Courtesy Meislin Projects, NY
One year, during my doctoral studies in Jewish American literature at a sprawling university in Southern California, I was invited by a local synagogue to offer some words on Holocaust Remembrance Day. I was a young fiction writer, Ph.D. student, Israeli—a fresh voice. I no longer recall what I said that evening, but I can still remember clearly the handout distributed to the audience: a faded Xerox of poems and prayers, on the last page of which was a picture of three youths—one with a beret perched atop his head—grinning boyishly at the camera. The photo was taken in the Warsaw ghetto. After the ceremony I met a non-Jewish friend at a Mexican restaurant. Over a platter of tacos I showed him the picture. “They look so familiar to me, I can almost hear them breathing. I miss them,” I said in tears. Out of politeness, my friend said he understood. More or less.
How can you miss someone you have never met?
But it’s a fact that you can.
I assume that Lavi Lipshitz never imagined that the video he made of himself asking a girl named Noam out on a date would receive over a million views. Two thousand of them must have been from me alone. A handsome fighter serving in the West Bank, dreaming of Wes Anderson movies and fantasizing about a romantic date set for Thursday evening—he lies in the ground now. How heavy is the earth above his body? Aren’t you suffocating in there? Do you still dream?
On a website of Hebrew names for boys, the name Lavi is followed by this explanation: The name comes from the Bible and means lion cub, as it appears in the Book of Job, chapter four, verse 11: “The old lion perishes for lack of prey, and the cubs of the lioness are scattered.” The name Lavi is synonymous with a young lion and symbolizes the perpetuation of a strong family line. While a lion cub may be young, he possesses determination and strength, courage and ambition. Likewise, the adult lioness—in Hebrew, Levia; in this context the name Lavi symbolizes a connection to the mother and to her mature and protective qualities.
When a person is no more (and yet still is), the symbols begin to take over, and his life and death take on an existence of their own, embedded with all kinds of clues which, as we try to collect and connect them, bring into sharp relief the chaos that resides in nothingness.
I imagine a bus stop in central Jerusalem. It’s a hot day and the sun is scalding. I’m a second-year film student, and while I wait for the bus I read a book. Next to me, a young handsome soldier is sitting, a small kippa on his head. His uniform is perfectly ironed and arranged. Peeking over my shoulder, he says, “Great book.”
“You know Peter Handke?” I ask, and he nods with a sweet, youthful self-assuredness.
“I’ve been walking around with this book for a month now, and haven’t run into anyone who’s heard of him,” I say, blushing and breathless. “I’ve got to read something to you, wait, let me find it. Here—
Horror is something perfectly natural. The mind’s emptiness. A thought is taking shape, and suddenly it notices that there is nothing more to think. Whereupon it crashes to the ground like a figure in a comic strip who suddenly realizes that he has been walking on air.
The handsome soldier smiles at me, but before the conversation can go any further, he spots his bus approaching. As he steps onto it, he gives me one last look and says, “Did you know that Peter Handke jumped off a cliff and in his suicide note he wrote that he was no longer a human being?”
“Take care, boychik,” I say, and he smiles with pursed lips.
I imagine something else: I’m a first-year student at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem. It’s the meet-and-greet for students and teachers; everyone is excited, apprehensive, afraid of that forbidding foreignness of themselves and the others. When his name is called, I turn my head to see the person behind the name—Lavi Lipshitz. A name that encompasses this entire country in such a pronounced, almost extravagant way—predatory lion and gentle cub, in one. And the “Lipshitz” that evokes the diaspora, but whose literal meaning is son of the Levites (from the biblical tribe of Levi). And then I see him—youthful face, chiseled nose, deep brown Jewish eyes. On a screen he projects some of his photographs from his army days. They are beautiful and crisp and give off a slightly foggy veil of pain that you can see will never lift. At the end of the gathering, he passes me in the hallway and I blurt out, “Hi Lavi, your pictures are gorgeous.” Then I go outside and meet a friend for coffee.
And so the years pass—he studies film, shoots movies, reads a lot, thinks, imagines, creates, rents an apartment downtown, finds a mindless part-time job, quits, falls in love and settles down, travels to China, Europe, America. Lives his life.
I imagine once more: He is lying beneath the ground in the Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery. How heavy is the earth above you? Does it weigh down on you, Lavi? On you and your dreams?
My daughter’s name is Avigail. When my partner, David, and I were looking for a name for our first child, I had only one request—a Hebrew name from the Bible. We chose Avigail because the biblical Avigail was both intelligent and beautiful, and also because her name contains the word “Avi”—my father. It was important to me to forge that historical link through words, so that my daughter Avigail would always be connected to my beloved father, whom she never had the chance to know.
When Hamas launched its surprise attack, journalist photographer Roi Idan left his home on Kibbutz Kfar Aza and headed for the border, where he photographed terrorist squads that had infiltrated his kibbutz with motorized paragliders. Afterwards, he also managed to document the missile barrages and interceptions in the area before rushing home, where his wife, Smadar, and his three children were waiting: 9-year-old Michael, 6-year-old Amalia, and 3-year-old Avigail. Seconds after he had photographed the terrorists, they set out on a murderous rampage on the kibbutz. They spared no one in their path. Michael and Amalia, after hiding in a closet, spent the next 14 hours in the shelter with their mother’s body. Roi, who was outside, holding Avigail in his arms, was also shot and killed. According to witnesses, a neighbor and her two children grabbed Avigail before all four were abducted and taken to Gaza.
As of the writing of this text, Avigail will have been held underground for one month and two days. By the time these words are translated into English, edited, and published, many more days will have passed. Maybe not an immense number. But underground every day is immensely long. Immensely grueling. Avigail underground, are you still with your neighbor? Does anyone even know your name is Avigail? Has anyone asked you? Were you able to answer?
