The day started like every day with my daily call to my brother in Tel Aviv. It was 5:00 a.m. in Toronto. But it was soon very clear that it was not at all like every day. It was October 7 and the news was filtering in about the monstrous Hamas attack at the Nova music festival and the nearby kibbutzim. My brother’s reports grew increasingly more alarming with each call, as he recounted the unfolding events. At the end of the day, the tragic and horrifying situation was clear and the carnage and destruction was unimaginable. At the end of the day, I knew that I had to be there, to be with my brother and to be with the country for which I have developed a strong attachment since my first visit in 1973 and many subsequent visits over the following years.
Finally, in late December, I flew to Israel. I never imagined that there would be an ongoing war and the situation was far from resolved. I never imagined that there would still be volunteer opportunities where I could help in some small way. But most of all, I never imagined that my visit would lead to an outpouring of gratitude expressed to me by total strangers; gratitude that I had come to their country. Despite my protests, telling them that I needed to come for me- that it was a selfish motivation- they continued to thank me for coming. By the end of my 10-day visit, I understood why it mattered so much that I had come.
I stayed in Tel Aviv where there are signs, posters, messages, mementos everywhere, pleading, praying and imploring for the hostages to be brought home now. There are human-sized teddy bears some blindfolded, tied to park benches along major streets symbolizing the kidnapped children. And yet the stores, cafes and restaurants are full; the streets are buzzing with activity and the atmosphere is almost one of gaiety. What a curious juxtaposition. A mixture of joy and grief, of hope and despair, of resilience and defeat. “We have no choice but to go on” was the response I heard over and over from those who spoke of the atmosphere in the country. But the microcosm that starkly and painfully reflected the soul of the country was at Hostages Square, the plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Art Museum which is dedicated to the hostages and their families.
In Hostages Square are various tents, installations and displays that address the hostage situation and the hope of bringing them home now. This chant of “bring them home now” echoes throughout the square and is heard painfully clearly on Saturday evenings when there is an event with speakers, live music, testimonials and speeches from families or soldiers and others that are united in their support of the hostages and their loved ones.
In the center of the square is a baby grand piano with a sign on top: “You are not alone.” On the side of the piano is a large poster with a photo of Alon Ohel, age 22, who was kidnapped from the Nova music festival. He is a gifted pianist and his parents have donated this piano as a message of hope and strength, to bring him home. Everyone is invited to play the piano, to express their hope that Alon and the others are soon home safely.
I approached the piano with great hesitation, eager to play, yet reticent. What could I, a North American Jew living in safety in the Diaspora and spared the horror and losses of these grieving hostage families, offer on the piano keys? A nearby organizer saw me circle the piano and invited me to play. When I told her I was shy about it, she was firm: “I want to hear music; please play for me.” I capitulated and played the two songs I knew from memory, Hine Ma Tov, and Tum Balalaika. I played and swayed to the rhythm of these age-old tunes, in the open air of Hostages Square. I hoped that the notes would somehow reach from my heart to those of the hostage families. I vowed to return the next day with all the piano music I had brought from Toronto when I dreamed of playing on one of the public pianos set up in Tel Aviv: at the train station and in one of the hospitals.
On my second visit to the square, I played for 40 minutes. I returned again on the last day of my visit to play another concert. My varied repertoire was from the many concerts I have played for years at various seniors’ venues in Toronto. I was playing my heart out for the families in the square. I was playing for me, to express my support, my love, and my hope that the hostages come home now. I was humbled by the people who approached me with gratitude, who laid flowers on the piano as I played.
Gratitude. That is the emotion that is indelible in my psyche. The families who are waiting for their kidnapped loved ones to return, the families who are waiting for their soldiers to return, and the entire country who is also waiting with them. They express enormous gratitude to those outside the country who visit at this time. When I left Hostages Square after my last piano concert, I finally understood why it mattered so much that I had come.