Column: On the Driver and on Being Together | Maya Tevet Dayan | 6 Minutes Every Friday | 1/12/2023


This week I got into a cab with a local driver from San Diego, and he started telling me about his Thanksgiving, and how excited he is getting about Christmas, and that his son is visiting from college, and at some point during the journey he asked me how my Thanksgiving was, and where was I originally from? Since October 7 I am much more cautious about whom I tell that I am from Israel, but the conversation with him had been genial, and therefore I told him that I was very sad and that I am from Israel.




In response, the driver pulled over, turned to me, where I was sitting on the back seat, and looked into my eyes. "On the 7th of October, and again on the 8th and the 9th of October, I could not sleep. I couldn't work, I was so distraught. I hadn't belived such evil could exist in our world. I am sad with you and with your people. I am sad for all of us in this world." And then he started the car again and merged back into the traffic.



But I suddenly burst into tears. I didn't need to guess why. He was the first person here, in the months I have been in California, who expressed empathy and a desire to share my sorrow. He was the first to say that he too had been unable to function. The first to call it what it is - a slaughter. After two months where the only people who shared my sorrow were members of the local Jewish community, two months of disenfranchised grief, and of great fear, and of a terrible silence from those surrounding me, suddenly some random driver said what I had been waiting to hear for so many days....



And while I sat sniffling on the back seat he said "I understand you completely. I was like a wounded  lion for two days. I paced up and down in the house, and no one understood what I was going through. In the end it felt like I had no choice, I got into the car and travelled to New Mexico, where my dad lives. I didn't have to explain to him why I had suddenly rocked up on his doorstep...he understood. We just sat and were sad together".



And that was it. It was only a short trip. And when I got out it was already dark and a bit chilly, and I stood on the hill where I live and I looked at all the little shimmering lights of the suburbs, and I thought to myselfthat even though I can't quite yet give it a name, I have been given some kind of gift. I even wanted to thank him for what he had given me but he had already driven off. So I sent him a silent thank you from my heart.



And it was only after I got home that I googled to see exactly where New Mexico is. I discovered that if you go there on foot it takes 12 days. And by car it takes 12 hours. And I thought about this man driving and driving instead of doing whatever he had planned to be doing at the beginning of October, and arriving at his dad's house, who is, so the he told me, 90 years old, and both of them sitting there, together. And even though it might all seem so unrelated, I understood and felt it all: the long drive, the road, the need to be in your childhood home, the distraught agony and shock, the need for a father.



It has been two months already that nothing makes any sense. I don't understand how the concepts of good and evil, right and wrong have become so confused. I don't understand the huge demonstrations, almost every weekend, where hatred of Israel and support for Hamas are routinely expressed. I don't understnd the letters condemning those who have been slaughtered. I don't understand the complete, terrible, silence of women's organisations, or of my female students, or of the faculty administration, all of them in regular weekly contact with me. I don't understand how children can be kidnapped and starved and this seemingly bothers no one.



So how is it that in all of this madness I suddenly meet someone from my story? From my country? Not from the Land of Israel, but from the land of my soul, from the land of my sense of human decency. And - how can I say this without it sounding odd - how grateful I was to have this moment of something being recognised, validated. Perhaps because when you carry a great darkness inside, a heaviness, and the rest of the world continues as if nothing has happened, you start feeling as if perhaps you are the one who is deranged, whose sense of reality is distorted.



I'd like to say, regarding the above, two things: The first is that the current semester will end next week, and friends have been asking me "did you manage to convey to them how it is for us?" "did you manage to shift their perspectives at all?" And I really wanted to answer "yes, I've changed their opinions, and shaken their preconceived notions." But the truth is that what many of the staff and students here feel, is not a carefully thought out stance, or a position based on knowledge or facts. It is not an intellectual position at all, it is one of emotion. Of a feeling that does not feel us. Not our suffering, our pain, our losses. And a part of me can understand this, because I too do not always manage to feel every pain and loss of others. I don't always feel the outrage and shock that might be apropriate. Feeling are evasive things. Did I manage to open the hearts of some of my students to feel empathy for us as well? I think with some yes, with others - no.



And the second thing I want to say is that sorrow is generally a lonely space, and it is rare to have a companion who is there with us in our moments of pain. I think this may be why the Jewish people invented the concept of "shiva" - of the seven days of mourning that follow the death of a loved one, where grieving becomes a communal activity, where the mourners are surrounded by others who, so to speak, share the pain. Not so long ago I enquired about the local mourning customs, and was told there aren't any as such. Apparently people go to church, then to the burial (or cremation), maybe after this there is a communal meal, and that's it. Maybe this is relevant, maybe not. But for the last few weeks, when I experienced how the tiny Jewish and Israeli community here in Southern California mourns completely alone, I began to understand how there is something fundamentally and essentially alone about the Jewish experience, about Jewish existence.



There is something lonely about being a member of such a tiny faith community. There is something lonely about the tiny western style democracy we have created in the huge neighbourhood of the non-democratic Moslem Middle East. There is something lonely about speaking a language that no other country and no other people speak. Like the language of some remote island, a tribal dialect. There is something lonely in the Israeli character, in its sense of humour, its directness, its warmth, and when you live overseas amongst strangers, you get how little you are understood, and how lost in translation is your humour, and your language and your culture. Even when you superficially get on with those around you, how deeply alone you still are. Yes, even when you are sociable, and work, and teach. Alone. And perhaps that is what makes our 'togetherness' in Israel so powerful.



So this week I got into the cab of a driver from New Mexico, and for a moment we were together. It was just a back seat, on a perfectly normal evening, the ride cost maybe $11, nothing prepared me for that. Someone shared my pain, alleviated the loneliness of grief. And it was so huge, that I stood after it on the road for long minutes just to keep feeling it.


(Thank  you to Immanuel Suttner for the translation into English)


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