“You’re based in Tel Aviv, right? Through no fault of yours, there is an international campaign of “boycott, divestment and sanctions” against your government and economy, which unfortunately is a picket line I can’t cross.”
That was the email I received from an American writer in response to my bid to help edit his manuscript. He wasn’t done though, he had more to educate me about:
“I wish your citizens all the best in changing the government’s course of action on respect for international law and human rights conventions to which it is a signatory. We in the US are certainly doing our part to correct our government’s complicity and enabling of these abuses.
I was stunned and sickened, but sadly, not surprised. Not really.
Just over a week ago — it seems like yesterday — my life partner, or LLB (Loving Life Buddy, as I call him) Gidon Lev and I, were huddled in our bathroom in Ramat Gan, listening to the siren wind down and waiting for the explosions. Gidon is 86; he can’t make it down the three flights of stairs to the building’s bomb shelter. We should have gone into the stairwell, but we didn’t have the presence of mind.
BOOM. BOOM. Boomboomboom. BOOM. The house shook, and the windows rattled. Without saying a word, we knew that a missile had made an impact not far from where we were. Maybe even on our street.
Of the 15,000 children who passed through or were imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt, fewer than 92 survived. Gidon is one of those children. He spent four years of his childhood in the camp. When he was liberated, along with his mother in 1945, Gidon was malnourished and didn’t know how to read. When he and his mother tried to return to their home in Karlovy Vary (in the former Czech Republic) a kid called Gidon a dirty Jew.
I have an unconscious habit of immersing myself in topics. I don’t plan to. I just do it. When Trump was elected, I read nothing but Tolstoy for months. Coincidentally, and by far not a good thing for my nerves or mental health — but who would have known – I read Matti Friedman’s Pumpkinflowers and Apeirogon by Colum McCann over the past two weeks while the sirens were wailing and the war was on the news. I guess I should make a more soothing reading list for next time because of course, there will be a next time. There always is.
“Is this your first experience with this, Julie?” someone asked me on Zoom. No. Third in ten years. “Do you get used to it?” There is no way to get used to airborne death, I say.
I met Gidon Lev in 2017. He was looking for someone to help him tell the story of his life. I said no because I didn’t feel qualified to write about the Holocaust or the history of Israel in the 21st century, even though those were both just the backdrops of Gidon’s adventurous life. Gidon didn’t take “no” for an answer, and our lives became intertwined.
In 2010, my brother killed himself – took his life – committed suicide – became a statistic — there’s no way to say it that isn’t a black hole in my heart that aches every single day. One day, I told Gidon how this grief continues to dominate my life. Gidon thought for a moment and then said, “Yes, but how much of the rest of your life do you want it to take up?” Later, as an early birthday gift, Gidon gave me an opal ring, surrounded by a delicate silver filigree, with three small gems floating on the periphery. “See that one?” Gidon said, pointing to one gem. “That’s your brother.” He’s a part of your life, but he’s not your whole life.”
The ring was made by an Israeli jeweler in Moshav Moledet, which is where the hot air balloon Gidon and I were on last spring landed — squarely on the property of a farmer who was none too pleased about our arrival. The hot air balloon’s basket held about sixteen people; about half were Israeli Jews and the other half were Arab-Israelis. We had a fine time together, even when we landed, hijabs and hats askew, in The Field of the Shouting Farmer.
I edit books for a living, and I’ve written a couple too. I work with writers pretty evenly divided between Israeli, American, Brits, and Canadians I have seen it all: every genre, every story, every character you can imagine. I’ve been doing this for a long time — making stories more real, more compelling, more authentic.
When I first came to Israel in 2012, two years after my brother’s death, professionally, I downplayed that I lived in Israel. It was beside the point. Yes, it appeared in my bio, but you’d have to really look for it. It wasn’t something that I trumpeted — for fear of being discriminated against for being a citizen of the Jewish State.
A few months ago, perhaps full of hope, perhaps too optimistically, I decided to embrace not just that I live in Israel but in the belly button of the world – the Levant, the Eastern Mediterranean, the home of epic poems, archetypal heroes, and legendary battles for power and God. I redesigned my website to highlight my location and the beauty of it. Look — my website says — I live in the place of the People of the Book — Jews, Muslims, and Christians today but also the former territories of the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Hittites, and Egyptians! Isn’t that amazing?!
I could not manage to stave off Gidon’s desire that a book be written about his life. What else could I do – he is one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors still living. I gathered up Gidon’s writings about his life, organized and edited them, and then decided to write a book about writing a book about Gidon. The little book that almost wasn’t – was. The Kirkus Review named it one of the Best Books of 2020. Gidon was pleased. He’s very adept at being interviewed on Zoom, and an Israeli-American film director is now making a documentary about him.
I have never experienced antisemitism in my life. That’s because in 1986, at all of age 21, I converted. My experience heretofore was as an all-American mutt — you know — German, Irish, English, Scottish, celebrating Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas. When I married a Jewish man from Los Angeles, his family hadn’t experienced antisemitism either. Except they had. Like so many Jewish families, Jon’s family had fled the pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th century and come to America. Jon’s father, Sam, grew up in Detroit and recalled being called a “kike.” But that was long ago, and now it was the 80s, in Los Angeles, and I was happy to join my life not just to Jon’s but to an amazing heritage and people. The Holocaust had not touched Jon’s family. Except it had. Second and third cousins, great aunts and uncles were never heard from again. They had lived in a village called Babi Yar.
