Evening falls and shabbat ends: It’s been 12 weeks since the start of this war.

With my son safely home from Gaza, I feel no rush to check the news this evening. Instead, I throw in a load of laundry and straighten up the house.  Then I take out my phone to send a message to one of my best friends who has just become a grandmother, “Mazal Tov!!!! What wonderful news!! Tell us all about it!”  A flurry of adorable picture appears in reply, along with details of the birth.  Our little WhatsApp group of five close friends is full of exclamation points and heart emojis; we’re all happy to hear good news.

The younger boys head off to Torah learning with my husband, and I settle myself on the couch with my laptop to write.  Instead, I end up I speaking to our teenage daughter and then our soldier son.  It’s been a rough week for them – they’re both learning the ropes of dealing with mourning at a young age.  Before I have time to do anything else, my husband returns with the boys, who are in a fit of glee after winning a Velcro dart board at Torah/Pizza night.  We send them off to bed with kisses.

Together, my husband and I walk down the block to the shiva house, which we know will be ultra-crowded on a Saturday night.  Couples and families converse casually on the sidewalk as they all converge towards one home.

Before last week, this home was, simply, our friends’ house.  This week, it has become “The Shiva House”, with visitors arriving from all over Israel. This home is situated down the steps from where I always used to attend a daily Tanach class.  It’s where my chavruta and I worked on our final project for a Talmud class. But now, things are different.  A big white tent has been erected in the yard, and a steady stream of people flow up and down the stone steps, on their way to comfort the mourners.

I stop off in the kitchen to drop something off, and bump into two of my friends from our little WhatsApp group.  They’re helping here for the night, setting up platters of cake and carrying drinks and paper goods in and out.  Seeing each other in person, in this setting, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  We settle for dual purpose hugs and then exchange details about our other friend’s new grandson.  It was a home birth in a pool of water.  How exciting…a boy! That means a brit next Shabbat.

What is there to say about anything else?

Then, I walk down the steps to the tent, which is filled with masses of people.  The family members huddle on low chairs inside, surrounded by the crowd.  Ephraim, their 21 year old soldier, was killed fighting heroically in battle just last week.  He was an exceptional person: mentally and emotionally wise, a musician, a Torah scholar, a lover of the land, a wonderful son, brother, and friend who was gentle and kind, and idealistic.  Despite his love of Yeshiva (which he had been called away from to fight in this war), he was proud to have the chance to defend the Jewish nation and their land, to fight in the name of good.  He was unusually accomplished and, yet, humble.

His death is absolutely, unequivocally heartbreaking.

I know I can’t stay for long tonight (and it seems like there’s not much room for me anyway), but I squeeze through the crowd to give his mother a quick hug and exchange a few words.  My heart is low, seeing the depths of her pain, understanding once again that her son is truly gone. We talk about my son, who was one of Ephraim’s best friends (he’s somewhere here in the crowd), and I fill her in on how he’s managing. Caring and kind person that she is, she seems genuinely concerned. Before I leave, we exchange one more tearful hug. 

And off I go to the next gathering.

Leaving the mourning tent, I can hardly believe that we must now walk up the block to an engagement party.  Who feels like celebrating? I certainly don’t.  But a good friend of ours has just gotten engaged to a wonderful woman…and if we can’t celebrate the blessings in our lives, then what’s the point of it all anyway?

We enter the engagement party to near silence. My new grandma friend is the one who’s supposed to be hosting this party, but she still hasn’t returned from Holon where she helped deliver her baby grandson.  I’m thrilled to see that her soldier son is here though, back from Gaza and already taking out the garbage.

Her sister-in-law, also a good friend, is managing the show in her place:  We talk as she sets up soup, platters of cheese, sourdough bread, and wine.  Slowly, slowly, guests start to arrive; they don’t even notice that anything is amiss.  Our replacement hostess greets each guest with a smile, welcoming them all into her sister in law’s home.  “What a beautiful view!” one guest remarks.

“Thank you, it sure is!” she agrees.

The host is missing, along with the engaged couple, but we are here to celebrate.

Then the new grandmother walks in after what has clearly been a long, long day.  Despite her tired face, I feel a burst of true joy, so refreshing and welcome after the darkness of the current moment – just seeing her makes me smile.  Her daughter shows me pictures of her newborn nephew, a sweet new soul in our lives.  Somewhere deep inside, I feel that despite the pain and heartache, despite the fact that our own sons are fighting a horrible war, there is hope.  New babies are being born. There is new possibility every single day.  Life goes on.  Innocence exists.  I give my friend a long, heartfelt hug – I know I really need it.

Moments later the new couple arrives, and a wave of positive energy fills the room.  We are all happy to be celebrating – celebrating a future, a new life together.  Still, I can’t help but think of the shiva tent down the street; I’m just not sure how I’m supposed to feel, except confused.  I chat with another guest, trying to act normal. We speak of everyday things like hiking and the latest volunteer opportunities (wartime talk). Then we touch on the recent tragedy and my son’s close connection to Ephraim.  Her son, also in Gaza, knew him too.

“I just miss the time when it was easy to be optimistic,” I say, “I miss the happy fluff.”

My conversation partner agrees wholeheartedly. It’s hard right now.  Then we both agree, that, at some point, our nation will come out stronger from this horrible time. “It’s all part of God’s plan,” she offers.

I know this. “God decides.” Which is what Ephraim’s mother whispered to me through her anguish at the funeral.

This faith is what keeps us going, through these intense moments of heartache, pain, and celebration. We know, deep down, that we must keep moving forward – that’s what Jews do – that however difficult things may be, we will, eventually come out on the other side.  We know that there is a divine plan at play. 

At some point, I leave my last gathering of the night and head across the street back home. I tiptoe up the stairs to check on my little boys, sleeping peacefully in bed, innocent. I think about how blissfully sweet they look, as I search for evidence of the war on their untroubled faces. I know it’s there inside – these strange childhood memories are something I never had to contend with in my own life.  Still, here we are.  This is where we find ourselves.

 I leave their room and head for mine, where I go through a normal bedtime routine. I change, brush and floss, wash my face, and arrange myself amongst pillows and fluffy blankets. 

And I open up my laptop to write.  I type out the next chapter in this story. Because whatever we’re gathering for, whether joy or tragedy, we simply must keep going, keep living the best lives we can.  God only knows where this incredibly disconcerting sequence of events will lead.  Our job is to simply, with humility and strength, take the next step.

As a unified people in this land of ours, we are incomparably adaptable and resilient. Together, we move forward through this uncharted landscape, in pain and in celebration.

2 thoughts on “Gatherings

  1. Such beautiful sentiments, the paradox of pain and pleasure, horrific loss and celebrated birth. May we merit to see complete victory, in the form of absolute security. G-d bless the IDF, and Am Yisrael Chai!

  2. Such a well written piece, explaining how so many of us feel living here in Israel. Praying your sons stay safe !

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