What is there to say?
My home is on fire.
Worse than that – after a lifetime of trying to bear the inherited familial scars of the Holocaust, somehow I ended up bearing witness to our own lifetime’s Holocaust.
Never, in a million years, did I imagine that this type of atrocity would befall us in 2023. Yes, we all knew a “Great War” was coming. But the way people and the media occasionally alluded to it, it would be a clash of missiles, involving soldiers and bombs and the like. Traditional war stuff.
Not savages in green eyebands marching into home after home, shooting children at point-blank range in cold blood. Slaughtering teenagers, mothers, fathers, grandmas and grandpas. More methodical and heartless than Nazis. But even worse than your greatest nightmare: burning people alive, raping and dismembering women, beheading babies. Tell me: what kind of barbarian human being is capable of chopping off a baby’s head? What cause “justifies” such an act of pure evil?
Civilians in their homes, stumbling out of their bedrooms on an early Saturday holiday morning. Children torn from their parents and dragged as hostages into a hellish hole somewhere in Gaza… how will we ever save them??? I can’t sleep thinking about them, imagining the torture they must be enduring. It sets my skin on fire and makes me desperate to march into Gaza to try and rescue them myself.
The pro-Palestinian supporters tell themselves this is all fair game; all part of the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s not. This is terrorism, as pure as it gets, simple and straightforward. The greatest terror attack to befall the Jewish people. But that’s just it – people don’t care, because it’s Jews. The UN Security Council couldn’t even bring themselves to issue a statement condemning Hamas.
And it’s worse than 9/11. Because when you compare the numbers, proportionate to the population, Israel’s losses are greater percentage-wise than America’s were in 9/11. It’s just too much.
I don’t know how to process the pain. I don’t know how to live with it and still put on a happy face for my children so that they aren’t scarred from all of this. And we’re only at the beginning of this war; I can’t bear thinking of the deaths to come. Just picturing our soldiers off to Gaza, and where all of this is headed. All of our friends; all our loved ones. It makes me want to sink into the ground in despair.
But of course, we will do no such thing. This is why we Jews are so resilient – because this pain isn’t new. It’s inherited, it’s generational. Pogroms have followed us from the beginning of time. So we grin and bear it, somehow — for our children’s sake, and of course, fight our way through the pain to victory. As we always have through history: from Pharaoh to the Greeks to the Romans to Hitler and our Arab enemies. We will continue to win, but the pain of the price is almost too much to bear.
* * *
When the war broke out on Saturday morning, my husband and I understood pretty quickly that this was no typical Gaza operation. From the moment we shut ourselves in our bomb shelter at the first rocket sirens, and checked our phones to discover no information on the news, we felt something was off. There is always some kind of lead-up to this type of tension; and it was taking too long for the newscasters to offer clarity. This meant that all of this came very unexpected, which is a bad sign. No one knew what was going on or why. Once they started reporting and we understood that something really bad was happening – we decided to flee.
I never packed so fast in my life. I literally grabbed two suitcases and threw random stuff into them – I didn’t know where we were going or for how long but I was in a panic. For some reason I packed swimming goggles and my daughter’s favorite toys, but I didn’t pack their vaccination booklets or a toothbrush. The sirens were blaring in my ears, my children were undressed and unfed and asking a stream of questions, and my phone was pinging nonstop with terrifying alerts. While my husband reached out to our friends in security to try to get some clarity, I went onto booking.com and purchased one-way tickets on the next flight out of Tel Aviv. Which was to Athens, taking off in 3 hours. Our friend in the Shin Bet advised us simply: go.
We needed to leave, like right now; we had a plane to catch and the news was increasingly horrific. But we were in a fog – were there terrorists roaming the roads in the center, like there were in the south? How were we going to make the thirty-minute drive to the airport with all the rockets? Was it even safe to be on airplane right now? What was more dangerous? My husband was doing a mental risk calculation and we decided that at this point, there were enough soldiers on the road that we would be safe making the trip to the airport.
When we arrived, we came upon the chaos: flights being cancelled, diverted, delayed; families with young children all around, rockets booming and sirens blaring; people everywhere asking questions. Where were the airplanes? Our flight was increasingly delayed and I increasingly panicked. People were speculating that Hezbollah was getting involved and I was terrified of being stuck. The only thing that offered some comfort in that moment was commiserating with the other parents waiting around, most of whom had booked the tickets that morning, like us. My friends were texting me airport questions and panicked that they couldn’t get a flight; all the tickets that day were sold out by late morning. When our airplane finally showed up, I cried as when we boarded.
