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Even a Knock Can Be Dramatic

Daniel Stein Kokin (November 2023)

On October 3, 2023, I did something I have been privileged to do on quite a few occasions: I purchased a plane ticket to Tel Aviv. Four days later, Hamas attacked and war commenced. On October 30, I boarded my flight to Israel anyway and arrived the following day.

To be sure, in the days leading up to my departure, I wondered whether I should in fact come. Family and friends feared for my safety, while I agonized over the anxiety my visit would inevitably arouse for them. I was also concerned that my presence in a beleaguered country would be of more burden than benefit. In the end, however, I felt that it would be wrong to cancel during an Israel in crisis, that friends and colleagues there would be happy to see me, and that being in the country at this complicated time would be especially significant. Plus, having initially deliberated among many different airlines, I had decided on El Al, which meant I still had a flight, a sign—it seemed—that I was meant to go.

The original purpose of my visit was to explore the life and work of the Polish-German-Israeli-American artist Perli Pelzig (1917-2009)—some of whose creations I had encountered in my native Los Angeles—for which I had received a modest grant. His son, Arik Pelzig, lives in Jerusalem, has collected a vast trove of materials pertaining to his father, and had offered to be my host. The war would therefore not interfere with my work, but I resolved that alongside my research, I would seek out opportunities to help out while in the country.

Already at the Newark check-in counter, signs of the conflict were evident. An ad-hoc stand offered travelers free snacks and support (I grabbed a clementine), and someone ahead of me in line was asked to accept responsibility for six suitcases full of supplies that had been collected for Israel. On board, each personal screen displayed the national airline’s contribution to the cause, while, upon arrival, passport control was a breeze. Typically bustling Ben-Gurion was virtually empty.

My host had offered to pick me up and was waiting outside when I arrived with my suitcase. We stopped for a few hours to visit friends of his who live near Modi’in, and arrived in a nearly deserted Jerusalem shortly after nightfall. While many shops and cultural institutions were closed, new forms of gathering had emerged. At Zion Square, in the city center, I encountered mostly young people engaged in a wartime rendition of the popular Israeli pastime “shira betzibur” (sing-along) while producing patriotic signs.

On one of my first days in Jerusalem, the weather strangely sympathized with the wartime conditions. Around noon, I heard what I presumed must be the sound of military jets streaking across the sky. In any other place, I thought to myself, this would be thunder. But not here, where the morning had been sunny, storms are rare, and I had not heard a forecast for inclement weather. As the “planes” continued with surprising frequency, I eventually went outside to take a look and discovered that a thunderstorm was, in fact, approaching. Before long, it was raining and for several hours the sound of thunder continued virtually uninterrupted. How tragically appropriate! I thought.

My many friends and colleagues in Israel had all been touched in some way by the war, some very directly. The wife of my closest Israeli friend had lost one of her nephews in the fighting at Kibbutz Be’eri, the son of a family we have known for years was one of the first enter into Gaza in a tank, and a fellow historian told me that three of his five children were serving in the Strip simultaneously. Yet another friend apologized that she was so distraught by the situation that she found herself unable to make plans in advance and was therefore unsure she would be able to see me. (A deeply religious person, she eventually decided she would like to meet and prayed to God that He would make that happen; a few hours later we ran into each other in the Mahane Yehudah shuk and conversed over beet kubbeh soup.)

Prominent throughout Israel were pictures and pleas pertaining to the hostages. Posted at bus stops, at the airport, in the beautiful new National Library (which opened its doors while I was in the country), and projected onto buildings, the faces and names were everywhere, so much so that I began to feel that I know many of them.

Waiting for their release while waiting for the bus.

Faces on a facade.

On my first Saturday night in Jerusalem, I attended a large protest on behalf of the hostages. Amid a sea of Israeli flags and signs proclaiming “there’s no greater mitzvah than the redemption of captives,” the crowd chanted “Eyn od rega, eyn od zman / mahzirim otam akhshav”—There’s not another moment, there’s no more time / bring them back now”). Only afterwards did I realize that the date of this gathering, November 4, was the anniversary of the Rabin assassination back in 1995.

Throughout my stay, I observed how impromptu shrines for the fallen and captured had been erected at prominent locations, such as Jerusalem City Hall and the Kotel, or Western Wall.

Posters of the hostages and memorial candles at the city hall plaza.

The sign reads: “This corner was created by the youth of Jerusalem in memory of the fallen and for the return home of the prisoners.”

The men in this photograph are facing the memorial at the Kotel

A plaque with the names of the fallen, at the Kotel plaza.

