Shira Pasternak Be'eri
Living and loving in Jerusalem

Inside our collective trauma

The day will come when 'how are you?' will no longer be a loaded question. That day is not here yet
Photo courtesy of Yoram Kohen
Photo courtesy of Yoram Kohen

Ever since the murderous Hamas onslaught from Gaza in southern Israel, our friends and family from abroad have lovingly been reaching out to us, asking how we are, showering us with concern and solidarity, and making us feel seen and held.

But in Israel today, “how are you?” is a loaded question. Even among ourselves.

Here in Jerusalem, I’m managing, but I’m far from okay. My three soldiers are not in physical danger, I’ve experienced relatively few missile alerts, and I can get to a bomb shelter within the time allotted when one sounds. But in Israel, there are next to no degrees of separation between us and the victims of the murderous rampage.

My next-door neighbors buried their son Aner, who went to a music festival in the desert and found himself in a shelter, lobbing seven grenades back at terrorists until the next one took his life. Across the street, the Troens lost their sister and brother-in-law, Shachar and Shlomi, who were murdered in Kibbutz Holit, where my friend Hannah’s brilliant son Hayim was also struck down in his home. The grandson of my husband’s colleague fell while fighting terrorists who slaughtered over 100 people in a kibbutz that shares my last name. And my cousin’s 84-year-old cousin Ditza was abducted from her home in Nir Oz.

None of us are okay. How could we be?

More than 1,400 people have been murdered or have fallen and some 240 people, including 30 children, have been forcefully taken captive, just a short car ride from our homes. The brutality inflicted on innocent civilians is impossible to comprehend. They were sprayed with bullets, blasted with grenades, and burned alive in their homes. Babies were decapitated, pregnant women were eviscerated, and bodies were mutilated. And while our government shields us from the most gruesome pictures of the atrocities, we’ve seen journalists, diplomats, and ZAKA volunteers break down in tears when describing the carnage they’ve seen.

The horror of that day was live-streamed in real-time and reached us soon after, and as time goes on, more footage and recordings emerge. “Ima, the terrorists are in my house,” a haunting voice on the phone says in a whisper. “Save me. Please! Save me.” A string of speech bubbles is etched in our hearts: “They’re here,” “They’re shooting us,” “I love you.” And then – silence.

We try to shield ourselves from violent videos, but they find us on social media. Terrorists blast through gates, glide over borders, and drill through doors of safe rooms. Young people race through the desert as bullets whiz past them. Parents and children cower in terror from their captors.

We watch, knowing that it is bad for our souls, but we cannot stop. We feel like we are betraying the victims if we look away.

We consume inordinate amounts of news, thinking that information will give us some kind of control. But it only intensifies our anxiety.

We’re not okay. How could we be?

A country that can’t sleep

We are devastated by the fear that our homes are no longer secure. Our national home was overrun, our borders were breached. Our gates were penetrated; our safe rooms were not safe. The events of October 7th triggered our most primal fears. There really were monsters under our beds, in the windows, and in the closets. For too long, the army was not there, and for longer still, our government was absent, leaving us feeling abandoned and betrayed.

In the aftermath, we find ourselves locking doors and windows previously left open, double locking doors that were single-locked, and looking for ways to bolt our safe rooms from the inside – if we have safe rooms at all. Those of us who don’t, canvas our homes for hiding places. We keep our shutters down and our guard up, rarely leaving home, and searching for potential places of shelter from missiles when we do.

Across the country, we are on alert for air raid sirens. The Iron Dome intercepts most incoming missiles, but we are under attack. We lie in bed in presentable clothes and with shoes nearby, ready to rush to the bomb shelter at a moment’s notice. The whine of a motorcycle or the wail of an ambulance sets our hearts racing. Our phones are always within reach and fully charged, and we are sure there will be a red alert as soon as we step into the shower.

For the last three weeks, our social media feeds have been flooded with beautiful faces of young people, loving couples, and happy families – all dead or in captivity.

The images of the captives visit us during the night. A girlfriend crying out in terror to her boyfriend as she is driven off to Gaza. A mother with two red-headed children wrapped in a blanket. The beautiful, innocent children who have been abducted without their parents. Who is tucking them in at night? We try to sleep, but the whole country is awake. We dream that we are frantically searching for our own kids. And although our enemies think we are unmoved by it, the women and children of Gaza have faces too.

