I am writing this missive of sorts on the evening of the 102nd day of the war from my exceedingly comfortable living room in a well-heated home north of New York City. It snowed here today, and I felt unabashed joy because of it. I went for a meandering walk in the mid-afternoon and the air on my cheeks was thrilling. And I know that freedom truly is not available to everyone right now, and that makes it all the more precious. I absolutely do mean that, even though it sounds trite.
I started writing this here and now not because I had a clear sense of directionality or because I saw myself working backwards from a stupendous punchline and just had to get myself there. This is not the kind of love letter where you will recognize how I diligently outlined all the ways in which “we” make sense – a proposal to which there is only one clear solution. In fact, there is no concrete solution, none whatsoever. I am here now out of a down-to-the-roots responsibility to continue to be engaged in the absolute abomination that is the hostage crisis in Gaza right now.
I felt it at day one and day 16 and day 26 and day 49 and day (oh my gosh) 67 and 79 and you see where this is going. And it’s easy not to write. It’s much easier to get groceries, to go to a boxing class (because the rage has to land somewhere), it’s easier to watch a movie on Netflix (even though all of streaming media has gone way downhill), to dust my office, to declutter my closet, or to pay my phone bill. I’m writing precisely because it is difficult – it is so exceedingly painful to continue to be writing about and recognizing the reality of what is transpiring in our world today.
And yes, on top of that, I feel a sense of relative shame that I cannot speak at length or with great acumen about the other atrocities that are happening in nearly every (if not, every) continent in the world. I won’t even name those human rights violations here because I will certainly miss some, and I am trying clumsily and in earnest to be humble but not totally asinine. I could do well enough at a cocktail party, and you might find me relatively persuasive at a conference reception. But I cannot say as much about the other corners of the world as I can about the situation in Israel because, simply put, the small nation of Israel is where my heart lives at least a substantial portion of the time. It’s not rational, and it’s not convenient (because as of now I live in the USA) – but it is what it is so I am writing because of that deeply embedded connection I have with that land and those people.
And right now those people – so so many of them – are living through the kinds of times that we thought only existed in textbooks (now on Kindle) and on the microfiche film at the local library (Google it if that word means nothing to you). The psychological warfare, the release of videos, the hundreds upon hundreds of miles of tunnels, the day after day of protests, the tape on clothing marking those days, the cries of the families, and more. It feels unfathomable, but it continues to be so – and I have to acknowledge that from the comfort of my own living room because they are us. We are them. It is naive to actually be that comfortable.
Parallel to all this – the counting of the days, the constant news updates, the WhatsApp messages at all hours – on November 26th of 2023, my absolutely beloved friend, Rabbi Laurie Phillips, passed away at her childhood home in Michigan after suffering from an awful cancer with a nearly unpronounceable name.
And Laurie was entirely lucid until the end so she absolutely knew what was happening in Israel (and she was both fiercely Zionist and also completely humanist to the situation, which was terrible through and through in her eyes). And the last time I saw her in early November at her home in Brooklyn I told her that I was selfishly mourning for myself the loss of what Israel is to me – that it will feel different when I visit, that I would reconsider bringing loved ones there in the near future, that I may not have that sense of “home” that I am accustomed to knowing there. And when I told Laurie all that, she simply looked at me, didn’t hesitate for a hot second and said something along the lines of, “Nothing’s changed for me. It’s still Israel.”
I don’t remember every single word she shared, but I absolutely remember her intent focus and clarity of vision. Nothing’s changed. Israel IS Israel. Yesterday, today, tomorrow – Israel IS still Israel. Nobody can take that away from you, from us, from me. I think of Laurie telling me that – without blinking her sunken eyes or licking her exceedingly dry lips – staring at me, weeks before she left this earth. It is that ferocious knowing, that unwavering love and commitment that Laurie expressed for Israel that has stayed with me in recent weeks. Even now as I write those words and about that moment on her couch when we held hands for the very last time in this lifetime, I feel it in my chest, something stirring, this sense within that I, too, am ferocious in my knowing – and it is that very ferocity which can at times feel uprooting – to care for something so much, across an ocean and time zones, through language and embraces and history, because it isn’t a financial equation that I can solve or an essay I can tightly craft. It is a kind of love that leaves me feeling outraged, messy, impassioned, bewildered, and alive.
I already told you this wouldn’t be the kind of piece where you feel like I’ve taken you on a clear cut journey. It Isn’t. None of this is crisp or easily understood. But I do know what Laurie taught me, day in and day out, simply by being who she was in the world – and this may be as simple and clear cut as it can get for our precious hours and days and years here as human beings on planet earth.
Be as kind as you can be.
Do all that you can with what you have, while you can.
We are so so lucky.
Be good to yourself.
If you love someone, say it and show it often.
Laugh often and loudly.
And Israel is STILL and always will be Israel.