To my dear friend in the U.S.,
It was great speaking to you the other day. Your last message got me thinking…
I know this war isn’t easy on any of us. In Israel and abroad, Jews are suffering. Many of us feel unsafe, and like we are dealing with a great unknown. In Israel, we watch as our loved ones enter a dangerous war zone. We pray day after day that they will return safe and whole. It’s a hard reality to live with.
From what I hear, life is no walk in the park for American Jews either right now. There are antisemitic attacks and sentiments, and a general feeling that no one knows exactly how the tide will turn for the Jews. I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to news reports, so I was surprised to hear that you have been experiencing this antisemitism yourself, and in a southern city no less. There, your kids have been attacked with antisemitic slurs on their way to shul; you’ve gotten them at the grocery store. The college campus near your home has seen a surge in “Pro-Palestinian” antisemitism – no surprise there, I guess.
You reported that you are struggling with feelings of, perhaps, having made the wrong decision for your family when you settled down in the U.S. But at the same time, watching your friends’ sons go off to fight in Gaza, you know you could never deal with that reality for your own children. I get that. Who can imagine making a decision that meant their children would be sent into war?
But that’s where we are. That’s exactly where our decisions have taken us. My adult son, a soldier, is now fighting Hamas in Gaza.
Two weeks ago, I got to see my son for the first time in 7 weeks. He had been in Gaza for most of that time, without a phone or any means of communication. As you can imagine, my imagination had gone wild with stories I made up about life on the battlefield. As straight thinking as I usually am, I couldn’t help but visualize scary gun battles between our Israeli soldiers and Hamas, much like one would see on a show: think Fauda. In my mind, I pictured colorful scenes of my son driving his Puma past ambushes, grenades, and armed terrorists – always in the dead of night. Of course, I tried to push these speculations out of my head during his time away. My son, I tried to imagine instead, was most likely on the way, way back lines, blowing up empty tunnels after they had been cleared by more specialized forces. For sure, he was sitting in his Puma eating protein bars and reading Harry Potter in his spare time. Maybe he wasn’t particularly comfortable, but he was mostly safe.
When I saw my son, I found out that, obviously, the reality rested between these two extremes. For the most part, daily life in Gaza was uneventful for my son. The soldiers were going about their business in an orderly and controlled fashion. He had seen people injured and even killed, but in general, these things happened when something went amiss. Modern day battle, he explained, is nothing like we imagine. The plan is not to engage in a head-to-head gun fight with Hamas. If anything like that happens, something has gone very, very wrong. Instead, the IDF carefully and methodically clears each area, by prepping and then unleashing massive firepower before entering. As an Army Engineer, my son’s main job was to blow up buildings and streets to clear the path for foot soldiers. Sometimes, they had to unleash a barrage of gunfire onto a building before clearing the way. His own unit’s really cool explosions were generally the most exciting thing they got to see and experience.
But as you would expect, that didn’t mean that there hadn’t been any close calls.
My son didn’t want to elaborate at first, but I insisted that telling us the worst of his tales would only reassure us. If we knew the worst, our mind wouldn’t go to more nightmarish places.
So, he relented. As we sat in the grass in the park in Ashkelon on that visiting day, he told us stories of close calls with RPGs, rocket propelled grenades, that somehow made their way into my son’s life without ever exploding at all. As he regaled us with tales of war, I found myself struck by one truth: these stories didn’t have to end the way they had. My son was, indeed, at risk. Most soldiers live, some die, but there are no accidents – only divine fate. God is in charge, both in daily life and on the battlefield.
This may seem like a simplistic way to look at the situation. Isn’t my son obviously in greater danger while in Gaza? The truth is, I don’t really know how to answer that question. What are the statistics? There are traffic accidents, horrible diseases, and other fatal mishaps to contend with in daily life. Life is a gamble. Every time we wake up, we thank God for returning our soul, and with good reason. As Jews, we must always imagine and prepare for our day of death, something that we know, logically, could come at any time.
My son left that visiting day in the park and went back to Jabaliya. But less than a week after our meeting, we received a surprise phone call from my son: he was on his way to the hospital in Israel. He had been lightly injured: it was nothing serious, thank God (and thanks to the fact that he was wearing his helmet). He would be able to come home to us for a few days’ rest and recuperation that very evening. And honestly? He sounded completely fine. Totally great. My adult son was really, very okay, even after 8 weeks in a war zone, even after his injury.
During our time together at home, we were able to do all the things we had missed while he had been away. We celebrated his 21st birthday with a big, decorated cake, alight with 21 candles, the whole family around the table. We had a movie night and ordered pizza. I bought him two boxes of Ciniminis, the sugary cereal he had been craving while away from home. We spent Shabbat Chanukah together as a family, and I prepared his favorite dishes. We lit candles together for three nights of Chanukah and had an ice cream party. And on his last morning at home, we sat around the fire pit outside, covered ourselves in cozy blankets, and ate pancakes together. The yard was awash in shades of yellow and gold; fall leaves formed a carpet of color. There was coffee, hot chocolate, and orange juice. It felt truly miraculous. Just to live in that very moment, to celebrate my son’s safe return to our home in our homeland on that Chanukah day.
Despite the darkness of the current moment, I feel the spirit of the holiday this year more than ever. Chanukah is the holiday of miracles, the holiday of light. Over 2000 years ago, the Maccabees, Jewish warriors, fought and defeated their enemies in Israel, with God as their Champion. While I truly desire peace and total safety for our people, I feel no reservations whatsoever about the fact that, given the circumstances, my son is fighting as a soldier in the army of our people. He’s fighting for the safety of Jews, against an enemy that knows no bounds. He and his fellow troops are like burning flames in the darkness, a light driving evil from our world. I am proud of this fact. My son may be in a danger zone; but he is being watched over by the One True Guardian, our God. And every single day, every single moment is a miracle to cherish.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that faith is the only way to find the light at the end of this dark time for our people. Wherever we are, whatever our role, faith that we have a destiny to fulfill will help us follow our own true path.
Wishing you a Chanukah full of light and miracles,