The silent treatment
It was as if we had never gone to Israel at all.
The Afghani grocer greeted me effusively when I walked into the store I rely on for olive oil, pickles, nuts, and labne whose fat content I stopped feeling guilty about the moment I discovered it was a probiotic.
He greeted me effusively even though he knew I had just returned from Israel. My heart was pounding in anticipation of the questions that were surely next to come, and for which I had yet to formulate a response in my head worthy of the reality I had experienced.
“You were looking for spanakopita?” he asked, ringing up my items.
“You seem to be out,” I replied.
“I will check in back to see if I have any,” he said. And the exchange—as friendly as ever, with no detectable shift in tone or timbre—was over.
Cut to a fall sports parents’ meeting on concussions at the local high school, and to our next-door-neighbor—a professor of Global Culture–whose two sons spend nearly as much time at our house as at their own. My heart shifts into gear again, and I can feel the blush burn at my face.
“Hey, guys! Did you have fun in Israel?”
“Well…it was a hard trip this time.”
“And then you visited your folks in Indiana, right? How was that?”
The things that are left unsaid—who benefits from this silence, and is it better to break it, or let it speak for itself?
I tried to break it. It would have been dishonest to give the impression that, but for our sandy bathing suits from the beach, we had returned from Israel unchanged. The wail of a siren in your ear is not a mosquito; shrapnel falling on the street that you live on is not just another soda can strewn over someone’s shoulder.
“Israel was great,” I replied the next time I ran into an in-the-know acquaintance. “Until the missiles started exploding above our heads.”
The speed with which he hid behind his coffee mug (yes, they are that big in Virginia)! And his response?
“Well, I’m glad you’re back.”
That evening, I cried as we sat around the dinner table. In Israel, I was used to an aching jaw at the end of the day; in the U.S. it was as good as clamped shut. I felt invisible to my acquaintances, the Israel that was within me forced to remain in hiding for fear of offending people with its pretty–or in this case, pained–face. The suffering in Gaza is real, just as the running from rockets into bomb shelters is real. But I was asked about neither, the “How was Israel?” not a question at all, but an injunction to keep quiet, a new mode of communication between parties whose world views were worlds apart, and with one party wanting to keep it that way by groping for words that only widened the gap.
When we were in Tel Aviv and the rockets were falling, I received exactly two emails from people who were not family members. The first was from an evangelical Christian guest who had stayed in our Airbnb bedroom a few months earlier, on a visit from Alabama. “I just wanted you to know I’m praying for God’s protection over you and your family!” she wrote. “I hope you guys are okay and this doesn’t damper [sic] your trip or do any harm!” The second was from our handyman, wishing us pretty much the same, and sending a link to a video about the imminent takeover of the world by radical Islam.
“WHY?” I sought solace from my husband later that evening, after reminding him of these emails. “Why are people invested in the world to come the only ones who care about us?”
“Let’s have a dinner party,” my husband suggested. “And invite everyone who has been avoiding us since we got back.”
At this point, I was open to any idea–however crazy–that might change the status quo. Cooking for conversation—it seemed like a fair exchange. Or would people see it as a bribe, the invitation the remains of a tree they would be expected to build a bridge out of?
“Okay,” I said. “But on one condition.”
Not only the world was broken; so was our dishwasher.
“We make it a potluck.”
Dalia Rosenfeld is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Agni, The Daily Forward, Mississippi Review, Bellingham Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Moment Magazine, Zeek, Jewcy, and Carve. She lives with her husband and three children in Charlottesville, Virginia.