The first thing I notice upon arrival in Israel yesterday is the presence of hostages. Or their absence. The usually busy Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel-Aviv is mostly empty because only El Al is flying in, no other airline. The broad declivity towards Passport Control in Terminal 3, the international terminal, is lined with photos of hostages, one after another, on both sides.
The streets are heavily postered, like the one above, and my brother informs me that in his neighborhood, empty baby carriages are left at the corners to remind people about the children, including babies, being held in Gaza tunnels by Hamas. The news is on full blast, the sounds of pings on mobile phone exchanging texts: Have you heard anything about — ?, referring to sons, husbands, or brothers fighting in Gaza.
I have lunch with my brother in the Aroma Café in his old Jerusalem neighborhood. We have frequented it for so many years that I know their breakfast menu by heart. We share the usual Israeli breakfast: omelet with salad and tehina, avocado, cheeses, whole-wheat bread, good coffee. He talks about going down to Hebron to study the Koran on Sunday mornings, followed by podcasts on Jewish studies, participating in high-level meetings with the military to curb radical settler violence in West Bank Arab villages.
We have grown accustomed to sharing our different spiritual path over the years, he in his religious Jewish mode, I in Zen Buddhism. At times I invoke Bernie, at times he does. The previous night we lit seven Chanukah candles on his menorah outdoors on the street where he lives. I join him in those songs—they’ve been imprinted inside long ago, when I was a little girl.
I start hearing more details about what was done to women on October 7 and what women hostages suffer in Gaza, according to the accounts of those who’d been released. The rumor mill is booming here, circulating stories with all the vengeance of hot summer desert winds. Rape, mutilation, gang rape, suicide.
“Are you sure about this?” I ask him. He shrugs. It’s a small country and he knows somebody who knows somebody who is closest to the person in question. There is no one who has not been touched here, who hasn’t gone to funerals, who hasn’t heard eulogies.
In the middle of lunch his phone rings. His son is calling; he’s just returned to base after 3 days in the Palestinian city of Jenin in the West Bank, where around a dozen “militants,” as the Israeli Defense Forces refers to them, have been killed. This is when our paths diverge. I think to myself that the IDF calls everyone they kill militants, and I don’t believe it. But my brother is pale as he listens to his son relate what they went through. “Let’s talk more later,” he suggests, and hangs up. He’s a father, after all.
“Do you hear from David?” I ask about his other son, who’s in Gaza.
Not lately. When they’re in Gaza they’re not allowed to use cell phones, but one soldier from each unit is the designated communicator and he sends out a text once in a while to let the WhatsApp group of families know they’re okay. Or maybe an old friend may have run into David in Gaza, exchanged a few words, and is able to call my brother or David’s wife upon arriving back home and say that he saw David and he looks good.
“When they announce that soldiers were killed, they let you know from what units and only 24 hours later, after they’ve notified the families, they publicize the names,” my brother tells me. “So every day I check the names of the units they mention.”
Last night, after arriving here, I watched a TV political talk show till late. I want to hear what commentators say, what concerns them, feel the pulse of the country. They are aware of the devastation in Gaza. One commentator, who’s been there, says it looks as if a tremendous earthquake struck the place, leaving almost nothing standing in the north. He speaks factually, without a hint of horror, or of any feeling at all, just an evaluation of whether the IDF is, in his words, “treading water” or meeting its twin goals of freeing hostages and getting rid of Hamas. So far, the nation wants to continue, but even in this holiday of lights there is gloom and depression.
Only rarely do I bring up what is happening in Gaza. I can do so with my brother and sister, but gingerly and lightly. For now, I’m in a room with one story and endless echoes of shellshock, rage, and despair.
I walk mt brother to his car; I’ll return to my sister’s while he goes off to take care of 5 grandchildren, giving respite to their overwhelmed mothers. It’s a crowded one lane road and we exchange a big hug in the middle of the street. A car honks.
“You’re hugging!” the driver yells angrily through the open window.
“What’s wrong with that?” my brother asks.
“You’re hugging in the middle of the street!” the driver says accusingly.
“You’re also in the middle of the street,” my brother replies.
The driver cracks a smile. “OK, go on hugging for many years to come, may God give you that.”
“Amen,” we both chime back.