Loolwa Khazzoom

In Times of Darkness, Light Shines Brightest

Defiant Jews finding each other

I was born a musician, singing before I started speaking, and as a child, I had an uncanny knack of immediately and perfectly remembering rhythm and dance sequences. So during a tap dance recital, when I was six years old, and the part came where we were supposed to shuffle-ball-step to the right, but only I did that, while the rest of the class did it in a mirror reflection to the left, I stopped mid-shuffle and looked up at my teacher, confused. Through her eyes and physical gestures, she indicated that yes, we were supposed to go to the right during that sequence, but, oh well, everyone else is going to the left, so just go ahead and join them.

That was my first lesson in the baffling truth that despite all the brilliant minds in the world, and all the information in it – especially in this day and age – it is entirely possible to be that one person who gets it, when everyone else does not. Or as Einat Wilf, PhD put it, in her opening remarks at the StandWithUs gathering in Seattle on April 7th, it is possible for one person or group to be right, and the rest of the world to be wrong – effectively flying in the face of what Wilf called “general agreement,” which I think of as a self-referencing, recursive consensus.

Of note, Wilf said, Hebrew journalist Ahad Ha’Am paradoxically took solace in the Christian blood libel against the Jews. As any practicing Jew knows, the Jewish people have an OCD-level obsession with avoiding the ingestion of blood. We are prohibited from eating animal blood, never mind human blood, and for this reason, kosher ritual practice goes to great lengths to salt out and toss out the blood of chicken, beef, eggs, and other animal products, before they are deemed acceptable for our consumption.

The rock-solid assurance that there was zero truth to the blood label claim, Wilf explained – despite it being accepted as common knowledge that Jews sacrificed Christian children and drank their blood – enabled Ha’Am to know that it was in fact possible for the whole world to be wrong, despite being resolutely certain that they were right.

Unfortunately, Wilf continued, as Jews were bombarded by various forms of contempt and antagonism in the societies surrounding them, across the globe and throughout the millennia, with various permutations of the core idea that Jews were evil, many Jews could not help but internalize the hateful messages over time, and wonder if something might in fact be inherently wrong with us as a people or religion.

It was not a big leap to understand Wilf’s anecdote in terms of current events. As my rabbi said a few months ago, when the Jewish community was reeling acutely, not only from the events of October 7th, but from the celebration and vicious anti-Jewish condemnation that followed worldwide, “people are telling us who we are and what we are… and perhaps you are feeling your humanity being eroded as a result.”

It is critically important now, StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein said passionately in her own presentation later in the evening, to practice self-care during this time and to “go where you are wanted, hang around with like-minded people who welcome you, not fight with you, not make you feel small.”

This wise guidance, she shared, came from her parents, who were Holocaust survivors.

Apropos, I had emerged from my idyllic rural nest, in the outskirts of Seattle, and embarked on a 5-hour travel expedition, to get a hit of some of this togetherness with like-minded people – an experience which, true to Rothstein’s words, proved to be uplifting, validating, and invigorating. To be fair, it may have been the cold brew coffee I knocked back at 10:30 p.m., to stay alert while driving home, but I felt so energized after the event, that I could not get to sleep until about 3:30 in the morning.

I had arrived for the preliminary reception, wearing a t-shirt with a massive Star of David emblazoned on my chest – with the English words “Bring them home now” on the outside of the star, and the Hebrew words, “עם ישראל חי” on the inside. Not surprisingly, I was immediately drawn to a woman wearing a long black dress with the words, “Bring them home,” painted in bright red, above the names of hostages, which in turn were painted in bright yellow. The dress reminded me of the incredible hostage dress worn by Sarah Idan at the Oscars party.

This woman’s name was Aviva Jaffee, and being that the dress looked so professional, I was impressed that she had painted it herself, despite never having painted fabric before. “I wanted to wear something important,” she said, explaining her impetus to create.

The names in front, she said, are those of women and girls held hostage, who are hopefully still alive. The names on the back, painted in silver, are those of women confirmed murdered. “It broke my heart to put so many in silver,” she said.

Names of girls and women murdered

Next to the names on the back, Jaffe painted the number 134 in red, then crossed out the “4” and replated it with “3,” sharing that one of the hostages had been confirmed murdered, right after Jaffee had made the dress. The visual of that added detail hit like a knife, driving home the dire situation facing the hostages daily.

Not only did Jaffee confirm that she has worn this dress in public – such as shopping for groceries – despite most Jews feeling too afraid to visibly wear stars of David, but she also revealed that, having served in combat in the IDF from 2015 to 2017, she flew back to Israel in December 2023, to volunteer her service again. “We are here,” Jaffee said passionately. “We are not going to hide. We already did hide; we’re not doing it again. We need to stand our ground, speak up, and say, ‘F*ck you.'” 