Also visible at times were signs of appreciation for America’s support:

And—to be sure—some uncomfortable messages:

”Finish Them”/”The People of Israel Lives”

As I explored opportunities to volunteer, I was introduced to the Civilian Command Center (“hamal ezrahi”), numerous examples of which had been set up across the country. One evening early in my stay, I walked over to the main war room headquarters in Jerusalem to offer my services via QR code. Shortly thereafter, I was asked over WhatsApp if I could join a group helping to coordinate play areas for children temporarily housed in Jerusalem. Nearly 200,000 Israelis have been internally displaced due to fighting in both the north and south of the country, and many of them are living in hotels vacant due to the current pause in tourism. My job was to call people who had signed up to help at these play areas, confirm their interest and availability, guide them through a form that assessed their experience, skills, and needs, and schedule when and where they would volunteer.

A few days later, I was brought in again, this time to a group coordinating the war-related transport of people and goods, including soldiers who needed to get back to their bases, materials that required delivery to the military, and evacuees needing assistance to get to medical appointments. In this Hamal, I was in essence trying to broker deals between those who had requested help and those who had offered it. In one case, I located a driver who could bring supplies donated by a father to his son’s base in the north. In another, a recent French immigrant agreed to bring a soldier to the sprawling Nevatim Airbase near Be’er Sheva, and seven large boxes to other nearby locations. In that case, the Hamal driver and I actually brought the items to the man’s apartment and spent a good half hour figuring out how to fit them all in his car. The soldier had to hold a big box on her lap for the entire ride down south.

In the “Transport” “War Room”

Loading supplies for delivery to an army base

The beauty of strangers helping strangers

In these command centers, which in Hebrew are called “war rooms,” I saw the strength of Israeli civil society on full display. While predominantly staffed by university students, the start of whose fall semester has been postponed until December, they had attracted people from all walks of life. Looking around at the Transportation Team at the Jerusalem Hamal soon after my arrival, I was surprised to see a well-known historian at work at the next table over.

While in Israel, I also learned of the dire shortage of agricultural labor in the wake of the departure of thousands of Thai and Nepali—and Gazan— workers. A friend of mine had organized a group that has been picking vegetables every Wednesday on Moshav Ein HaBsor and I decided to join. This moshav, a cooperative agricultural community comprised of privately owned farms, is located in the Gaza Envelope, a mere four miles from the Gaza Strip, and unlike neighboring communities, had managed to ward off the Hamas terrorists on October 7, suffering only two injuries.

We spent the day there harvesting zucchini and cherry tomatoes, as well as helping to clear out Pelemix grow bags from a hothouse that had been abandoned soon after the start of the war, which left us especially filthy and fatigued. The distant sound of explosions from the fighting in Gaza was ongoing the entire time. During the lunch break, a busload of journalists from around the world arrived and began speaking with moshav residents and volunteers alike. I gave interviews in English, French, and Italian, though I have no idea if they were at all used.

Inside the zucchini hothouse

Lots and lots of tomatoes

Yours truly with a few of them

With fellow picker Andy (left) and “boss” Tair (right)

Alon, the owner of the farm where we volunteered, speaking with NPR about his experience on October 7.

In addition to conducting research and volunteering, I had an important delivery to make: letters prepared by students from Hebrew High of Greater Phoenix, including by my daughter Salome, for Israeli soldiers:

While it was no surprise to encounter traces of the war at almost every turn, there were nonetheless moments where its impact was unexpected and, for that reason, all the more powerful. On one Saturday, a fellow guest and I met up in advance to head to our Shabbat lunch meal together. The apartment we sought was in a large complex, and at first we knocked on the wrong door. The woman who opened after a long delay appeared absolutely traumatized by our presence at her door and was practically hyperventilating. We immediately apologized and, after catching her breath, she informed us that Dalia lived at the next entrance over. “That was scary,” she then proceeded to confess, clarifying that her son was currently fighting in Gaza. She had feared we were emissaries from the army who had come to report his death! In war, even a simple knock can take on dramatic dimensions.

But even in war, the sun still shines, and even small countries are big places. There are few things in life that I enjoy more than walking around Jerusalem, and I was pleased on this visit, too, to have several lovely discoveries:

A larger-than-life vintage radio near city hall: it (still) works!

An appetizing establishment in the Nahlaot neighborhood.

Wall art near Jerusalem City Hall. As the Prophet Ezekiel (5:5) said: “Thus says the LORD God: This is Jerusalem; I have set her in the center of the nations, with countries all around her.”

I’m already waiting for a chance to get back:

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