My Sukkah of Sublimation and Uncertainty

I have always enjoyed making fun of my adopted country by saying that “Israelis may be wrong, but at least they’re certain.” However following this summer’s war. If there is one feeling that seems to permeate the mood here, it is a feeling of the utmost uncertainty. I used to feel that I had a good handle on the conflict; I knew where I stood and I was clear about what political party I supported. But after the war I have few moments of clarity and many more moments of opacity.

I haven’t even tried to make sense of this summer’s war. I have been off the grid for a while now and I am just walking around a bit dazed like everyone else, looking like I am a little lost and asking, “What the @#$%^ just happened?” We just finished the holiday of Sukkot, which has the name” Zman Simchateinu” the holiday of our rejoicing. However this holiday my inner core looked a lot like the sukkah we built in our backyard……it is holding up but as we know, it is a fragile structure. And this year I could not escape the duality of a holiday that both juxtaposes the commandment to be happy along with existential angst (can you get more Jewish than that?).

For me the war moved from completely manic to deeply depressive. The manic part of the war was because of my role as the director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Youth programs in Israel. This summer I was faced with the daunting challenge of not giving-in to terror, while ensuring a safe, meaningful and fun summer for 1300 young adults visiting from North America. Navigating these young people between Palestinian riots, Bedouin riots, Hamas rockets, mortars from Lebanon and the FAA shutting down all flights in and out of Israel (talk about fun) felt like the work of five summers packed into one. In addition, there were nonstop phone calls, emails and updates to hundreds of concerned (and at times hysterical) parents 7 days a week/24 hours a day. And yet in spite of the sirens, in spite of the news reports back in the States and in spite of madrichim having to leave for army reserve duty, only 3 participants left the trip. The fact that the Union for Reform Judaism supported the program and did not close it down (which would have been far simpler for them), and the fact that the parents of our participants trusted us with their children, showed us that in difficult times Reform Jews hang tough. This summer was exhausting and because of my preoccupation with keeping these 1300 young adults safe, It was only after the last participant went home did the reality of the war began to sink in.

I don’t live near Gaza and so I did not come close to what our fellow countrymen in the South suffered during the war. I live in Jerusalem and as much as there were rockets and sirens, which have their psychological impact, we were fine. But if Gaza could not totally succeed in sending their rockets into Jerusalem; unfortunately hundreds of families in Jerusalem suddenly found themselves sending their kids into Gaza. This summer I watched my community at Kol HaNeshama, a Reform Jewish congregation, which is made up of predominantly immigrants from English speaking countries, deal with the brutal reality of their sons going into Gaza. These parents who had watched their highly motivated children make it into elite combat units were suddenly confronted with the reality of their children going to war. It was a moment that every immigrant to Israel has thought about at one time or another. It is a dilemma shared by many of us who have moved here from relatively safe countries, or at least countries that have no military draft. In addition to bringing our AD Gordon, Ahad HaAm and Ber Borochov ideology with us in order to make the Jewish homeland a better and more just place to live , we also moved here with the knowledge that at some point our children would have to serve in the army. And when we thought about the risks:

A. Many of us thought that by the time our children would have to serve in the army there would be peace.

B. Many of us were not willing “to not” make decisions, like moving to Israel, based on fear.

But the truth of the matter is that no one is ever ready when their child gets called up for war . And this summer I watched my friends grit their teeth and not sleep –and rightfully so.

Our daughter is a soldier too, and she serves in the Givati Brigade training base South of Gaza. Among other responsibilities, she trains new immigrants who are combat soldiers how to use their weapons. But it was one afternoon during the war that within an hour of coming home, she switched from her civilian clothes back into her uniform and she was visibly upset. She jumped on a bus back to her base because one of the soldiers from the Givati brigade was reported kidnapped in Gaza. In the end it turned out that three soldiers from her base had been killed and one of them was a very good friend. My daughter and her friends went to three funerals in 24 hours for their peers at the age of 20. I know that every generation in Israel is shaped by a war, but I guess it is still so shocking to be in the role of the parent watching your kids go through this.

After this war ended it felt like we moved straight into the Yamim Noaraim (Days of Awe) when we are supposed to look deep into our personal and national inventory. And yet I could not help but feel the tension between our obsession with introspection and our longing for denial. On one hand Israel is one of the most introspective countries around. Not only between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do we Israelis reach deep into the bottom of our souls in order to understand what is happening with us; the truth of the matter is we do this every day. Here in Israel it feels like every time we hear the news, we try to figure out who we were, who we are and more importantly who do we want to be. Conversely there is another paradoxical piece to the Israeli psyche, and that is our uncanny talent for denial, which seems to be a survival mechanism because of the sensory overload we experience due to non-stop existential threats. It is this denial that seems to allow us to move on with life. So we are if you will…. a type of “push me – pull you” country, where we are both mercilessly contemplative about our situation and yet we belittle everything at the same time. As I have discovered the Israeli life doesn’t lead to paradise, it leads to paradox.

Last Shabbat we were at a friend’s house sitting in the sukkah when the young people who had been in the army started talking about the war and suddenly it became an impromptu forum for dealing with post-traumatic stress. And there we were, all of us processing and yet at the same time not wanting to deal with the heaviness of the reality that surrounds us. For Israelis who just finished celebrating the holiday of Sukkot, no one can miss the irony with regard to the precarious structure of the Sukkah. We are commanded to live in this flimsy booth for seven days, take out our finest china, our nicest cutlery and our most precious linens and hope that in spite of all this uncertainty…the Sukkah will somehow hold up.

About the Author
Rich Kirschen is the director of Israel Education Programs in Jerusalem for the Union for Reform Judaism. A descendant of Probuznah (Galitzia) and Falticen (Romania), Kirschen grew up in in the Holy City of Woodmere, Long Island. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife Cara Saposnik, who works in Israeli documentary film, their three children Gili, Liron and Ayal and their dog Michigan.
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