We drive to Larnaca, to the beach. For what Israelis call ‘Beten-Gav’- ‘Belly-Back’, a day bronzing in the sunshine. We park ourselves on loungers by Cafe Nero, the familiar purple awning adding a touch of Britain into this lush Mediterranean scene, for a swim and a snooze in the soft afternoon heat.
For a few hours the sun plays hide-and-seek. When we wake it’s hanging low over the coffee shop roof, before fading into a brushstroke of cloud. It’s getting chilly.
We pack up our things. Feeling relaxed, we cruise up the coast in our rental sedan, taking in a seascape of turquoise waters. A flock of seagulls curls through the air while families blithely roll their strollers on the promenade.
I’m peckish after my swim. We drive to Old Town in search of food, slow the car to a snail’s pace to negotiate the over-parked streets, passing nondescript restaurants serving ‘Souvlaki & Chips’ beside signs in Greek, presumably offering even more exotic cuisine. I decide not to visit a certain bakery.
Just then, from the of corner of my eye I spot a menorah and a moment later the sign, ‘Jewish Centre’. I pull over, parking the car in a disabled spot. ‘Let’s see?’
We debate for a minute: it’s 6pm. Still Shabbat. We’re badly underdressed. I’m in shorts and flip flops, hair matted with sea salt. She’s in a short denim dress, legs exposed. Do we dare enter a synagogue? ‘Let’s just take a look.’
This street is barricaded with knee-high rubber blocks. By the door we find two uniformed police, one sitting in a small rectangular booth, the other shifting his weight from one leg to the other, giving an impression of being both bored and restless.
As I sweet talk the guards, Jenny wanders off to inspect the synagogue wall. It’s covered in bold red-and-white posters of kidnapped Israelis. Bring Them Home.
I’m trying to explain that even though I’m English, I live in Israel, but now I don’t. The bored and restless guard looks at me blankly then asks me to wait as he heads into the building. That’s when I look over at Jenny. She’s transfixed, staring at one of the posters.
By the time Moishe comes out to meet us, now huddled together in our beachwear outside the front door, a huge teardrop has formed under Jenny’s eye. She can barely speak. From under his silver-framed glasses Moishe takes in her sorrow, lightly quizzes my abominable Hebrew with it’s thick British accent, then lets us in.
There’s cake, which will tide us over til dinner. She goes to the ladies’ section, I’m in the busy men’s area talking with Yonatan, a South African from Ramat Gan, pale and blonde and wispy and earnest, happy to find a fellow Anglo-Israeli.
He speaks without pause, a little too loudly, over the afternoon prayers. We discuss October 7th.
I tell him I turned on the TV that morning, so knew straight away. As a religious guy, how did he find out?
‘I heard the sirens. No big deal, went to Shul. A regular festival. We did the service, read the Torah, danced with the scrolls.’
‘There were rumours but nothing clear. One guy left for reserves. We thought maybe an attack, a stabbing or a shooting. We’ve had few of those lately.’
‘Then I got home and opened my computer and saw. All the images, the ‘missing’ people, the festival, the bodies. All of it. All at once. Like a missile straight to the heart.’
Though we’re interrupting the service, no one shushes us. The rabbi continues his chanting at an even keel.
Later that evening, we’re in a spacious house with a pool and dinner catered for eighty. That same rabbi stands, broad and tall in his black suit, preening his ferocious white beard. He mumbles a story that I can’t follow. He’s already blessed the food and we’ve taken a few bites, but since he didn’t sit back down, and is now giving a sort of impromptu sermon, everyone stops eating and listens. I lean over to tsk tsk Jenny who is reaching for a plate of salad.
It’s a long speech, in Hebrew with smatterings of Yiddish. The food – beef stew, schnitzels, dips, hummus, stir-fry chicken – gets cold. Under the table, I hope out of sight, I scroll through my phone for news. Israeli troops are officially, finally, entering Gaza.
After what feels like an age we stand as one for Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer.
Praying in unison, ‘Blessed be He’, I find my gaze slip into the pool, the staid chlorinated water, and feel my heart swell with sorrow for what is about to happen, for what is now in this very moment happening, for a fresh generation of young men sent into hell, for cowering families in Gaza’s charred homes, for security guards on tense streets and all the bearded brave rabbis and all of us, with our naked wounded hearts, watching the world we know sink to its sobbing knees.