Having just released the song, “I’m a F*ck-You Jew,” as part of my band’s new album, Til You Can Dance Againa collection of seven songs in tribute to the victims of October 7th – I could definitely relate and knew I had found a kindred.

Perhaps our respective defiance has something to do with the fact that we both, as we discovered in our conversation, are daughters of Jews by choice – in her case, from Native American and Asian American background, and in my case, from Danish, Irish, and Welsh background. Ashkenazi on her father’s side, and Iraqi Jewish on my father’s side, we giggled about how we represented Israel’s melting pot. “Israel is kind of like America,” Jaffee mused, referencing the vast diversity of the country. “People don’t realize.”

Next I meandered up to a woman also wearing all black, in this case, with three silver adornments – a star of David pin, a necklace the shape of the state of Israel, and a dog tag to commemorate the hostages. She introduced herself as Miri Tilson, the first female president at Sephardic Bikur Holim congregation in Seattle. The daughter of Moroccan and Turkish Jews, many of whom live in Israel, Tilson echoed dismay over the tremendous ignorance about Israel. “So many things about the situation make me want to hit my head against the wall,” she said. 

By way of example, an uncle on Tilson’s Moroccan side lives in Sderot, a border town that is constantly bombarded by rockets from Gaza. White European colonialist Jews? Not so much. Sderot is predominantly Mizrahi, the children and grandchildren of Jewish refugees from throughout the Middle East and North Africa – who fled to Israel, following a wave of Arab violence against Jews, in the mid-20th century.

Like Jaffee, Tilson feels daily heartache on behalf of the hostages. “I check my phone first thing in the morning, to see if they have been released,” she said. “I worry about the hostages – it makes me sick all day long.”

Echoing my own struggles in the wake of October 7th, Tilson shared that she held back from living joyfully, as an act of solidarity with the hostages. She would not dress nicely, wear makeup, go to a restaurant, or even get a latte at Starbucks. “How can I live my life,” she revealed thinking, “when this is what our people are going through? It could have been our own family.”

In my case, I stopped writing poetry, dancing, singing, and playing bass – all essential to my life being healthy and vibrant. As I later wrote in my song, “Dear Hostages,” My instinct is/To deprive myself/Of oxygen/Because you are underground…

Shy of three months into the ordeal, I realized that Hamas wanted not only the direct victims of October 7th to suffer, but Jews the world over. Hamas wanted to break us as a people. 

Once I had that realization, I committed myself to amplifying my celebration of life, and I went from not singing or playing bass at all, to singing until I was hoarse and playing until my fingers almost bled – ultimately leading to the Purim release of my band’s new album.

Similarly, Tilson had an aha moment a couple months in: “This is what they want,” she recalled thinking.

Though Tillson does not consider herself a fighter – “although Moroccan Miri comes out every now and then,” she laughed – she has risen to the occasion, given the current circumstances. “That’s my calling at the moment,” she said, “to stand up and give strength to others.”

“We have to crank up the Zionism around here,” Tilson continued, sharing that together with the local Jewish Federation, her synagogue is planning a Yom Hazikaron celebration, at a scale that Seattle has never seen. Numerous other synagogues declined the invitation to participate, out of security fears, leading the Federation to honor Tilson’s courage by dubbing her “Queen Esther.”

Elegant even when not in costume, Tilson leaned into the royal title and dressed the part a couple weeks ago, for Purim.

My conversation with Tilson and Jaffee, and my experience of Wilf’s riveting keynote during the main event (another article for another time) were like water for my thirsty soul, on the heels of a period that I not only have been in a tremendous state of anxiety about the Middle East crisis, but that I also have felt personally betrayed and abandoned, unmoored and disoriented.

As someone who has defied artificial barriers between humanity – cultivating a lifetime of close personal relationships with people across the spectrum of ethnicities, nationalities, and religions, even during the decades that I was strictly orthodox, I was devastated not only by the massacre of October 7th, and the celebrations that followed, but by the deafening silence by so many people I considered to be part of my community and circle of friends.

After slogging through the trauma for months, I have chosen to reframe the experience in three ways: 

First, it is a calling to dive back into the Jewish world – which I more or less left for certain reasons back in 2010 – and to find my new place in my new Jewish community. Second, it is an opportunity to see who people really are; because in truth, nobody actually changed, but rather, they revealed themselves. And third, it is a clarifying time, where the ride-or-die types are much easier to spot and gather. 

Because during times of Darkness, the Light shines more brightly than ever.

About the Author
Loolwa Khazzoom ( is the frontwoman for the band Iraqis in Pajamas ( and editor of The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage ( She has been a pioneering Jewish multicultural educator since 1990, and her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Rolling Stone, and other top media worldwide.