I arrived in Israel on day 124 of the hostage crisis. I know this because since day 100, I have worn the number of days on my shirt. Every morning, I take a piece of masking tape, write the unfortunate number and stick it on my person.
This simple act of consciousness has had an array of reactions. The first reaction was from the chief rabbi of Poland. “Is that the code for your locker? Are you afraid you’ll forget it?” He smiled at his own joke. Of course, when I told him what it was, he dropped his head, ashen-faced. “I’m sorry, I should have known that.” I took the tape off my shirt and stuck it on him. He nodded.
Later that day, my trainer at the gym asked about the number. I explained that it was the number of days the hostages had been held. She rolled her eyes as if to say she was tired of hearing about the hostages. I gently but firmly held her wrist and said, “if you’re tired of hearing about it, imagine what the family of the hostages feel? Imagine what the hostages themselves.” She nodded fervently and apologetically: “You’re right, of course you are right.”
Another asked about the number. After explaining, she responded with: “Israel is equally responsible.” Wrong answer. I unloaded on her (probably the wrong thing to do). She protested, “I don’t want to talk politics.” I explained this has nothing to do with politics. But she was not listening and now, she is no longer my friend.
When I got to Israel, I had it in my head that many people in Israel would be wearing the number like me. I imagined it to be a thing. But it isn’t. In fact, I get the same beleaguered questions about the number. My first night in Tel Aviv I went to a favorite kosher shawarma place. As usual, the place was packed – they probably serve at least 75 pitas full of meat an hour. Then the server read my name off. “Daniel?” “Ani po,” I answered. He looked at me and inquired about the number. I explained and, in an instant, the world stopped turning, the horns on Dizengoff stopped honking, the crowd of hungry Tel Avivis stopped complaining – the only thing that remained was our connection. Glassy-eyed, he asked me, “Has it really been that many days?” I nodded. For that moment in time, we were not strangers in a crowded street food restaurant, we were family. We looked into each other’s eyes and started to cry together. It was intimate and emotional and deeply personal.
And then just as quickly, it was over. It was back to the feeding frenzy of street food and crowds. A bus had turned onto the wrong street and was trying to back out, the traffic blared in protest, a religious man on a bicycle listening to music parked his bike in the restaurant and the server got busy putting together my plate of shawarma. I thought, is that it?
He handed me the plate and said, “Enjoy Danny.” There was more than tenderness in that comment, there was familiarity. On the invoice, my name was Daniel. But when he fed me, I was Danny. Not a stranger, I was family.
Life in Israel has moved on. Restaurants are back in business; streets are busy and vendors are selling. But it is not the same. BRING THEM HOME is everywhere. The bus stop benches are crowded by giant teddy bears, abused, blood-stained, and bandaged. Directly across from the bustling cafes in the center of Kikar Dizengoff is a tribute to the dead and the hostages. Photos, keepsakes, candles and prayers surround the fountain. It is moving.
A religious organization matched me with one particular hostage for whom I could pray. Every morning, when I don my tefillin, I do it specifically with his name in mind. I have been praying for him for several weeks. But for whatever reason, I never bothered to Google him to see his face. But upon arrival into Ben Gurion, I passed placards with names and faces of all the hostages. And there toward the end of the entry hall, right before passport control, I saw him: Alexander ben Oksana. What a gorgeous face he has. Such a sweet neshama (soul). I saw him and instantly knew he could be my friend.
Of course, seeing his face made the situation more urgent and my prayers more personal. It has stoked my fantasies. I started dreaming that one day I would see him on the street in Tel Aviv or at a café. Of course, he would not know who I am, but in my dream, I embrace him, bury my face in his neck and cry with relief. I confess that I have prayed for him every day and I explain just how relieved I am to see him alive. In my dream, he embraces me back and we create a bond for all time. I imagine us standing and holding each other for many minutes, crying and loving each other.
Then last week, the New York Times announced that perhaps as many as 50 of the hostages are already dead. It made my prayers that much more urgent – but it also filled me with dread that my Alexander was no longer alive and that my fantasy would remain just that.
Nevertheless, I pray for him daily. I pray for all of the hostages with deep, personal kavannah. I pray for the IDF and for Israel and for the entire Jewish world – that we may remain as a unified voice, a unified people. And of course, I wear the number of days on my shirt and carry a roll of masking tape and a marker so I can give to anyone else who wants to wear the numbers.
It is a simple act of consciousness and also… defiance. We will not go quietly.