If you’ve ever seen the movie Monsters, Inc. or its sequels, you may have an immediate visual image of what the craziest monsters look like when kids imagine what’s under the bed or in the closet. A few weeks ago, I started approaching this when we essentially moved. To clarify, we moved into our “new” house, built in 1913, more than a year ago. However, we’d all camped out in temporary spaces on the third floor while there were renovations done to the first and second floors.
We weren’t making cosmetic updates, these were basic needs like bathrooms that worked, a kitchen with heat, and other essentials. Turns out that, after more than 100 years and some poorly done, decades-old renovation choices along the way, it’s a good idea to have things fixed and updated – insulation and asbestos removal, new plumbing and safe wiring, too. We had scheduled our big “move” to the renovated second floor bedrooms for the Simchat Torah/Thanksgiving weekend. We would have had three days to manage the chaos. Little did we know that Hamas scheduled its horrific Israeli invasion and massacre for the same weekend.
Fueled by anxiety and a looming school and work deadline, we moved all four of us and dog beds downstairs. We set up kids’ clothes areas and adults’ nightstands, while we parents furtively looked at increasingly upsetting news online. I’ll probably always remember this moment in our Canadian character home renovation as when this massacre and the war against Hamas started.
We cleaned up the nearly vacated third floor, then set it up sufficiently to host another family who was visiting town the very next weekend. During the visit, we walked them over to see the Manitoba Legislature grounds while monitoring when each pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel rally might occur. There have been several now in Winnipeg, complete with pro-Israel counter-protests, with conflicts that required police intervention. We kept plowing forward amid the nightmare of the news.
Like many other places, Winnipeg has experienced acts of antisemitism. Some of it hit us personally. There was graffiti that my kids reported at middle school, and some of the bigger incidents have happened nearby or to people we know.
Like many other people have experienced, there are times when I have felt paralyzed and isolated by the overwhelming nature of the conflict. I am miserable about the loss of life, the impossibility of Israel’s situation, the fear for the hostages amid the knowledge that Hamas broke a ceasefire when it attacked Oct. 7, and that a ceasefire alone will not resolve this situation. I cannot bear the news. I also cannot look away.
The hardest task of this latest move has been the one where we open any closet door. I am still cleaning up boxes of belongings we have stored for more than a year. Things fall on me and surprise me. The worst part is the fear, the moment when the unknown jumps out at us and causes panic. Even if the box is labeled or the animated monster is in a movie, our startle instincts still cause fear when the unexpected and awful occurs.
When my kids told me about the hateful words on the test-taking dividers in math class, I didn’t feel afraid, but purposeful and angry. I wrote the teachers to report the situation and acted promptly. Within a few hours, the physical issue was addressed. The graffiti may be gone, but out there, some kid is still capable of writing more hate or worse.
Making lists, doing constructive activities – whether they are our daily obligations, additional volunteer efforts, or taking on new mitzvot (commandments) or prayers – may make us feel stronger. Also, in Mr. Rogers’ words, we can “look for the helpers.” We can ask for support from friends, neighbours, teachers, and others. We stay alert to the dangers and also strengthen ourselves with steps to make change during an incredibly difficult time.
There are lists on social media of how to protect our mental health and warnings for how to be proactive about protecting ourselves further. While this feels like new territory for us, it is, in fact, an ancient path. The prayer we use is the most compassionate call to free captives, and it begins with “Acheinu,” “our brothers.” Old-fashioned translations call it our “brethren.” We pray for Israel, for those in captivity, and for the soldiers, too. For those who feel this leaves something out, remember that our tradition is one of shalom, peace. We pray for peace at every turn in our religious services. We’re not praying for any innocent person’s death.
I can’t say we’re all tidied up at our house and that everything has found its proper place. Daily, I discover items that we put away and then lost during this renovation and life transition. The metaphor extends to this difficult period as Jews in Israel and the diaspora. We’re not in a good place. We need to manage a truly dangerous situation. We’re losing things. Scary things surprise us. The unknown at the back of the closet is terrifying and is a living nightmare for many.
Let’s pray, if you’re the praying sort – or hope, if you’re not – for peace, for safety, for the return of captives and for the strength of those who fight on our behalf, in Israel and elsewhere in the world. Also, make yourself a list. Figure out how you’re going to get through this time. Try and focus on the light. I’m going to keep emptying moving boxes, too.
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.