What to do?

Let me share a dilemma with you. What does an opinion columnist do in the midst of an excruciating time for his People and his beloved country of Israel? What does he write about when more than a thousand members of his family — and, as I have learned yet again this week, all Israelis are my family — have been slaughtered? What does he discuss when hostages, if they are still alive, rot in conditions that we unsuccessfully try not to imagine? What opinions does he share when rockets continue to attack civilian populations? What insights does he propound when his Facebook feed is overflowing with pictures of lovely young women and dashing young warriors whose lives were brutally snuffed out while defending their nation, and of very young children who were taken hostage, shot, and burned? What commentary does he offer when Israel is confronted with decisions that no sane person wants to contemplate but its leadership must make? And, on a personal level, what can he say when his brain keeps spinning, thinking about his great-nieces and -nephews and so many others who have been called up to the front lines?

I tried one approach at the end of last week, drafting a personal column about what I’ve been doing during this immensely difficult week. However, my early readers — whose comments I solicit before I submit my final copy to the paper and whose judgment I respect and cherish even if I don’t always completely agree — told me, gently and lovingly, that I missed the mark; this time my words fell flat. And so, that draft now lives in my (thankfully small) “unpublished material” file.

Which brings me back to my initial question — what to do? Do I write about the situation, opining on the specifics of the war, the tactics, the choices, the politics, the consequences? My readers certainly know that I’m a very opinionated person with much to say about large and small events alike and with a forum in which to say it. Not surprisingly, therefore, I have many opinions about the horrific events of October 7th. Opinions about Hamas, Gaza, civilians, sieges, and the Israeli, U.S., world, and local Teaneck reactions. Opinions galore.

But I don’t need my early readers to comment about those opinions; they fall flat even to my ears. What do I have to add to the first-person stories and commentary I’ve been watching on CNN from victims and reporters who’ve seen the devastation firsthand? What can I articulate that will not sound puny compared to the explanations and observations of Israeli military spokespeople, whose words offer a clarity that has been so often missing from the public arena? What insights do I have to offer that will match those of experienced pundits and foreign policy and security professionals? What can I possibly say that will match the powerful words of unwavering support for Israel that President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken have proclaimed and reiterated?

The answer to all those questions is, in a word, nothing.

There is a second, possible approach — put down my pen, or more accurately close my laptop, and stay silent for the duration. If I have nothing to add, nothing new or different to contribute, perhaps I should remain an observer on the sidelines, silently watching and listening. Saying nothing is certainly an option. Indeed, many of us heard Ecclesiastes (3:7) teach us in our synagogues on this past tragic Shemini Atzeret that there is an et lachashot ve-et ledabear — a time to be silent and a time to speak. And note, Kohelet puts silence before speaking. Perhaps that is the way to go.

But that too doesn’t feel quite right to me. First, if I’m completely silent, I can’t let my Israeli friends and relatives know how much I care, how much I support them in their fight and time of need, as I hope this column makes clear.

And there’s more. While the times are certainly not normal, people continue to do normal things. Of course, what’s most important to us, the first thing we think about when we wake up and the last thing before we go to sleep, is what’s happening in Israel and how our family and friends are managing; our days are filled with new concerns, new worries, new prayers, new activities, new demands, and new obligations. But we still go to work, provide for our families, spend time with friends, read a book, attend a lecture, exercise, take a break. Life is certainly not the same; the world — our world — has been turned upside down. And yet, life, together with all the new, goes on as it must.

And so my answer to the question in this column’s title, as expanded upon in its first paragraph, is that what I will do is continue what I’ve been doing for the past eight years in this space; I will write about what “I’ve Been Thinking.” It may, perhaps, be about Israel if I believe I actually have something meaningful to say. Or it may be about something else, just like I’ve been doing in my last 150-plus columns. I know some of you may not want to read those musings while bombs fall and precious lives are destroyed, and I’ll completely understand if you simply turn the page or, with the digital version, hit the delete button.

But I must do what I must do. And at this time in my life, and in this space that is so precious to me, what I must do is write. And in the coming weeks that is what I will try to do.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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