Search

ESSAY: SPEAKING HEBREW IN SECRET: BEING AN ISRAELI ABROAD (JEWSIH BOOK COUNCIL)

1.

I tell my daughters not to speak Hebrew on the street. They ask why. I explain it's due to the situation in Israel. "Why does a massacre and a war in Israel have anything to do with us here in California?" they ask. I'm not sure how to explain it without causing anxiety. Just two weeks ago, I told them about a barbaric pogrom in Israel, leaving them scarred. How do I convey that the victim is being blamed, and that somehow, we're now threatened half a globe away? It doesn't even make sense as I write it. You see, I start, "It's because of the government... No, you know what? We have a long history of violence, and... No, it's more ancient than that…” I don't want to say that word; I don't want them to even know it exists. “Why don't I tell you all about it at home?” I manage to escape the conversation. “Now, please just keep quiet.”
.
2.
Hebrew. My daughters and I keep our language a secret between us. At the mall, in the supermarket, at the bookstore. It feels like hiding a terrible crime without committing one. What are we hiding, and from whom? We share a fear without giving it a name.
"Can we speak Hebrew now?" my seven-year-old asks when we park our car by our house.
"And now?" she asks again in the living room.
"Can we speak Hebrew with Grandpa on the phone?"
She has no clue why we act the way we act. Is it any wonder she's so lost?
.
3.
Lost. When we landed here at the end of summer, it felt like heaven. Perfect weather, perfect beaches, and perfect people from the Jewish initiative that invited me to teach here for a semester at the university as a visiting poet. We had beautiful hikes, and the best was taking an RV to a four-day music festival in the desert. We couldn't stop smiling when we reached the festival and discovered the hippie village of music, art, camping, and free souls. It was there that we woke up the next morning to the news of another music festival in Israel where 260 people were slaughtered. Beautiful young people, like the ones that were also around us. Only, in Israel, they went through hours upon hours of pure hell. While we were in silence. Of course, the music was not silent, but the people were. For days, nobody talked to us about the most brutal terror attack in a century, even while it was all over social media and the news. Did they not hear about it? We shut down within ourselves, remained secluded, carried our sorrow privately, on our own.
.
4.
Alone. That's the word I keep hearing from Israelis and Jews that I speak to since that black saturday in October. Together with our community, but alone in society. Together with Israel, but alone in the world. Together with the US government, but alone in American academia. Pain was always a lonely place, but for me here in California it gets even lonelier. Our local Jewish friends say they have never been scared like this before. My colleagues from the department are constantly asking how I am doing. But that’s so rare. Two weeks into the war, I realize that people are silent not because they don't know what happened or have no opinion about it. They are silent because they are being kind to me, by not saying what they have to say.
As an Israeli, even what I wrote here is too convoluted for me.
.
5.
Israeli. I keep trying to hide my name and my accent, to overcome them. But it's what people always see first. "Where are you from?" The question is so cheerful, so casual.
"Israel."
"Ahhhhh." The sigh is always vague. My paranoia begins. Are they crazy about Israel, or are they crazy with rage? Do they see me as a person or as the face of my government, of Zionism, of the army in Gaza, or even of the entire Jewish diaspora? Ever since my childhood, I scanned my surroundings, locating the best escape route, the nearest emergency exit. Now, sometimes I would just say that I come from a country that no one knows too much about. Like Albania. It always works. No need for paranoia. No escape exits needed. Thanks to this little lie, I'm seen for who I am. The conversation can begin.
.
6.
Sometimes, during a conversation, Hebrew sneaks out of my mouth uncontrollably, like a dog that escapes its owner. When I catch it it's too late. The words have been uttered, exposing me. I am tightening my hold on them again, like an internal leash.
.
7.
Fear. My Facebook feed is a graveyard of children, soldiers, and families. My Instagram is an eternal debate in reels about Israel's policies in Gaza. The clips run fast: "Israel should stop occupying Gaza!" "But Israel left Gaza in 2005!" "Israel should give Gaza electricity and water!" "Seriously, what?? Israel gives its enemy electricity and water?" "Israel should go with all its might for peace!" "Israel should go with all its force for war!"
I read Matti Friedman in Tablet explaining that people here in the US do not respond to events but rather to the descriptions of these events. So, he checked the journalism covering Israel, just to find that there are no real analyses of Palestinian society or ideology, while Israeli actions are deeply scrutinized, and every flaw is aggressively reported. In one seven-week period he counted more stories on moral failings of Israel than the total of critical stories about Palestinians in three years.
When I realize how many people are actually working in that, in failing Israel, I weaken.
.
8.
