I do not like Simhat Torah: the noise, the chaos, the hanging around during the hakafot. Therefore, for the last few years I have gone from my home in Jerusalem to Kibbutz Sa’ad on the Gazan border in order to spend the hag with my brother Elihu and his wife, Hanush. At Kibbutz Sa’ad, the women have taken their own approach to celebrating Simhat Torah and have arranged a program of shiurim for themselves while the men dance.
Hanush’s 100-year-old mother, Yocheved, will join us from the other side of the kibbutz. Yocheved is a Holocaust survivor who has just written a book―With Head Held High: The Story of Yocheved Gold―about her experiences in Europe and during the War of Independence. Hanush’s brother and his wife came down to spend the hag with their mother, and their sister Naomi came from nearby Allumim, another religious kibbutz. We all eat together happily in the evening.
I am woken up around 6:30 the next morning by what sounds like many planes and sonic booms, and I lie in my bed thinking that the air force should not be doing exercises on Shabbat and hag. Then there are some muffled sounds on loudspeakers outside, and Hanush appears at my bedside and calmly suggests that I join them in the mamad, their fortified bedroom. As we go, I can now hear more clearly tzeva adom (a red alert), the emergency code on the loudspeakers. Hanush and Elihu have lived for many years on the Gazan border and are old hands at coping with rocket attacks. They can distinguish between the boom of a missile and the boom of the Iron Dome defense system exploding one. We have 15 seconds to get into the mamad, so we are in and out of it all day. There is no question of going to shul or shiurim. I lose count of the red alerts. At least they do not last very long; we leave the shelter after we hear the boom.
Hanush is concerned about people on the kibbutz with problems and spends much time on her telephone finding them and calming them. At some point, she is told by the kibbutz defense group that we should lock the doors. This just seems to be a reasonable precaution; we have no news of what is happening otherwise. We do not turn on the radio because of Shabbat and hag. Both of them tell me that they have never known such a prolonged rocket attack.
Elihu is a sofer sta’’m, and he leyns to us from the Sefer Torah he wrote in memory of our parents, which he keeps at home. At some point my phone rings, and I realize it must be one of my children worrying about us. But before I can get to the phone to answer it, there is another red alert. Even when there is no alert, the house shakes from the explosions we hear constantly outside. After havdalah, I send a WhatsApp to my children to say I am safe, and they phone and tell us some of the dreadful things that have been happening around us while Kibbutz Sa’ad remained untouched. It is clear that we are in the middle of a war.
They had been in fear for us all day. Kibbutz Sa’ad indeed was one of the only places―perhaps the only place―on the Gazan border that was not attacked by terrorists on the ground. Naomi speaks to people in Allumim and hears of the atrocities there, including 16 Thai workers who were slaughtered. Later, their numbers climb up to 20. I throw my things into a suitcase and ask Elihu to send a message around the kibbutz to say I am going to Jerusalem whenever it is allowed and that I have 3 available seats in my car. We all sleep in the mamad together that night, insofar as any of us can sleep.
In the morning there is a lull in the fighting, and they tell us one or two people are allowed out of the kibbutz if we take the road that passes Netivot. It is somewhat surreal: having been locked in all day and night, we open the door to a most beautiful dewy morning with swirls of mist around the cypress trees―and then dozens of soldiers around my car ask very sweetly if I need help. I am glad I have company in the car: a newly married couple, two students who study in Jerusalem. Immediately outside the gate of the kibbutz, we see a car all shot up. There are other shot-up cars later, but they had told me which route was safe to take…
I am the only civilian car for a long while, with army cars going south on my left, empty tank transporters going north on my right, and jeeps all over the fields searching for terrorists and making huge clouds of dust. It stops being surreal when I get to a traffic jam on highway 6 from the army roadblock, which for a change is very reassuring.
Back in Jerusalem, I go straight down to the hardware shop to sort out keys for our house shelter. We had this shelter cleared out and cleaned the last time there were rockets on Jerusalem, and we had arguments with the neighbors over keeping it clean and free from all of the old rubbish they wanted to store there. Now at least it is pleasant to sit in.
There have only been two rocket alerts, and Jerusalem is quiet, if tense, apart from an attack and shootout at a police station on Salah-a-Din street.
I am an associate fellow of the Albright Archaeological Institute further up the same street. I guess I won’t be going there for a while, but I send them an email of support. I don’t know whether any of the resident fellows are still there. My son and grandson in the army are in relatively safe places; only my son-in-law is a doctor for an army unit in the south and goes with them in the field. His twin boys come and take down my sukkah for me all by themselves. They will be b’nei mitzvah on Rosh Hodesh Adar. Who knows what things will be like by then? A friend of mine reports that her 17-year-old grandson and his class have been called on to help dig graves.
Elihu gave me his etrog when I left, and mine is particularly fragrant this year, so I spend some time making etrog jam. I have very few jars to put it in, so I use the glass jars from yahrzeit candles. I hope this will not prove significant. I am trying to write a book about food in the Talmud, but I just can’t concentrate. I go to the supermarket, only to find many shelves empty. There is no bottled water, only spelt flour (and very little of that). People are stocking up to a ridiculous extent. I remember Tosefta Avodah Zarah 5:
You do not hoard in the Land of Israel things which are essential to life: i.e., wines, oils, flours, and fruits. But things which are not essential to life such as cumin and spice [tavlin], these are permitted… In a year of drought, one should not [hoard] even a qab of carobs…
There are still carobs on the tree outside my kitchen window. No one has thought of hoarding them yet.
I go to my regular women’s gemara shiur at shul, and we begin by saying tehillim. I never was one for tehillim zogen, reading tehillim by rote: my late husband was openly scornful. But this time it has a new meaning, and it has become real: ה’ ישמור צאתך ובואך מעתה ועד עולם―‘God will guard your going out and coming in from now forever.’ In the evening the rabbi gives a shiur on tefillah b’et tzarah, prayer in a time of trouble. It is helpful to think of how the Jewish people have suffered over the centuries and still survived. We discuss which events this reminds us of: the sho’ah, pogroms, or the ‘religious’ massacres of the Crusades.
Elihu, Hanush, and all the members of Kibbutz Sa’ad have now been evacuated to hotels at the Dead Sea. I send an email to the rabbi to ask to bench ha-Gomel in our shul on Shabbat. I realize now that this brakhah is a brilliant conception. We thank God for deliverance, that’s obvious. But הגומל לחייבים טובות thanks God, ‘Who does good to the undeserving,’ which is all about dealing with survivor’s guilt. I still don’t understand why the terrorists missed Kibbutz Sa’ad, when all of the other kibbutzim around us were decimated.
NBC News publishes detailed maps of the Gazan border they found on the bodies of some terrorists. They include a detailed map of Kibbutz Sa’ad, marking the primary schools where they planned to kill the children or take them hostage. I cry for the first time. Elihu tells me that all the kibbutz members made a communal הגומל on Shabbat.