Jill Schulman

When the world changed

Here is my husband, sitting on our bed at 9 a.m. on Shabbat morning, phone in hand. We don’t use our phones on Shabbat. “Something’s happening in Israel” he says, “X– has been trying to get hold of me.” X– is his colleague, with a daughter on a base in the South. We’re one hour ahead – we check the news.

Here we are, with the TV on downstairs. We can’t put the pieces together; it’s disjointed and fragmented. We download Telegram so we can monitor the Tzeva Adom (Code Red) alerts for what sirens are going off where. It’s a barrage, continuous, ongoing, everywhere. We check in with our son-in-law. Our elder daughter and her family returned to Israel yesterday before Shabbat. They have no shelter in their building, in Tel Aviv. We check in with our younger daughter’s boyfriend, in Givatayim. They have just moved into their apartment. That daughter is still with us outside of Israel, but her boyfriend is there alone.

Here is our one son, standing behind the couch staring at the TV, his hands on his cheeks and tears streaming down his face. He starts to sob.

Here is our younger daughter, curled into the corner of the couch where she will stay all day, in her pajamas, flipping between TV, WhatsApp, Telegram, Twitter, Instagram, news channels, rinse and repeat, all day long, over and over again. It’s Shabbat and chag, but Shabbat has ended for us. It feels like the end of the world.

Here is my husband, raging. Where is the army? Where are the helicopter gunships? Where IS everyone??

Here I am on Telegram. I find some channels in English. I check the comments on one. I see video uploads and I’m wondering what journalists or Israelis have got there, before the IDF? It’s like my eyes see but my brain is five minutes behind, or longer sometimes, depending on the degree of incomprehension. There is a gaping hole in the fence – holes in our border fence?? – and people are streaming through. Not just convoys. “Come, bring your weapons, knives, axes, come, come to liberate Al Aqsa!” reads the translation. What do they want axes for, goes through my mind. Maybe for chopping through doors? Only hours later, I am appalled at my own naivety.

Here is my son again. His WhatsApp and Telegram is aflame, like everything else, it feels. There are hundreds of bodies, shot, cars burning at the side of the road, he tells us.

Here is a voice note from X–. They’re fetching his daughter from home, where she had returned for the weekend. They tell her her base is overrun. Tens of soldiers are dead.

Here is a jumble of images. They start to flood in. Young people fleeing across a field. Bodies, blood splattered on walls, in pools and smears across floors. Gunmen casually strolling through a town, RPGs on shoulders, cradling submachine guns. Bandanas. Shooting through windows, casually spraying cars, opening fire on anything, everything that moves. Bodies on sidewalks. Convoys of white pickup trucks. Motorbikes. All bristling with weapons. A wailing, screaming young woman, reaching for her bewildered boyfriend who is stumbling in the dust. There are teenagers running alongside, a young boy’s unbroken voice chattering excitedly in the background. Another girl, pulled from a vehicle. The seat of her pants is dark. I think maybe she sat in mud, then realise she didn’t. A sobbing voice live on TV. Sobbing. Bodies paraded amidst scenes of wild celebration. There is a lot of blood, and a lot of shouting. Cracks of gunfire punctuate everything. There seem to be flames everywhere.

Here is my brain, catching up. These have been uploaded with pride, with glee. They’re boastful and victorious. This is for the world to see, not to hide… and it’s shameless, all of it. Who can understand this? Each image is a punch. Each voice a wound. We are bleeding here too, our lives spilling out onto the white couch, our hearts breaking. The world ending.

Here we are booking flights for our daughter and her two young children, and our younger daughter’s boyfriend. For later tonight. Just in case. They can decide later, but let’s hold them just in case. There have been no rockets in central Israel for a few hours, so they think they’ll stay. Then they start again, a barrage, and we get a message okay we’re coming. But now the sirens are regular, the roads are deserted, and we don’t know how many terrorists infiltrated, how deep they managed to penetrate, if they’ll suddenly turn onto Kvish 1 or break through the security barrier at the airport. The flight looks like it’s cancelled, then it’s not, then it’s delayed. We don’t know anything. Our older son is pleading, don’t let them come, the roads are too dangerous. He is seeing things he doesn’t want to tell us. But then there is a break again in sirens, it seems the flight is back on again, and they run for the car and drive flat out to the airport. They are there, at the airport, and then boarding, and then airborne. Our son-in-law makes it back to Tel Aviv. We exhale for just a little bit.

Here we are at the airport to fetch them. It’s 6 a.m. None of us has slept. We feel aged. Stooped. Shattered, stunned, broken. The news is not good, and it’s just relentless.

Here I am in the kitchen, the next day. Did I sleep? I’m not sure. I can’t think. I’m making breakfast at 11 a.m. On the news we see Israeli tourists have been shot at by a policeman in Egypt. A policeman??

Here we are in the pool, with our grandchildren, trying for normal. There is no normal, but they are still children. Our 5-year old granddaughter mimics with perfect pitch and accuracy, the sound of the siren as it starts up and then blares. She tells us she knows what to do when she hears it. She knows also to take her 2-year old brother by the hand and take him downstairs into the stairwell with her.

Here is news coming out now in floods, in streams. We can’t bear it. It’s unbearable. Incomprehensible. Such barbarism – who can imagine such depravity? Just when we think we’ve seen and heard the worst, along comes the next thing. Things you cannot unsee, cannot unhear, cannot un-know. I think I’ve seen the worst that there is, the very worst, until I click on a Telegram comment again and see…. I throw my phone to the floor.

Here I am in the bathroom, retching.