Weak. I tell my students I’m not okay. Since October 7, I'm slow, confused, and so extremely sad. We all write poetry every week, bringing our hearts and souls to class. I bring mine, almost bursting with tears. My students are very caring. They tell me nice funny stories, bring me cakes, send me heartwarming emails. A student that escaped Syria comes to me after class and says, "I know what you are going through. It's brutal." But my students also get invitations from the university to participate in rallies against Israel, and the university’s logo is on them. Some find themselves in "Neutral" panels organized by the BDS because participation in these panels is credited in their course. They hear that Israeli reports are always fake. They hardly hear any condemnation of terror. They witness the tremendous efforts made by their own teachers to justify a cruel massacre, as part of resistance.
Is it enough that they write poetry with me once a week? Is it enough to make them aware of complexities? Is this enough for them to be able to stand against all the support for terrorism around them?
.
9.
Massacre. My grandfather managed to escape a massacre. His tailor shop was completely destroyed, his neighbors waiting for him with heavy wooden beams. He ran and never returned to his hometown in Poland. One time he mentioned they made him bend over, crawl, and lick the asphalt. At the same time my grandmother's house in Lithuania burnt to ashes again and again during pogroms. But it was 1939. Antisemitism was an old story of Europe, I thought. Now I recall a waiter in Rome that yelled at me, my sister, and our mother–"You cheap Jews, go to where you belong"–just because we asked a question about the menu. We thought he was nothing more than an unpleasant anecdote during our vacation. But this past week in California, I said the word antisemitism more times than I had in my entire life.
.
10.
Massacre. People's eyes were plucked out in front of their children; everyone's hands tied. Fingers were cut. Faces mutilated with axes. Women raped brutally in front of an applauding crowd, then tied to motorcycles and dragged through the streets of Gaza until they died. Elderly people in wheelchairs shot dead in front of cameras. Teenagers raped on top of their family's dead bodies. Piles of heads, arms, toes, scattered. A group of children tied to each other, found dead, burnt, without any sign of a shot. And there’s more.
It's 2023 and for two weeks I have been relentlessly explaining basic concepts to people around me:
Celebrating a massacre of Israelis by Hamas is not a support of freedom fighters; it's antisemitism.
Persecuting Jews because they are the victims of the worst massacre in a century is antisemitism.
Arranging intellectual panels to discuss how legible these acts are is not academic research; it's antisemitism.
Failing to distinguish between the Israeli government and Israeli civilians is antisemitism.
.
11.
Night. I keep a long kitchen knife by my pillow in California. Fear has no limits and no sense. Here, I'm a Jewish woman in the dark of a foreign country. Someone wrote "F*ck Israel" in front of the school. Someone graffitied a swastika in the park. Hundreds of students applauded cheerfully in the BDS panel at the university, where concepts of right and wrong seemed to collapse. My own land is bleeding. The same knife with which I cut salad for my daughters for supper is the one that lies by my head at night.
I don't know how to tell my girls that brutality isn’t necessarily over even after a massacre ends.
.
12.
My girls. Last year we were on a train in Berlin when an elderly man asked my girls where they were from. We were on our way back from the Jewish Museum. My girls didn’t hesitate and said Canada. The man said, "What a beautiful country you have!" My girls nodded. It was a tiny moment. I could have missed it. But I didn't. I saw how my girls understood that thing we never really talked about. That thing I wasn't brave enough to tell. That "A" word that in the past week I’ve been saying again and again. At that moment, though, staring at them, as they sat against the train’s window, my heart broke and at the same time strengthened: because my daughters know who we are. And because they know how to survive.
.
13.
Motherhood. I hear online a speech of a young Israeli mother in Berlin, speaking in a support rally for Israel. She says that in front of the death tribe that Israel is facing today–the terrorists who glorify death and explicitly state that their goal is to achieve redemption in the next world through annihilation of others–there is our tribe: mothers. The tribe of life. The tribe that works in bringing life to the world. In nourishing those lives. We achieve redemption in this world, through care and through love. I think of my great-great-grandma who survived the murder of her Jewish husband in Russia. My great grandma who survived constant lootings and burnings in her little Jewish town in Lithuania. My grandma who survived the Holocaust, her years of escaping. I think of my mother, who built a high brick fence around our house in Israel, for no reason, only because she carried within her my grandmothers’ displacements. I start thinking that maybe that’s a part of our cycle as Jewish mothers: we get married, we give birth, we love, we survive. So many mothers and children were murdered or taken hostage two weeks ago, as if the tribe of life is the greatest threat on the tribe of death.
For them, it is now our turn to survive.
.
14.
I still haven't taken off the wrist ribbon I received at the entrance to the music festival in the California desert, a day before the black Saturday. It's also black, with golden letters on it. It says: "Radical Love."