Susannah Dainow

Reflections on War from a Wandering Jew

In early November, sitting at my hotel desk in Lincolnton, North Carolina, Israel is weeks into the war. I know that I am far from home in all senses of the word. I ask because I must ask: in a time of crisis, where is the true home?

In Toronto, every time my husband and I cross the threshold of our apartment, there is a mezuzah to greet us, to mark the separation between the world without and home within. When I leave my apartment, and when I return, I follow tradition: I touch my fingers to the mezuzah and kiss them, holding them to my lips, feeling the protection of the talisman flood through me. The Lord will guard your coming and your going. The tilted box with the letter shin on the cover holds the prayers I sometimes cannot bring myself to say in shul. I am always a Jew but not always a believer.

Yet, when I kiss the mezuzah, it is as if I am drinking in shalom bayit, the peace and safety that exist inside our Jewish home. I recognize, as with so many aspects of Jewish existence, the safety of this home is fraught: without Israel’s safety, we are none of us safe. In Toronto I am so far from the land and yet so caught up in its thrall. I am of my people, no matter where I reside.

My husband converted four months ago and he may never see Israel (something in me insists he will see it) and none of this is his fault. I want to take him to Ha’aretz, but it’s a war zone, missiles zooming in on all fronts at all hours, every house with a bomb shelter built in. I want to take my husband to the Western Wall for his Bar Mitzvah. A few weeks into the war, hatred clamoring in the protests and pogroms all around us, I told him I was sorry I’d dragged him into Jewishness. He said, “You didn’t drag me into it. You brought me home.”

The view from my Toronto window, which I always remind myself I am lucky to have, is lovely. Before we left for North Carolina, the little black maple that the city planted in our front yard was turning yellow and rust – the fall leaves never ceasing to amaze me, a miracle every year. Besides being a marvel of nature, the tree is also our secret stand for Israel – the last time we were at shul, the rabbis offered us blue plastic ribbon to wrap around our tree to say, bring the hostages home! I call it a secret stand because nobody in our neighbourhood knows what it means; they probably think our slender sapling has been designated for some kind of pest treatment.

I fear that taking a secret stand is the only way I feel even remotely comfortable supporting Israel publicly; doing Jewish is a code that only other Jews know. To be out is a risk. In the past month the worldwide riots, near-pogroms, and stars painted on Jews’ houses across Europe have taken the toll of terror, have haunted my waking hours. Part of me feels I should be having nightmares, should be having trouble eating, like my new and crisis-driven Facebook friends. If I were a true Jew, this is how I would be reacting; I worry that I am a Marrano at heart. Survival is always the first order of business, the sine qua non. Everything else must come after. I censor my speech in public; I debate whether to take the risk of replacing the torn-down posters of the hostages in my neighbourhood. I debate my commitment; I debate myself. I wonder, shame-faced, what my ancestors would think of me. I am too attached to my safety, to my soft North American life.

At the one-month mark of the war, my husband and I went to North Carolina to visit my 97-year-old grandmother in her seniors’ home, where she sings to herself most of the day in an empty but cheerful room. Pictures of scenes from her life line the tops of dressers, the TV stand, and sometimes she recognizes herself. She mixes up her husband with her son, the uncle I haven’t seen in over a decade, the uncle whose Parkinson’s is so advanced that he is moving into a facility himself. Perhaps it is better that she doesn’t know.

I am glad that my grandmother does not know what is happening to her beloved Israel. She was a true pioneer, a member of a kibbutz and of the Haganah, living on the land when the UN declared partition in 1947. There was dancing in the streets, she told me back when I was a teenager and she had masterful control of her mind. How I wish I could go back in time. I write about those days, imagined through my own lens. But then, what followed. What is now.

My grandmother sits outside of time, living history that she has forgotten. She has lived the momentous past; now she is eternally in the present, for as long as she still lives – unable to remember the past and unable to imagine the future, this moment is all there is. I am not envious, but there is something desirable in this state. Free from regret, free from anxiety, floating in the currents of what is now, protected in her room from the unravelling of the world outside. She will never know. She knows only the visits from people who look familiar, the warmth of her caregivers, the cloth weight of the baby doll that stands sentinel as she naps in her easy chair. If a memory surfaces somehow, she entertains it as best she can, but it doesn’t upset her to let it float away again. The present is only a moment. Her mezuzah has expanded to fill her world.

After seeing her, I am safely returned to my front room office; home feels like an acceptable home this time. After I’ve been away awhile my sense of home changes – home becomes the place where I hang my hat, the place where my husband and I spend our days, not the ideal place where I feel called to live.

This home is for now, not for always. To be a Jew is for always. It grounds me no matter how much I may wander. It is the bone and earth of me; to this I always return. The mezuzah at my door stands watch.

About the Author
Susannah Dainow is a writer and recovering lawyer based in Toronto, Canada. She writes fiction, essays, and poetry, often with a Jewish lens. Currently, she is at work on Aliyah, an intergenerational Jewish family story that explores Israel-Diaspora relations.
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