‘That’ Day

Professor William Kolbrener –

That day my life changed. I stopped writing scholarly articles; I put aside a book project. After October 7th, I left a job as academic director of a non-profit fighting antisemitism. I did not want to fight antisemitism on the battlefield of ideas: the battlefield had come to my home.

We all have our stories from that day.

Mine, crystallized in an image: coming home from shul at the end of the holiday, my 25 year old daughter Freidie, the phone’s reflective light showing her face, pale, her lips clenched. She shook her head. NO.

That morning, the sirens sounded – rare in Jerusalem, especially so early. I was in shul, in our building, downstairs: wife, kids, dog, the elderly filing down two flights to the bomb shelter, a converted room on the bottom floor. A Filipina caretaker for the widow upstairs told us that 40 people had been killed. We dismissed her – ‘that’s crazy.’ In a country where every soldier’s death is both personal and a national tragedy, where the death of any group of soldiers a catastrophe, the number was unthinkable. After a bunch of sirens, even the sweating adolescent boys stopped dancing. We finished the prayers quickly, and went home.

Freidie and I had agreed that she would, at the end of the holiday, connect the TV – unplugged since the World Cup Final. But back home after night time prayers, the house was dim, silent, the TV off. Looking from her phone, her hands trembling, head shaking, I understood: not with the grandchildren around.

But sometimes, as the Talmud says, desolation – we never ask for it – makes new foundations possible.

As Moses descends from Mount Sinai, God praises him for breaking the tablets of the divine law: ‘Yashar co’ah,’ well done! With the golden calf, the national equivalent of Adam’s fall, the people of Israel become mortal. The second tablets are designed, by Moses, for this new mortal state. With death, poetry comes into the world, the words that rescue our memories from the paralysis, gloom, and oblivion that comes with catastrophe. After Israel’s greatest sin, God tells Moses: ‘engrave – write the words – for yourself. Moses brings writing down to earth, not of divine, but human hand.

Today, we must all become writers, a nation of poets again.

10 days after the massacre, I led an impromptu writing workshop on Zoom, students who would not get back to real classes until December 31. Writers were on fire. Their stories: a grad student home with four young children, her husband ‘somewhere’ in Gaza; a writer, her son-in-law, identifying the still burning bodies of Kibbutz Beiri; the undergrad who stayed home from the rave, but whose friend did not.

But they found words, and images – to transmute the horror into art.

With the right image, the poet finds a portal to the universal – to which we all relate. The great (Jewish) paradox: only through the particular – the personal, individual, and idiosyncratic, is the universal, revealed. Mystics and bad poets skip the particular and jump to the universal, clunky, uninspired abstraction. Poetry always starts in our world.

Poets don’t offer the certainty of ideologues and fundamentalists. Poets don’t teach ‘morality,’ nor do they preach. Above all, poets make other poets. The greatest of poets, David of the Psalms, speaks to each of the Jewish people: Sing your song, your new song. Find your voice, and sing, or dance, or sculpt, or paint, or write. Write for yourself; make for yourself.

In one of our workshops, Naomi Henoch, a grad student, found an image, a face from that day:

Did I know her? Who was she? I saw Naama’s face. Well, I saw Naama’s back. I had to watch the video once, twice. A dozen times, to see her face…. I noticed the blood on her feet. I noticed the blood on her arms. I noticed the blood on her backside. I noticed the hand, dragging her out of the truck, dragging her by her hair. Shoving her into the backseat. And a bright blue sky in the corner, a beautiful day in Gaza.

Naomi fights through her pained rage to show us Naama’s face. The poet brings Naama to life; her face calls us to be present. But also to the faces of the living, the face of my daughter, all of our kids, whose eyes, though shadowed by darkness, still gleaming faintly with hope.

The desolation caused by the sin of the Golden Calf led to the second tablets, and human creativity. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem led to the creation at Yavne of the Oral Law, the beginning of the Mishnah and Talmud and Midrash, the inspired poetry of the rabbis.

It rests upon us to make something of our desolation, of that day.

We discard the ready-made roles provided by those who divide us into ‘left’ and ‘right,’ ‘secular’ and ‘religious.’ We tell those who want to speak for us, politicians, and politicians masquerading as religious leaders: we write for ourselves. We create our selves, and together we make the world, anew.

The faces we remember, the faces we love, the faces for whose future we fight – they all tell us: on that day, October 7th, everything changed.

Image by Hagit Kazinitz חגית קזיניץ – www.h-kazinitz.com