My work as a psychotherapist revolves around the belief that sadness always lies beneath rage. Anger, as I have experienced it, is never the final stop of the human emotional apparatus. I have seen anger yield to grief nearly every time someone enters my office, consumed with fury.
But something strange has happened since October 7th: I am experiencing this process in reverse.
Allow me to offer a bit more context: My mother is Jewish and my father is not. In retrospect I would say that I was raised in the culturally Jewish tradition of my mother’s family: total irreverence and family gatherings marked by constant profanity, low-brow hilarity and non-stop dinner table interruptions. Any religious exposure that I had during childhood came from my father’s family, specifically his parents, who were very devout Christians. I admired their faith and wanted to extract something from it, but Christianity never took with me. When I began to explore my mother’s heritage in my late teens, I was delighted to find a perfect partnership between faith, observance and humor, even in the most religious Jewish communities that had once seemed somber to me as an outsider. In religious Jewish spaces, I found the irreverence of my mother’s side and the sincerity of my father’s. I was at home.
When I became observant sometime in my early 20s, I also became interested in Shalom Achshav, Peace Now, an Israeli organization similar to Jewish Voices for Peace. I was no fan of what I understood to be Israel’s role in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but I must admit that my knowledge of the conflict as well as the relevant history of the Middle East had all the breadth and depth of several Wikipedia articles. My views on Israel were also shaped by one visit to Israel in the spring of 2000 during which my extended Jewish family wanted to honor my father’s background by visiting the full roster of Christian holy sites. In addition to seeing many (many) churches, we left our shoes by the doors of several mosques in Bethlehem and Nazareth. We saw where Jesus is said to have given the Beatitudes at the Sea of Galilee. We chatted with a Palestinian doctor and his wife as they smoked hookah at a restaurant situated inside a cave in Hebron. We saw Jericho.
Of course, traveling to many of these locations required us to make our way through several checkpoints. I found the constant military presence in Israel off-putting, and the tense rides through checkpoints certainly stayed with me as I carved out my identity as an observant Jew, one who had registered to receive every English-language newsletter from Shalom Achshav,
Over the course of the next several years of participation in observant Jewish communities, I learned more Israeli history and started to look with more nuance at Israel’s position within the Middle East. I considered what it might be like to exist in a country the size of New Jersey with neighbors in every direction who have the shared political ambition of destroying the Jewish state. I learned that when Israeli and Palestinian leadership at last came close to the formation of a Palestinian state in 2000, the Second Intifada began. I had to ask myself, why would a concrete path towards peace and a two-state solution get shut down by several Palestinian terrorists who stepped onto buses over a five-year period in order to blow up both themselves and every Israeli civilian rider? As it turns out, my family and I had been in Israel mere months before the beginning of that particular years-long terror campaign.
I also considered what it might mean to border a society that offered its members pay-to-slay arrangements. A pay-to-slay arrangement not only encourages killing oneself (and many Israelis) as an act of heroism, but Hamas leadership also provides economic security to any relatives who live on after their loved one has killed themselves– and many others.
I should emphasize that I am absolutely not naive to the numerous political failures of Israeli governance over the last several decades. Still, I no longer stand in judgment of checkpoints as a necessity of daily life; neither do I misunderstand why Israel would require a military seemingly disproportionate to its size, but well-proportioned to the numerous, constant threats it faces.
October 7th occurred against the calm and highly theoretical landscape of my interest in Israeli politics and culture. The events of the day shook me to my core and I have been besotted with despair ever since.
In the first few weeks following 10/7, I did my best to paw at the edges of its enormity. I felt guilty for being unable to watch video footage from that day; I tried to appease that guilt by imagining every horrible dimension. (I strongly suspect that my imagination’s best efforts were nothing next to the actual footage of the atrocity.) The most disrespectful thing to do, I thought, would be to allow myself to develop emotional calluses.
One of the ways I have tried to process October 7th is through visual art (something I wrote about recently in this blog). In early December, as part of my search for impactful art by Israeli artists, I had a chance internet encounter with a young artist who, I learned later, had survived the attack on Nir Oz. When we started chatting, he said things that really shocked me, like, “It was a miracle; thank God my family and I survived.” I would reply with comments like, “I am not in the mood to thank God right now.” These conversations with a direct survivor felt like a relief: instead of trying to grapple with everything, I was able to contend with something.
Several weeks ago, I sat down with the intention of reading every obituary that this publication has produced in its powerful Those We’ve Lost section. Eventually, my computer protested; it simply stopped refreshing new pages. It was telling me that a narrower focus offered a better lens. These days, I mostly read obituaries, stories of captives and news from Nir Oz. Somehow, with this relatively microscopic view, I feel as though I have been able to start to absorb the story of every shattered kibbutz, every battered town, every hostage, every life extinguished, every psyche battered. I have agonized, and my agony has felt appropriate as a response to a devastating, unending situation.
Today, though, while walking in the tundra of the frigid midwest, my agony finally gave way. Yes, I will follow the news; I will listen to the testimonies; I will not turn away; I will continue to weep. But suddenly there sat within me– much deeper and purer than sadness or fright– an immense and tolerable fury.
I thought about my non-Jewish Facebook “friend” who casually asked the Jews on her feed to weigh in on her theory that Jews are mostly indoctrinated to support Israel during summers spent at Jewish camp. How dare you, I thought. Guess what, I snarled to myself, I never went to Jewish summer camp. I fumed at the relative whose initial reaction to the massacre and subsequent military campaign was to recall on social media that she got “apartheid vibes” during a sole trip to Israel more than a decade ago.
One thing I recently understood about myself is that I have never truly hated anyone or anything before. I have held fast to the belief, both personally and professionally, that everyone has their reasons, that those reasons matter profoundly, and that uncovering those reasons will always provide a path to redemption. But something so different, so visceral rose in me today: I hated the murderers, the rapists, the kidnappers, the thieves, the looters and the mutilators, and I didn’t give a damn about their reasons.
I hope they suffer forever, I said to myself. I hope they suffer more.
I was astonished to find that there was no sadness beneath that bile. Only energy, only clarity, only power. As I walked over the hazardous patches of snow and ice, my pace quickened. I felt nothing but alive.