Last year, in the San Francisco Bay Area, my daughter was called “a dirty Jew” in a public space. My son, until recently a denizen of Washington, D.C., told me that while he is not usually a kippah-wearing type, he’d probably give kippah-wearing a wide berth. For a while anyway.
In my thirty-five years of being Jewish, I have sometimes been privy to casual remarks about Jews. Because I don’t “look Jewish” and my surname doesn’t “sound Jewish,” people sometimes mistakenly make these remarks in my presence. Nice people. Educated people. People who were my friends. Not “Jew,” I would correct a well-meaning friend — JEWISH. No, “the Jews” don’t “run Hollywood,” I’d say. No, “Jew you down” is not okay to say. They didn’t mean anything by it, these friends or acquaintances apologized sheepishly. Stupid sayings, old beliefs. Time to politically correct themselves. These then socially acceptable comments were dismayingly normal to encounter.
Sometimes I think about adding Gidon’s family name to my own: Julie Lev Gray, so that people never make that mistake again.
Gidon was not yet six years old when he and his mother arrived at Theresienstadt, lugging one suitcase each, over two kilometers of snow from the train station to the camp. Gidon’s father had been sent to the camp two weeks earlier as a part of a division of “able-bodied” men — Jews — who were to set the camp up for its incoming prisoners. Ernst, Gidon’s dad, was on the last transport from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. Records tell us that he arrived at the camp in the autumn of 1944 and was subjected to experimental medications. He managed to live for three more months before he was put on a train to Buchenwald. There are no records of his arriving there, so he was either shot or died on the way. Ernst was forty-five years old.
When I arrived in Israel in 2012, I threw myself into becoming a part of Israeli society and being a part of the solution to hamatsav — the situation. I volunteered, I went to coexistence events and talks. I — wait for it — immersed myself and read and talked and tried to understand. I was completely naive and I don’t regret that for a second. I learned a lot.
Before I met Gidon, I had never met a Holocaust survivor in my life. Like the red coat in Schindler’s List, Gidon’s bright blues eyes caught and held my attention. I couldn’t believe that his innocent blue eyes had looked into those of Nazis, had seen young men hung, had known starvation and fear.
A few years later and here I am, together with Gidon and through no fault of my own — I live in Israel, and a person I’ve never met wanted to let me know that no, he would NOT do business with me because he must uphold his values and those of the BDS movement about human rights.
We shouldn’t have, but a couple of hours after the missile hit, Gidon and I walked to the site of the impact to see what had happened. It was only about three blocks from our home. We weren’t alone; our neighbors — religious, secular, young, and old did the same thing. The small crowd watched in uncomfortable, nervous silence as the police and firemen put up barricades and did the work of cleaning up the damage. I suppose they had already taken away the body of the man that was killed. The cars that had caught fire had been towed away already. Glass was shattered on both sides of the street for half a block in every direction. Nothing as bad as what happened in Gaza. Nothing like it at all. I know that and it doesn’t make me feel better because this whole messed up conflict is a kind of pointless hell and no, I’m not interested in the victim Olympics because nobody wins. This has to stop.
You don’t know me, I wanted to say to the stranger who emailed me. You have no idea who I am, much less do you get, from your comfortable home in Seattle, what Palestinians feel or go through daily. Neither do I but I am here and I am doing the work and even with my privilege, I too have been detained and humiliated at a checkpoint near Jenin and interrogated by the frightened soldiers who are really just kids with guns and don’t know how to handle themselves. You, Mr. BDS-in-Seattle, don’t know how many seconds you have to run to a shelter and you sure as hell don’t know what it’s like to lose 26 family members in concentration camps. Yet you deign to tell me that you will NOT work with me? Listen, buddy, I think I’m dodging a toxic bullet here if we can speak plainly.
After I got done reporting this incident to the ADL — not because I was physically threatened or harmed in any way – but because I think this righteous, passive-aggressive, brazen form of Jew-hatred — or, as we used to more politely say — antisemitism — needs to be noted and recorded — I decided to write the guy back. I was torn, actually. But Gidon talked me into it. “Don’t do it because of you,” he said, “do it for all of us.”
Welcome to the club, a friend said. I had pennies thrown at me as a kid growing up in New Jersey. I was called “Jew-boy” in London, another friend said. I live in Paris, and I am afraid. I live in LA, and I am scared. I had to quit a Facebook group. I received death threats. I got a threatening phone call.
I email the nice person from Wix doing some stuff to my website and tell him to leave off my phone number and address. I am afraid.
Some people have told me that I put too much effort into my response, that it will fall on deaf ears. I guess I’m naive or stubborn or both. I’m hoping for a teachable moment here. I know that’s nuts and that, in fact, I may be setting myself up to get some very nasty hate mail or even death threats. I am scared, to be honest. I’m scared to even publish what you are reading now. But I feel that I should. For Gidon. For his father, for his 26 family members, for the six million, for the suffering at the checkpoints, for the death in Gaza and in Israel, for all of us in this part of the world who are trying so hard, seemingly in vain, to understand each other. Hate just leads to more hate. BDS is not the way.