When we landed in Athens, a Greek airport employee with a clipboard was standing by where we exited the plane, asking everyone if we were from Israel and taking notes with her pen. I didn’t understand at the time why; later I realized she must be tracking incoming Israelis for some kind of refugee record. We checked into a hotel that I booked on my phone while we were at the airport. Upon arrival we heard a little Hebrew here and there; by our third day, Hebrew was the primary language heard in the lobby and dining room. So many Israeli families – it almost felt like our hotel was turning into an ad hoc refugee center. And the question we were all asking each other: How long are you staying? We were shellshocked. Going through the motions for our kids. Locking ourselves in public bathroom stalls for a few minutes to cry; release a little bit of the pain, and then carry on.
It became clear pretty quickly that it didn’t make sense to stay in Greece, and that we weren’t going back home to Tel Aviv anytime soon. So we booked flights to Boston via Zurich for the following day. But then – when I went to do the online check-in – I realized with dismay that we didn’t have my Israeli husband’s visa to the US with us. His visa was in his old expired passport, which in my haste to leave, I didn’t think to pack. Sh#t.
I immediately called the US consulate in Athens for help, to see if there was any way to get the visa renewal before our flight the next day. Of course, it was Columbus Day and the consulate was closed.
But this is where creative minds make miracles in times of crisis. I want to share this anecdote, because with all the devastation and terrible loss and suffering, the one light in the darkness is seeing Am Yisrael come together to help each other, in ways big and small.
My sister and brother-in-law came up with the brilliant idea to try to get the passport to someone flying out from Tel Aviv to Athens that evening. We called our best friend, who rushed to our apartment, grabbed the passport, and drove as fast as he could—literally through falling bombs – to the airport. He explained the situation to an airport employee, who promised he would give the passport to the security guard on the next flight out to Athens. Which indeed he did. Where things got tricky was that this security guard did not in fact disembark in Athens, but rather gave the passport to his Athens security counterpart, without getting her phone number. It was after 10 p.m., our kids were asleep in our arms, and we rushed from our hotel to the airport to try to find the person with our passport.
When we arrived to the Arkia Airlines terminal at the Athens airport, that’s when the repercussions of wartime became real. People sleeping on the floor, people handing out water and oranges and cookies, people crying all around. Somehow despite my anxiety I thought to bring pillows from our hotel, and we found a bench to lay our kids down on the pillows in the terminal, and we waited. But we had no way to reach the person who had our passport. While we waited, we talked to fellow Israelis also spending the night in the terminal. There was one young couple returning home after a vacation abroad, because their children were back in Israel with the grandparents – otherwise they would have stayed in Greece. There were young men who had been called to reserve duty but couldn’t even get to Israel to serve, because the airlines had cancelled their flights. And then there were regular men, women, and families returning home because it was the most natural thing in the world to them to go home in a time like this.
We ended up waiting until 2 a.m., at which point we gave up and decided to go get some rest in the hotel adjoining the airport. Of course, that hotel was fully booked. So we said screw it, and made the 45-minute return journey back to our hotel in the city. And lo and behold – just as we turned the key into our room – we received the text message from the Arkia head of security that he had our passport. That’s what’s amazing about Israelis – in all the chaos and pain of wartime, somehow 8 strangers made the small act of passing along a passport of someone they didn’t even know, just to help a fellow Jew in his time of need. And we were able to fly.
As I sit here now in my sister’s quiet home in Boston, I keep contemplating a question people have asked me over the years since I immigrated to Israel back in 2009. The question being: “Would you ever leave Israel?” and my response always “Never, unless there was a terrible war.” And it’s funny because in the 14 years I’ve lived in Israel, I’ve been through a considerable share of wartime experiences, running from rockets and the like. But never, during any of those “mini” wars, did I even contemplate leaving. And yet, within 3 hours of this horrific terrorist attack, I was already on my way to the airport.
Did my conscience have anything to say about that? No – I was operating on pure instinct. Survival mode. Mommy bear – do anything to keep my children safe. What if this had happened before I became a mother – would I have left then? Maybe not. It’s impossible to say.
But there’s no doubt that it was the right decision to leave. My husband is torn – he breaks down every day over the heartbreaking stories and losses – and aside from his physical body being here in Boston, his mind and heart and head are in Israel, every moment of the day. He is not at peace with being in America when our friends and family are enduring this hell right now – but he knows we are protecting our children, and doing everything we can from here to help. There is no easy or good place to be in the world during a catastrophe like this. So wherever we are, any of us – good people of the world who believe that it’s not ok to slaughter Jews – we fight back. Whether on the field or on the screen or wherever we may be. We roll up our sleeves and we do the work. We fight back. And we win.