Each of us experiences the trauma of the attack in our own way, whether on the national or personal level. The savagery and barbarism harken back to the darkest chapters of our history, triggering memories of the Holocaust – the deepest fears of our collective souls. How could such horrors have taken place in our safe haven, in the sovereign Jewish state? What happened to the promise of “never again”?

Our personal traumas resurface as well. In my case, I’m thrown back to the longest hour of my life, when as a young mother, I was attacked in my home, when I screamed for help but no one came, when I feared that I would never see my children again, and when I said the Sh’ma prayer because I thought I was going to die. I went for counseling afterward and thought I was okay. But I wasn’t. I suffered from post-trauma for five years without knowing that I had it, and passed my anxiety on to my children before additional therapy helped my symptoms subside.

Some 25 years later, I still can’t sleep if I’m alone in my home and panic when I hear unexplained noises. If that’s what an hour of terror did to me, what will the horror of the Hamas assault do to people who were trapped for four, eight, or 20 hours under gunfire, with terrorists in and around their homes and their loved ones dead or snatched away?

Who will help those who suffer from secondary trauma – the friends and family who were powerless to help, the people supporting the survivors, and all of us, who have been exposed to graphic depictions and harrowing stories for weeks on end?

We’re not okay. How could we be?

We are scared, anxious, profoundly sad, and unfocused. We are shocked, grieving, outraged, and exhausted. We are edgy and overwhelmed, and we cry – sometimes many times a day. Reports of anti-semitism from around the globe increase our anxiety. It is hard to have hope for the future.

Sometimes, we don’t recognize ourselves. Mild-mannered people now speak of revenge. Peace activists who work toward coexistence quietly admit that something has changed in them; they can no longer distinguish between Hamas and Palestinians and see all Arabs as seeking to destroy us. Who will we be after the savage events of October 7th? How will this barbarous incursion affect our souls?

Now, when our army and reservists are assembled at our borders and a ground offensive in Gaza has begun, we are holding our breath. Here too, there are next to no degrees of separation. We are all connected to soldiers on the frontlines; they are our children, our coworkers, our relatives, our friends. We pray for their safety while harboring fear for our own. Will there be battles on multiple fronts? Are we on the brink of WWIII?

Restoring faith

But when the darkness overwhelms us and we find ourselves in the abyss, we take conscious steps to pull ourselves out. We begin to limit our exposure to traumatic content. We force ourselves to stop doom-scrolling and distance ourselves from the horrific images and tragic stories. We forgive ourselves for not learning everything we can about the victims; eroding our resilience does nothing to help them and their families, can be damaging to us and our families, and is a victory for those who want to destroy us.

We remind ourselves of the strength and resilience of Holocaust survivors who built new lives in the wake of years of indescribable trauma, and are a testament to the human capacity to endure and rebuild.

We throw ourselves into doing, into positive actions that affirm our strengths and give us a sense of accomplishment and purpose.

We reach out to the people we love and find solace in human connection, cherishing our time with our family and friends, and finding the right person to confide in.

In the face of the darkness, we focus on deeds that restore our faith in humanity. We salute the women and men who emerged as heroes on that black Sabbath. We find solace in the unity and solidarity that have replaced the fragmentation in Israeli society and marvel at the ways in which civil society has mobilized to fill the void left by the government.

We are inspired by the soldiers who have chosen to get married while called up for service, sometimes while even in uniform, and are awed by their choice to embrace life and their hope of building a future against the backdrop of a terrible unknown.

We are moved by the parents who are unflinchingly naming their newborns Be’eri, Nir, and Oz, in commemoration of communities that were devastated, and draw strength from relocated survivors who are promising to literally rise up from the ashes and rebuild.

We know that we and our country will never be the same after October 7th. But we also know that the day will come when “how are you?” will no longer be a loaded question.

Someday. Not yet today.

Next door to my home, Aner’s parents know that he saved eight people when he lobbed the hand grenades back at the terrorists, and are working to bring home his friend Hersh. Across the street, Shahar’s brother knows that in laying on top of her son to protect him from the gunfire, his sister saved the life of 16-year-old Rotem. A bit further away, my friend Hannah knows that her son Hayim’s bullet-ridden body shielded his neighbor Avital, who later saved two young children.

The people of Israel live.

“Together we will win” (Photo: Lexi Rotem)
About the Author
Shira Pasternak Be'eri is a Jerusalem-based editor and translator who works as the coordinator of the Mandel Foundation–Israel's websites. She is married to Leonard (aka Eliezer) and is the proud mom of three fine young men and two daughters-in-law, and is the happy grandma of one. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1982. And yes, she is Velvel Pasternak's daughter.
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