There are no words. I’m doom-scrolling, praying and worrying, reaching out to family and friends, but nothing prepares us for seeing more than a thousand Israelis murdered and hundreds kidnapped. The images are so graphic, so many bodies desecrated. On my social media feed, the images haven’t stopped coming.
Yet, in the first days of the war, there was a silence. I realized that others weren’t seeing what I was seeing in my Instagram feed. The North American media felt sanitized, distant from the reality that was depicted on Israeli TV and media. The first day or two back at school after the Simchat Torah/Thanksgiving weekend, my kids were stunned when others asked them why they were sombre. Until this year, they attended a Hebrew/English bilingual public elementary school. With their transition to junior high, they didn’t have nearly the same number of classmates who understood the situation.
At their International Baccalaureate middle school, there are curriculum additions, such as a special lunchtime club that meets to make a difference in the world. The resource teacher advises the club. She was sensitive to the needs of the kids affected by the war in Israel and Gaza, and mine came home with fundraising brainstorms. I wrote to thank the teacher for showing support during this hard time.
Then, she asked – do you have ideas for what else we can do? It took me awhile to make a list. I thought about what mattered most for me, far from the war but also very affected by it. The hardest parts of the list are long-term things that teachers should do: teach about misinformation, and definitions of things like terrorism, “rules of engagement” and more. The easiest parts, perhaps the most meaningful ones? Conducting a kindness campaign. Asking how others are doing and listening to their responses. Active listening would help everyone, Israelis, Canadians who are Jewish or Palestinian, and concerned bystanders. So many innocent lives have been lost. We need to talk about it.
I suggested to the teacher that another way of reaching out positively would be to do cards of support. The next day, my son joined other kids from the middle school who walked to the bilingual elementary school to deliver the cards. It was on Friday, Oct. 13, the day that Hamas suggested be a global day of harm for Jews. On a positive note, my son got to share his elementary school and his Hebrew skills by translating for a non-Jewish friend. He was proud. On the other hand, most of the kids in the bilingual program were absent due to the threat. Those who did come to school, from grades 1 through 6, filled just one classroom, according to my kid. He visited with beloved grade school teachers and ate challah at the Shabbat party – but the threat was real.
Outside the school, my kid saw both an unmarked police car and a marked cruiser. My heart flooded with gratitude when I heard this, but the school is in a huge field, accessible from multiple directions. One police car? Two? I felt the fear all over again. How many police would be “safe enough”?
Meanwhile, I heard that Jewish homes in one Winnipeg neighbourhood were egged, and the police were called. A potentially violent rally in support of Palestine, using words like “genocide,” was scheduled within easy walking distance of my home.
Even though we’re far from the fighting, it’s hard to gain traction on work while feeling so emotionally undone. Massive numbers of Palestinians were asked to move and large swaths of Israelis evacuated from both the north and south regions of the country, while so many have been called up to reserve army service. For those Canadians who have lost a family member, the pain is constant. For those who have kidnapped loved ones, like Vivian Silver’s family in Winnipeg and Israel, the families work to publicize their losses and wait in dread to hear what has happened.
Twice, I felt able to rise above this emotional turmoil and felt joy. Both times, it was because of a bar mitzvah.
The first instance that stunned me took place last week, when the cantor who tutors my twins asked them to chant together for their lesson. Their lesson was short, as there was an Israel solidarity rally that she was leaving to attend. I lurked in the next room. Usually, my kids jostle for position but, during that lesson, their voices rang out together, making the rote practice of Torah and Haftorah blessings become so powerful. “Wow,” I heard the cantor say, continuing with something like, “I’m glad I didn’t cancel your lesson. Thank you for gifting me with those brachot.” An almost holy silence hung in the air afterwards.
A few days later, we attended a Chabad bar mitzvah for a kid my twins knew in preschool. Even behind a mechitzah (the barrier between the mens’ and women’s sections), the bar mitzvah boy’s voice rang out sure and strong as he absolutely shone. It was something to see: his big personality, confidence and knowledge. I was achingly proud of our Judaism, in all its diversity and strength.
Writing to deadline, I imagine what might be relevant in a few days, but the things that have helped me will still help later. I am following my own advice. Each day, I am taking time to write emails or texts to friends and reach out. How are they? Are their families safe? Do they need anything? I try to take time to pause, hear what everyone says, and listen for the moments of Jewish joy that we can create – in synagogue or at our homes, when we’re alone or together.
Many ask, “How are you doing?” I pause and say, “Well, it’s been a rough time.” I’m also trying to maintain hope for the future. One hears it – through the generational continuity of every child becoming b’nai mitzvah, through Hatikvah and one other phrase – Am Yisrael chai, the Jewish people lives. It will be my prayer as we get through the days ahead. Amen.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.