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A Day Like No Other

I feel as if I’m living in a lurid dream. A dream where the sky is made of dirt and the ground is made of air. I am lost in that dream.
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October 17, 2023

Today was unlike any day I’ve ever experienced. It consisted of two very distinct, very powerful emotions. Early this morning I was speaking with friends in Israel, texting with others, and combing the web in search of the latest updates on the impending war. I’ve been to Israel more times than I can remember. I say age-old prayers for Israel and its people at least a dozen times a day, more than that on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. These prayers have been a regular part of my life for the last thirty-six years. I mention this only to suggest to you the centrality of Israel in my life.

On the Shabbat of October 7,  like so many others, I received the searing news that there had been a tragedy in Israel. A tragedy so horrifying that I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. Some one-thousand terrorists from Hamas —whose charter includes the genocidal goal of eliminating the State of Israel and killing Jews wherever they are found—crossed the border from the Gaza Strip and began a massive slaughter of innocents, a modern-day pogrom. For those of you who don’t yet know about them, here are some details of that pogrom, which unfortunately, I must now share because without them the word “horrifying” will remain vague and hollow.

Hamas raped young women, took them hostage, murdered them and paraded their naked bodies through the streets of Gaza, all the while laughing and shouting. Hamas used automatic weapons to gun down at least 260 young people at a music festival. Hamas murdered entire families in their beds, infants, men, women, and young children. In one instance, there was a room in which a family of five had been beheaded. According to Israeli Army sources, their five severed heads had been propped up against a wall —the mother’s, the father’s and their three children’s. It was said to be so gruesome that veteran medical and military personal were afraid to enter the room.

Other families were burned alive. Hamas took babies hostage, young children were ripped from their mother’s arms and driven across the border into Gaza. Elderly women were murdered, others were kidnapped, some of them are reported to have been Holocaust survivors. As I write this, the total of the murdered numbered one thousand two-hundred human beings. All killed simply for being Jews. The number of wounded — and these wounds include bullet holes, shrapnel wounds, and loss of limbs—is in the thousands. The number of people taken hostage is assumed to be at least 127. This is an event for which there is not a string of words capable of conveying the shock to a tiny nation for whom a single soldier, held in captivity in Gaza for five years, was traded for a thousand known terrorists.

My family, my friends, my brother, my sister, my mother; everyone around me is distraught. My friend, the writer Wayne Robins, portrayed these feelings so poignantly: “I feel like the graves of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and back dozens of generations have been desecrated. If asked if I knew anyone lost or missing in the current paroxysm of inhumanity, I feel like, not anyone, everyone. Everyone.” Hamas’s slaughter of innocent Jews makes it the worst catastrophe to have struck the Jewish people since the Holocaust.

So, when I hear people minimizing what happened, relativizing it, dismissing it, or ignoring it altogether, as has happened so many times in our long history, I feel as if I’m living in a lurid dream. A dream where the sky is made of dirt and the ground is made of air. I am lost in that dream. For the moment we are all lost. Running and screaming, crying and praying. I shuddered when I read a post from Columbia University professor, Joseph Massad. Writing in the The Electronic Intifada, he sounded jubilant about what he’d termed “the Palestinian war of liberation,“ and the “shocking success” of the “Palestinian resistance.” I got sick to my stomach when I read this line in a statement from the Harvard Student’s Group: “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” The words “unfolding violence” are to my ears, insane; they are themselves a manifestation of evil, a shriek of moral insanity.

Violence didn’t “unfold.” A terrorist group, funded and trained by Iran, endeavored with all their debased will to create a stratagem that would allow them to massacre Jews — just as it’s written in their Charter. Hamas’s pogrom didn’t take place in a war zone; it took place in people’s bedrooms. Unfolding violence? Does an infant commit violence? Is an old woman capable of violence? Good God, beheading babies? Raping and murdering young women, parading their bodies in the streets to cheers and laughter, burning people alive, taking children hostage? Who the hell are these “students,” these so-called best and brightest?

Now, to the next part of my day.

I arrived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn for a brit milah celebration around 10:30 AM. Another grandchild was born to us last Wednesday. A beautiful boy. A light, a gift, a shining star. Just as my son Isaac announced his baby’s name out loud for the first time, he and I glanced over at one another, tears of joy filling our eyes. It’s amazing, I thought. All the pain I’d been feeling has now been transformed into rejoicing. All the fear and doubt I’ve been wrestling with has turned to courage and certainty. 

The miraculous nature of the gift of this baby, this gift we’ve received from God, had, for the moment at least, become unmistakable. Out of the millions upon millions of moments I’ve experienced over the course of my sixty-three years, there are so few that have been permanently etched into my memory.

And now, as evening descends, I have —with a soaring sense of gratitude—come to realize that only one of this day’s distinct and powerful emotions will remain with me forever.

I leave it to you to guess which one.

Follow Peter Himmelman at peterhimmelman.substack.com

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