra that began running through my head was: You can only hold one thing at a time. 

When your son is fighting in Gaza, that is what you can hold. 

When your husband is in the north, and you are caring for a newborn and three other children, that is what you can hold. 

When your four sons and two sons-in-law are in tunnels and tanks, north, south, and places you can’t imagine yet can’t stop thinking about, that is all you can hold. 

When your 9-year-old son wakes up thinking that people are shooting at him through the window or your 10-year-old daughter needs you to walk her to school because she is afraid that there isn’t a shelter close enough along the route, that is all you can hold. 

When your 3-year-old daughter cries for her Abba, who came home and is now gone again, that is all you can hold.

When you prepare meals for hostage families and listen to their anguish for 127 days, that is all you can hold. 

When you facilitate a support group for survivors of the Nova festival or for 18-year-olds who were locked in a shelter for three days, that is all you can hold.

When you have five grandsons fighting, and one is injured, that is all you can hold. 

When you have led a Oneg Shabbat service in Hostages Square for 18 weeks, that is all you can hold. 

When you are counting the minutes your son will be released from his high-risk unit so that you can walk him down the aisle to his chuppah, that is all you can hold. 

And how do you hold a teenage girl who cannot stop reading the life stories of hostages? And what do you say to your 23-year-old son, who is home for two days before going back to Gaza, or to your neighbor whose son was killed in the war? How do you decide which shiva to attend and which one to forgo? How do you work and do the laundry while holding your breath that your doorbell doesn’t ring next? And how do you manage the traumas from previous wars, acts of terrorism, or sexual assaults that you assumed were safely locked away in the vault of your memory and are now breaking through?  

Israel’s mental health needs are and will be enormous. The heavy psychological toll of holding intense distress requires at least some specialization to mitigate the risk of either being chronically overwhelmed and flooded or becoming numb and shutting down.  

As a psychologist, I know that you can reasonably hold only one overwhelming thing at a time, so I have a fantasy that perhaps this national task of heavy emotional labor can be distributed— hold one soldier, one child with nightmares, one hostage, one grieving parent, or one mother caring for her family alone. A friend shared that she thinks about the hostages each night as she gets into bed and pulls up her cozy blanket.

If you knew everyone was holding someone, could you let go of something? 

It is disorienting to be back in my New York routine after spending two weeks in Israel. I can’t complain, and I am certainly not doing enough. So I am here with this mantra ringing in my ears: You can only hold one thing. Between work and tears, I struggle to follow my own good advice.

About the Author
Esther Altmann, Ph.D., is the Director of Pastoral Training at Yeshivat Maharat and a psychologist in private practice.
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