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We Are Still Here

I have always had the acute feeling of being both an insider and outsider in Israel. I have lived there, but never served in the army- a formative Israeli rite of passage. While I can banter comfortably in Hebrew with taxi drivers, many of the cultural references made on Eretz Nehederet (the Israeli Saturday Night Live) go right over my head. Going to Israel often feels like visiting a beloved grandparent: I run excitedly toward the special smells, sights, and sounds that I have missed so much, but the whole time I know I will leave. I know it’s not exactly my home.

In the past seven months, this dynamic has felt even more present, especially after my recent trip. I had the surreal experience of being in Israel the Saturday night of the Iranian missile attack, of hearing the crack-boom of the Iron Dome intercepting those missiles, of rushing to get to the safe space in my hotel within 90 seconds. But for my Israeli friends and family, the sirens and the shelters are not surreal—they are the very reality of what it means to live there. “I’m sorry you were here for such a scary event” a friend of mine said apologetically, as if she were somehow responsible for making Israel an inhospitable place to visit right now. “I’m glad your flight home wasn’t canceled.” And indeed, three days later, I got on a plane and returned to New York, where for all of its madness, I tend not to worry about missile attacks.

With this luxury of distance, it’s easy to judge and critique. But truly, what do I know about the experience of being Israeli right now? I came home humbled. So as we approached the period colloquially known as “the Yoms,” it felt important to honor my own struggle with how to mark these days this year, given October 7, the ongoing war, all the suffering in Israel and in Gaza, and the visible resurgence of antisemitism– and equally as important to reflect on the significance of these days not just from my American vantage point, but from an Israeli perspective.

I decided to call my mother’s 98-year-old first cousin Dov, a survivor of the Holocaust and a veteran of Israel’s War of Independence. This week we spoke about what it means to him to mark Yom Hashoah and celebrate Yom Ha’atzma-ut in the context of October 7. First I wondered if Dov was mourning the fact that he survived the Shoah only for the world to be in this place, full of hate and antisemitism.

“Not at all. First, I reject any comparison of the events of October 7 to the Shoah. We just read on Pesah that in every generation there is an attempt to destroy the Jewish people—and this is true. But even the slavery of Egypt, the crusades, the Babylonian exile—none of that can be compared to the Germans’ cruelty and meticulous plans of annihilation. October 7 was a devastating pogrom. But the people in this country who are referring to it as a Shoah—I’ve been arguing about this even with my own son—they did not live through the Shoah. For me, to use this word is a desecration of the memory of the Holocaust, those who died, and those who survived.

You’ve seen the letters that my father and I wrote during the Shoah, our ‘suicide letters.’ There were moments where we thought about taking our own lives, and we wrote these letters to explain why to whoever found them. I would never write such a letter today, in the circumstances Israel and the Jewish people are facing. I continue to believe that the creation of the State of Israel is a wonder, that this country is a wonder, and I truly have hope and optimism for our future. We are here, and we are a strong people. Hamas can continue to dream of destroying us, but it’s not so easy to drive us into the sea.”

For many years, my cousin has participated in Zikaron BaSalon, an Israeli initiative in which Holocaust survivors share their stories in an intimate setting, usually someone’s home. When I asked if it felt different this year to tell his story, Dov said the main difference was that he received more invitations to speak than in the past; after our call he proudly forwarded me Facebook posts of the events, with comments describing his talk as inspirational and profoundly necessary in the face of war, continued captivity of the hostages, and rising antisemitism. It occurs to me that this year’s response to Zikaron BaSalon reflects a national need to hear stories of resilience and survival—to look at the past, the most horrific of what has ever happened to the Jewish people, and feel encouraged that if we survived the Shoah, we can survive what is happening now.

Dov expressed this sentiment with regard to celebrating Yom Ha’atzma-ut this year:

“For me, Yom Ha’atzma-ut is the reminder and the proof of ‘Never Again.’ If Israel had existed, there would not have been a Holocaust. And now, we have the State of Israel, and I do not believe it is possible that there will ever be another Shoah.

We should be giving Yom Ha’atzma-ut the honor that it deserves—it should be a little toned down, but we shouldn’t turn it into a day of complete sadness, like Tisha B’av, which is what some people want. It won’t be like the first Yom Ha’atzma-ut, of course. In 1949, it was “the march that didn’t march”—there were too many people and we couldn’t move! Everyone came to Tel Aviv from all over the country. The city’s streets were completely packed, people were partying and picnicking, it was true joy. Against all odds, we had created the State of Israel—could there be anything more celebratory?

I’m in the minority here, but I really do feel that we can celebrate this year. We are here, there is still an am Yisrael, medinat Yisrael.”

Thank you, Dov, for this inspiration and hope, and for bringing me into your experience of marking these historic days in 5784. May your words and your optimism continue to shine.


Shabbat Shalom,