My Avigail is in her room, playing with her dolls, her chestnut hair gleaming from the sun streaming through the window. What is Avigail playing with, down underground? Did anyone bring her a doll? Stickers? Crayons to color with? Have any rays of sun found their way into the darkness? How does she pass her days, hours, minutes, seconds? My Avigail is nibbling on a hot cob of corn. What are you eating underground, Avigail? A slice of bread? Who is changing your diapers? Do you have clean clothes? A pacifier? Are you tucked in at night? What do you dream about, Avigail?
When my heart can withstand it—and it often can’t—I look at pictures of you. At your soft, sweet curls. At the smudge of chocolate on your mouth, at your pink dress with the juice stain. At that smile that little kids like to make for the camera—my daughter does that too, gives great big grins to show off every one of her teeth. Her name is also Avigail, by the way. You’re almost the same age, and if you went to the same preschool, the teacher would call you Avigail A and Avigail B.
As the days goes by, you become a shadow that accompanies my every hour. Your shadow comes with us to the shelter-preschool every morning, eats schnitzel and noodles with us every afternoon; your shadow laughs and giggles, enjoys a hot bath, wants a hug before going to bed. Today, Avigail and I went to a nice toy store in Tel Aviv, where I bought her a stuffed white horse with wings. Once I met an Italian writer, who told me that little girls should be given toys that take them places, so that they can learn to go far, reach the horizon and fly into the sky.
Underground Avigail, I am weary from thinking of you; I can’t let myself think about you all the time. In fact, I shouldn’t be thinking about you at all. Your parents should be thinking about you—should be, but are no longer with us. You have become the daughter of us all. I want you to come home already, so that Grandpa and Grandma can give you a hot bath and wrap you in a soft robe. And you can play with your siblings again and eat from your plate with the bunny on it. And you can sip raspberry gazoz from your cup with the orange straw. I so want you to come home, my daughter, so that when you turn 13 and are celebrating your bat mitzvah, you’ll open the door one day and find a present that someone left for you on the welcome mat: a box wrapped in red wrapping paper, and inside—a stuffed white horse with wings.
I was born in a sun-soaked house with an orange tree in the front yard and an orange grove at the top of the street. My elementary school was named after Ben-Gurion. My parents were first-generation Hebrew speakers. Aside from my foreign-sounding name, there was little to evoke the exilic environment in which I grew up. But whoever entered our house could find telltale signs. For instance: the library. Imagine an entire living room wall bursting with books crammed every which way, some stacked awkwardly on top of each other, others nearly falling to the floor. Imagine the titles: The Destruction of the European Jews, To Hell and Back, Night, etc.
Imagine a family dinner at the Brasserie, a trendy Tel Aviv restaurant that has just opened—the twinkling chandeliers, the cloth napkins ironed to perfection, the chilled wine in our glasses. It is my brother’s 21st birthday, and when we clink glasses for a l’chaim, he jokingly requests that we not talk about Hitler on his birthday. We laugh, and my father heeds his request for exactly 20 minutes.
As a young girl, this history was an imaginary cloud into which I would immerse myself. My knowledge of the war wasn’t bad. Already at 12, I knew that in June of 1941, 4 million Axis soldiers invaded the Soviet Union. I liked the word Barbarossa, and letting it roll off my tongue.
Fast forward. I’m arguing with my father about antisemitism. It’s an eternal phenomenon, he says. He’s in the past, I in the present. He’s Jewish, I’m free. He doesn’t see what I see. Enough, enough already, it’s no longer relevant to our lives! I kick up a cloud of teenage rage and slam the door behind me.
Fast forward a few more years. I move out of my parents’ home to seek an independent life, leaving my cloud behind to immerse myself in new things. I move to Tel Aviv, publish my first novel; these are sweet years of discovery, urban adventures, and exhilarating freedom. The day I walk through the gates of the Humanities Department at Tel Aviv University is a turning point. I start with French, read Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre; memorize French tenses. It is all interesting, exciting—the ultimate chic. I learn a ton and dress to kill. When I start to play with the idea of a Ph.D.—from a young age, my father would say: “By the time you’re 30 you’ll be done with your dissertation!”—I understand that “ultimate chic,” no matter how stylish, might not be worth devoting six or seven years of your life to. And then I find myself in a course on Jewish American literature, taught by Hana Wirth-Nesher. We read the immigration and acculturation stories of Mary Antin, Anzia Yezierska, and Abraham Cahan. It all feels intimately familiar, but also at a safe enough remove, in that intermediary space between the Holocaust and Zionism—what Freud called the uncanny. I fall in love with that literature and history, which almost could be mine.
I dedicated my dissertation to my father with these words:
My father opened the gates of knowledge to me, instilled in me a love of literature and handed me the baton to preserve the moral and cultural future of the Jewish people. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, he passed on a commitment to learn and remember, and engraved in my heart the memory of the victims and the lives they led. He mourned their loss every day. A few years ago, as we were strolling along the boardwalk in Tel Aviv, he said to me, “I feel closer to that history than to the one we’re living now.”
Since my father’s passing, a day hasn’t gone by that I haven’t grieved his absence. On Oct. 7, I felt a relief that he was not here.
Translated from Hebrew by Dalia Rosenfeld
Julia Fermentto-Tzaisler is a writer. Her debut novel, Safari, was published in 2011 and became a Bestseller. Her second novel By the Orange Orchard won the Minister of Culture Award for Young Writers and has been chosen as the 2018 “One Book, One City” contest by the Tel Aviv municipality and Timeout magazine. Her work has been published in German, Polish and English. She is also the artistic director of the Jerusalem International Writers Festival and director of PEN Israel.