Eyal Cohen

Waking Up to War

Childhood is pretty weird. As are friendships. You don’t get to choose where/when you’re born, and more often than not, these two pieces of information dictate the majority of your life. The people you grow up around, the religion you’re most likely to ascribe to, the social norms, the culture, the language. No matter where your life goes or what you end up seeing, everything will be seen through that original prism. Be it because you still view the world the same way, or because you’ve grown to reject that with which you grew up with.

When I get asked where I’m from, I very rarely say “I’m Israeli.” I much prefer saying, “I was born in Israel.” When asked whether I’m Jewish, I’m even more of a smartass. I simply say, “It depends.”

Nations and religions are social constructs. They may have become subjective truths, and epistemologically accepted, and two of the preeminent forms of self-identity for any living being in this world, but at their core, nations and religions are institutions created by people. It’s perhaps a trite or superficial reference, but the idyllic hope articulated in one of the most iconic peace songs ever is the imagination of a world with no countries, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too. Hard to imagine, but both of those—nations and religions—are things that once didn’t exist. The religious aspect is vexed, I know, and one I have a far more complex relationships with. That’s why my response to being asked my religion is vague and objectionable, and why I’d like to focus on the other form identity for a moment.

There are two reasons why I’m reticent to say I’m Israeli. First, I’m coming up on ten years since I left and moved to New York City. Did I grow up there? Yes. Are the 19 years I spent there inextricable from my identity? Of course. Can I still navigate around my hometown without using Apple Maps? Obviously. (There’s perhaps an argument that the fact I use Apple Maps instead of Waze should revoke my citizenship, but we can let that go for now.) I still have my passport and I speak the language and I eat a chopped salad with tahini everyday of my life and I can still vaguely remember how to cut people in line when I really have to. But still, it’s been ten years. I’m out of touch culturally. I can’t tell you who or what is popular, sometimes my friends use slang I don’t fathom, and I can’t give you an educated explanation for the political turmoil the country has been in for the last 12 months. The Israel I know—really know—is one that ceased to exist in 2014.

The second reason is that I don’t know what you hear when I say I’m Israeli. I don’t know what your immediate connotation is; which of the following is your first association: occupation, food, oppression, violence, Judaism, Jesus, sun, colonialism, desert, beach, Zionism. And I want to know first. I need to know first. Not because it will change what I’ll tell you, but because it will change how I’ll tell you.

Maybe this is a flawed way of thinking. Maybe the way I self-identify should not be dependent on others’ perceptions. But I don’t like being misunderstood. I want you to know exactly what I mean. And for that I need to know how you think, first. Again, maybe that’s the wrong way to live, but that’s how I do. That’s why I do my best to avoid certain social constructs that could be grandiose labels. It’s why I prefer giving you the bare facts of the number of years I spent living there. It’s why I prefer being nuanced when I tell you who—or what—I am. And when you ask me where I’m from, the real truth I want to tell you is that, despite being 28, I’m an Israeli kid.

A few months ago, a childhood friend of mine invited me to his wedding that was supposed to take place on October 7th. I took far too long (like, far, far too long) to tell him I won’t be able to make it. Logistically and financially, I just couldn’t make it happen, and I’d known that for a while, but I took my time responding to the invitation and I still feel awful for it. We spoke on the phone in the week leading up to his wedding, the first time we’d spoken in months, where I apologized profusely for my radio silence. That’s not what friends do. He affirmed me that it’s all good, then asked me, “What day do you land?” in a tongue-in-cheek tone reserved for absolute rapport. He continued to send sarcastic jabs my way even after I explicitly said I won’t be there for him on his happiest of days, but by the time we hit the one hour timestamp of our call, all either of us could do was talk about the strength of our bond. How easy it was for jokes from our high school days to resurface from the grayest cells of our brains and into each other’s ears. There’s an expanse of the world we share, he and I, in which the both of us feel safest, happiest, most at ease. And he’s not the only one.

