My mother’s mother – my sabta – died when I was thirteen. My mom traveled to Israel for the funeral – and was shocked to discover that it had already occurred before she got there, due to a wedding in the family which went on as planned.
“They told me that joy takes precedence over sorrow,” she explained. I never knew what Biblical or Talmudic authority that expression was drawn from, but I knew, grief-stricken as she was over losing her beloved mother, that this priority devastated her. Yet she always claimed that, deep down, she understood.
Right now, during the horrific crisis in Israel, it seems tone-deaf in the extreme to hold a celebration – the launch party for my novel, BABYLON. So many dead, so many wounded, so many being held hostage. And yet, after a great deal of soul searching, I’ve decided to go ahead anyway.
One of my reasons is something else my mother always said. “If we change how we live due to acts of terror, the terrorists have won.” This is why, despite the rise of antisemitism in the US, I am not shying away from my events in synagogues. I won’t allow baseless ignorance and hatred to dictate my actions.
Fifty years ago when the Yom Kippur War broke out, I was living in Israel in a boarding school some eight kilometers from the Syrian border. I remember how my war started, with a dorm building shaking and a rush outside to see two Syrian MiGs being chased across the skies by a Phantom F-14. I was 15 and slept for three weeks in a bomb shelter. Decades later, I appreciate how hard our teachers and caregivers worked to make us feel safe and to imbue those surreal days with a feeling of normality.
Right now, as I’m immersed in these new horrors, I yearn for some semblance of normalcy.
Another reason to hold my celebration is the actual content of the novel. BABYLON begins with scenes of destruction, of Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers burning the First Temple and leading the Judeans to Babylon in chains. It is physically painful right now to look at the cover of my own novel, with a Chaldean soldier standing over the masses of people being led into the desert on their way to exile. As I write in Chapter Three of the novel:
They were all bound—right hand to the left hand of the person behind them, left hand to the right hand of the person before them. Ten people formed a group. Sarah tried to count the number of groups but gave up after reaching one hundred. The chain immobilized them, forcing them to shuffle in march step. Curses arose when someone stumbled, whips cut into all their backs when someone slowed.
Sarah kept careful count of the days, naming them silently as the sun peeked over the horizon and light teased her eyelids. She feared slipping into nothingness, of accepting her fate as a captive. So she named the days in the mornings, repeating them as she moved painfully forward, and released them every day at sunset. They’d been two weeks on the road. The prisoners whispered that Nebuzaradan, the Captain of the Guard, feared the Hebrew God’s wrath if he allowed the Jews a moment to pray for His mercy. So until they departed Judea, the Hebrews slept only an hour at a time, standing upright against one another like horses, forced to nod off under the unblinking eye of the summer sun. Then the whips would sing out and the appalling trek begin anew.
Watching the videos of captured Israelis being paraded through the streets of Gaza, my own words make my stomach roil, especially when I describe gleeful Canaanites lining up to jeer at the captives. Though I did my best to convey the horrors of the march to Babylon, seeing such cruelty happen in real life almost makes me wish I hadn’t written these words.
Almost. Because one of my objectives as a writer is to educate readers about lesser-known epochs of Jewish history and thereby foster better understanding of who we are as a people, of the tragedies we’ve withstood and yet survived.
I flinched at the video of the New York rally in support of Hamas’s heinous actions. I couldn’t fathom the signs that claimed “whatever it takes,” the gleeful young man who held up a phone with a swastika emblazoned on it. These people would celebrate my death, that of my family, of my friends – because we are Israeli or because we are Jewish. The acts they wish to glorify cannot ever be justified: not the raped women, not the babies and children taken from their parents and held in cages, not the young people attending a festival who were cut down in the hundreds, not the innocent civilians slaughtered in their own homes. Not any of these things. Not ever.
So I have hesitated: do I hold my launch party or not? It’s a painful decision in the light of all this horror. And yet, I am reassured by how the citizens of Israel have rallied in the face of sheer evil. I am comforted by the long lines to give blood, by the organizations who have temporarily abandoned their protests against the government to coordinate resources for those affected, by the food and flags handed to the soldiers as they drive past on their way to the front, by announcements of concerts held to alleviate our grief.
When I wrote my first novel, The Fruit of Her Hands, about my 13th Century rabbi ancestor facing the rise of antisemitism in medieval Europe, I was careful to include moments of great happiness to counteract the bleakness. I deliberately looked for a rare joyous time in Jewish history when I wrote Beyond the Ghetto Gates. Joy is critical to us. It will help us heal.
As the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 3 said, there is: “a time to weep and a time to laugh / a time to mourn and a time to dance.” The Jewish people have always persevered in the face of tragedy, and we will this time, too. As difficult as it is, I want to provide those of us who are heartsick and hurting with something to celebrate. So I hope next week’s launch party will do that in some small way, for my guests and for me as well.