Leah Bieler

The Lie We’ll Never Stop Telling

photo credit Leah Bieler

In the hours after the horrendous attacks in Israel, My husband and I, along with our youngest son, sat watching Israeli channel 12 news on my phone. We didn’t really talk to one another so much as let out random sounds when we were completely overwhelmed. We sat with our heads in our hands as the impossible events unfolded. We saw videos of people hiding and waiting, for eight hours, for ten, for twenty, waiting for help to arrive. And we saw Danny Kushmaro, one of the channel 12 anchors, answering calls on live TV, people using him as an alternative bizarro world 911 operator, face impassive except when the pain became too much and a grimace would escape for just a fraction of a second. 

Our hearts beat faster because in some small way, we knew how this felt. Almost five years ago, my family was attacked by a man in the midst of a psychotic break. He had a knife. He beat me, told us all he was going to kill us. And though I called 911 on my cell nearly immediately, and a police officer was only thirty seconds away, the antiquated system was so bad that it took an agonizing nearly twelve minutes until he arrived. Twelve minutes, which felt like hours. I don’t really want to compare the horror that thousands of Israelis experienced to what happened to us. The magnitude, the immense impact on the entire society, the tragedy – it was so much bigger than our terrible night. But the body remembers what it remembers. And all of our bodies were buzzing, the gentle flow of adrenaline that comes with a trauma replayed. 

I had never thought about the fact that 911 calls are available for anyone to access – investigators, reporters, curious neighbors. It always felt a little prurient. The presenters on local news listening to the recordings, then putting on their most practiced expressions of concern. Is there no way to tell those stories, to get people to care, without hearing the anguished callers waiting for their saviors to arrive? 

Truth be told, I didn’t totally remember what I had said to the 911 operator. I know at one point I yelled at her, frustrated that no one was here when I knew the police station was only a couple of minutes away. I didn’t even recall being on the phone with them as I sat outside in my car, in the middle of a surprise November snowstorm, blood flowing freely from my head. The attacker had thrown me out of the house, and locked the door behind me. My husband had managed to get my youngest out, and the two of us sat in the car, doors locked, unsure of the fate of the rest of the family still inside the house. 

At some point someone told me that they had heard our story on the news. Don’t Google it, they said. It’s too upsetting. So, of course, Google it I did. And there I was on my local NBC affiliate, my voice very clear and eerily calm. My young son asks, “Ima, are we going to be OK?” and I respond, “Yes, we’re going to be OK.”

I don’t know how my voice was so steady, or how I was able to say what I said. I guess it’s just the instinct of a parent, of a mother. Of course it’s my voice on that recording, but I’m not even sure it’s really me. 

Then, watching the endless devastating videos coming out of Israel, came a video where you can’t see any faces, just hear the people in the room speaking. They are being kidnapped. “Ima,” the little boy is clearly terrified, “are they going to kill us?” And you can hear his mother’s startlingly steady response, in a voice that is utterly familiar. “No, They won’t kill us.” 

David Broza, who has, these past few weeks, been singing around Israel to soldiers and displaced families and fellow airplane passengers, and really, whoever will listen, has been famous since the late 70’s. He captures this strain in Israeli, and Jewish imagination in what is certainly his most beloved song. He plays it, if reluctantly, at the end of every concert, or at least every one I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been to quite a few. ‘Yihye Tov,’ It Will Be Alright, is an anthem to that most hopeful phrase, the one every Israeli parent says to themselves as they send a child to the army, the one every Jewish parent says to their child when sending them out into an uncertain, sometimes unfriendly world. 

In those moments, is it a lie we tell our children?  

I looked over at my son after we saw the video. He wasn’t even thinking about himself. I’m not sure if he even remembers that 911 conversation. He was thinking about his little cousins in Israel, who he misses so much. He was filled with worry about them. Worry mixed with an echo of his own trauma now flashing over and over and over again on the screen. I told him to take a break from the news. But I was a terrible example, unable to tear myself away.

And now, days later, the news anchors have lost all pretense of journalistic objective emotionality. Danny Kushmaro openly weeps as he interviews victims, releasing just a little of his abject sadness. Just enough to make room inside for what is certainly left to come. Then, right before shabbat, I saw a report where Kushmaro went back to check on one of the people from the other end of the line on that horrible day. They replayed the video, so familiar now, of a man whispering into his phone, begging for help from a person whose face had probably been in his living room hundreds of times. A two-dimensional friend of sorts. And there was Kushmaro, feeling, one can only assume, utterly helpless. “It’s going to be ok,” he promised, “you’re going to be ok.”

It’s not a lie, really, that we tell. It’s more of a prayer. It’s a prayer we all know. The whole Jewish people, all around the world. We’ve been saying it on repeat, when we wake up and remember all over again what has happened. It’s the prayer of people watching the news, reading the paper. It’s the prayer we say when we hear the endless stories of heroism and of loss. It’s the prayer we whisper when we lie awake at night, filled with worry and anguish over the fates of the missing. It’s the prayer of every parent with a child in uniform, counting the hours till they can put their arms around them again. B’shochvenu uv’kumenu. When we lie down to sleep, and as soon as we re-enter our reality.

It’s the prayer of Jews throughout history. We hope that if we say it loud enough, and often enough, and strong enough, God will have no choice but to grant our request. Yes, someday we’re going to be OK. May it be God’s will. Ken yehi ratzon.

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.
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