There’s a group of 18 of us guys. Our WhatsApp group from high school, assembled 12 years ago, is still alive. We played on the same soccer team and were in the same class in high school. We spent every waking day together. Only a few of us knew how to speak to girls, and even fewer actually tried to. I can create intricate slideshows detailing every embarrassingly funny moment in each of their lives. I’ve done that, actually, in what is now a tradition on bachelor parties, as these innocent boys have become men with fully formed lives; with careers and relationships and homes and loves. Writing about them is as close as it gets for me to writing about myself. These people are just what and who I know best in the world. And when I stop to think about why our bond is the way that it is, before I consider any of my sentiments towards them, before any shared memories or interests or events or enemies or jokes or stories or trips or what have you, the first word that comes to mind is ‘random.’ We were born in the same geographical location in the same calendar year. That’s how it started.

When people ask me what my favorite part about visiting Israel is, I always say the food. The truth is, it’s not; it’s being back with my friends. But that’s a sentimental cliché that people aren’t particularly interested in, nor are they equipped to understand—really understand—the extent of our relationship. The best I can do to try to explain it to you is to say that our relationships have reached the stage of post-friendship. We no longer live in a world where we’re all friends; we are friends who live in a world.

When I go visit, from the second I step back into that circle, be it the restaurant we’d go to every Friday for lunch as adolescents, bars in the new neighborhoods they all live in, or the living rooms they share with their partners, I’m back to being a child. We all are. We tell jokes from 2009, we bring new perspectives to argue the same topics, we apply a shared past into each individual’s ever-changing present, we trust our childhood joy to guide us to an adult future. It is, as I said, my favorite thing in the world. I hope that will never change. I don’t think it will.

Around midnight of October 6th, I sent a message to my friend who was supposed to get married the following day. I told him how sorry I was for not being there to see the kid I know, the kid who used to eat cereal out of a disposable paper cup as we’d substitute studying for our math test with playing on his Xbox, marry the love of his life. I told him I’m happy the rest of our childhood group will be there in my stead. I told him I love him. He replied nearly instantly, expressing gratitude and love and heart emojis, and I went to bed. This was about 7 AM in Israel, which was around the same time alarms and terror began sweeping the nation. An hour or so later, as the bloodshed that’s still ongoing began, messages that the wedding will not take place were sent to all invited. The celebration became inconsequential. When I woke up at 6:30, the first words I saw on my phone were “there’s a war,” from a friend I consider my brother.

I said earlier that the Israel I know is one that ceased to exist nearly a decade ago, but perhaps that’s a dangerous phrase to use figuratively. Plenty want ‘cease to exist’ to become literal; for the social construct that is the nation of Israel to be reconstructed, or abolished, or reverted back to what it once was. That’s the core of the issue of one of the most contentious geographical disputes in modern history. But that’s a complex argument and big words that politicians and officials use to analyze and dissect a war that has cost, not just historically, but as I write these very words, innumerable lives. The problem is that I’m somewhat ill-equipped to talk about the macro of the conflict since, as I told you, when it comes to the issue of Israel’s existence or meaning, I’m just a kid.

I have no interest in the comparison of suffrage, pain, and tears; that is a futile task adults like to engage in. I’m just a kid who sees Israel through the prism of his friends. Friends who are now either in shelters seeking safety or deployed in uniform for the purpose of offering it to others. And to go back to that cliché song I referenced at the beginning, I’m not the only one. A lot of people, merely because of the geographical location and calendar year in which they were born in, feel the same way. A lot of people have found themselves, once more, at the whims of decision makers who deem their lives disposable.

I don’t know if I’m Israeli. Right now, I’m not sure what any of that means, nor how much it matters. All I know, all I can think about, is how I’m just a kid who loves his friends. I love my friends more than anything. I love my friends to death. That’s, actually, what terrifies me most.

About the Author
Eyal Cohen is a nonfiction writer based in New York City. Born in Israel, he was recruited to play soccer in undergrad in Florida, after which he moved to NYC for his MFA in writing from Columbia University. He’s currently shopping his memoir / cultural criticism hybrid: A book-length essay about how men understand, withhold, and externalize love.
Related Topics
Related Posts