Here is an email from our younger son’s Jewish day school in South Africa. Until further notice there is no uniform and kids are to wear civvies with no identifying symbols or slogans. There will be considerably enhanced security. All precautions are being taken, and the school counsellors are on standby.

Here we are on Monday. We have no idea what we’re doing, none of us. We are all doing our best, but we’re all stunned. Our son-in-law has lost his sim card and is running around from base to base trying to find out if he’s been called up or not. Our older son’s work colleague was at the music festival and is missing. All our Israeli friends – every single one – have children who have been called up. All our children have friends who have been called up. Our friends in Cape Town have children in active service. A rabbi who is well connected with our shul has one son injured and one son missing.

Here we are, my younger daughter and myself, with the little ones on an outing. My husband has gone to work. The others at the apartment are all supposedly working, although we’re not sure how much work is being done. My daughter and I are hyper aware of not speaking in public about things, and hyper aware of any Hebrew that may slip out of the kids’ mouths. Between us we develop a code. Tel Aviv, my daughter says quietly, and I know she means sirens. Rishon, Holon, Ra’anana. Yavne. Jerusalem. Tel Aviv. In the South, they just go on, and on, and on. I feel brutalised. My soul is bruised. We are okay but not okay, and everything hurts. Everything.

Here we are on Monday night, playing padel. There are five of us so we rotate. One sits out and checks the news while the other four play. Then we switch. It feels good. Trying to hit a ball takes our mind off things for a while. I feel guilty and relieved at the same time. This is not normal. Nothing is normal, but we play anyway.

Here I am on Tuesday night. We are all frustrated but doing our best. We’re all trying, and that looks different for all of us. This is inconceivable. Our son’s work colleague is amongst the festival victims. My mother has been wanting to speak to me all day and eventually I find time to step away from everyone, up to our room. I hear her voice, and I start to cry. I cry and cry and cry, sobs heaving up from inside me, and it feels like I will never stop. I haven’t cried in front of my mom since… maybe since I was 20? I’m 56 now. I cry and I cry and I cry. I tell her some of the less terrible things, and can’t even begin to tell her the start of the worst. I can’t bear it, how will she? There are just some things you should never ever have to hear, or see, or even imagine. All our hearts are broken, I tell her. I don’t tell her that this has awoken something primal in us – that we are never safe. We thought we had our one place, but that notion has been desecrated. We are never safe.

Here is Joe Biden later on that evening. We feel a little less alone. And so grateful. I have messages from so many people – out of my past, from my present, unexpected gifts. Each message goes straight to my heart and patches over some internal bleeding of the soul. I am so grateful. I want to say to each person, thank you for seeing us. Thank you.

Here we are in a taxi on Wednesday, on the way back home from the mall. Our taxi driver’s name is Sadam Hussein. You can’t make this stuff up. On the way, we get a Red Alert notification that the whole North has been invaded by unidentified aerial devices. The entire North is instructed to enter their shelters. In the taxi, my heart stops. My breath stops. My chest hurts, my whole body is shaking. My daughter and I can’t say anything to each other, in the taxi, with Sadam Hussein and the grandchildren. We almost fall out of the taxi when we get home. It’s a false alarm. The world is not ending after all. We feel celebratory, like we need to have a l’chaim, like we won a battle or a war. Except it was an imaginary one. Relief floods us all like a tide anyway.

Here we are on Thursday. My husband is back in South Africa with our youngest son. I am still here with our other three children and the grandchildren. All of them want to be back in Israel. One daughter is looking after the kids so the other daughter can work, and so that I can catch up on some work of my own. I’m so behind, and anxious about it. I have to be brutal with myself to focus. It’s extremely difficult. We are teaching our granddaughter to swim, something we can all cheer about, giving us a stream of good news to send to her father back home. Israelis are so amazing and so united. Our soldiers – they carry us. We are all doing something – if we can’t volunteer we are donating. We’re posting like crazy people on social media. We play padel again.

Here is my daughter making challah. It’s Friday and we’re about to go into Shabbat again. It’s been seven days. We are in so much collective and communal pain that it stretches from block to block, city to city, country to country and continent to continent. But somehow love binds us as well. I’ve stopped looking at comments on Telegram, and I refuse to open Twitter. Or X, or whatever it’s called these days. Whenever I have a break – from the kids, from the grandkids, from meals, from running two homes on different continents, from work, from the constant stream of WhatsApps – I say Tehillim. I’ve never been this person, and now I am. This is what binds us, when words fail. I read article after article. I watch interview after interview. I can’t soak up any more tears and yet I do. I can’t contain how the connection to my people fills me up, and yet I find space. I can’t unsee what we’ve seen or unhear what we’ve heard but I feel a need to listen to every word of testimony that I possibly can. We are already holding memory so that we don’t forget. I don’t want to see things, but I need to hear it. My brain stops working when I think of the hostages… it just stops. I am so overwhelmed with all this that I school myself to autopilot, to routine, to function. If I stop, I will cry again, and then I might never stop. I cry all the time anyway – tears leaking out of my eyes when I’m alone. It’s not one thing, it’s everything. Everyone who lives, and everyone who died. It’s everything. It’s all of us.

Here I am on a Sunday morning at the end of October in 1997, a few days after Simchat Torah. I have just emerged from the mikveh, in a liminal state, new. My hair is still wet when I am given a name, and then I declare, in the holy quiet of this moment: Wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge.

Your people shall be my people. And your God my God.

About the Author
Jill Schulman grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, before making aliyah with her husband and children in 2001. She lived in Israel for thirteen years while raising her family.
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