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Dread, Prayer, Hope, and Forgiveness

Yom Kippur in Israel is a complicated yet often peaceful time. But the specter of violence is always felt.

Daniel Gordis
October 07, 2016
Menachem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
A scene from the Israeli city of Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, during the 'Tashlich' ritual, October 3, 2016. Menachem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Menachem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
A scene from the Israeli city of Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, during the 'Tashlich' ritual, October 3, 2016. Menachem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Israelis went to sleep on Wednesday with a new headline flickering across our phones: an IAF pilot had been killed while landing his plane at a base near Be’er Sheva. A report with no details and a pilot without a name. Still, we knew that someone was now engulfed in unmitigable grief. Pilots are typically not very young. They have wives and kids, and we knew—even without knowing precisely how—that a family’s fabric had been ripped asunder, forever beyond repair.

There’s a creeping, dread-filled cadence to these headlines, we’ve learned by now. Go to sleep. By the morning, the military censor will have released additional details. Sure enough, by the time we had awakened, there was more on our phones. The pilot and his navigator were returning from a bombing run over Gaza; while landing, they ran into trouble, and ejected. The navigator survived with minor injuries; for some reason not yet clear, the pilot died in the ejection. He was the father of a young child; his widow is pregnant.

As always happens around here, “pilot” was morphing into “husband,” and “father.” A father of a child not yet even born; his wife will, in some months, give birth without him there. We would see, a day later, photos of Major Ohad Cohen-Nov (for by then, the “pilot” had a name), his father, meeting with the General Amir Eshel, head of the Air Force. We would see the family home in the photos. As the anonymity dissipated, the magnitude of the loss weighed on everyone. Website and newspapers all led with it. Another one of our sons gone, in a war that has lasted some 85 years, since the outbreak of hostilities in Hebron in 1929.

Our interminable war, though, has chapters, and suddenly we knew: this was no training run. Someone in Gaza had fired a rocket onto Sderot the day before, and Israel had responded. What self-respecting country would not? What “normal” country lets itself be shelled and does not respond? Yet the response has a cost. Not only for innocent people on the other side of the border, but among our soldiers, too. Ohad Cohen-Nov was a casualty of this war that we simply do not know how to stop. Is this this beginning of another chapter of that horrible story?

Then someone in Gaza shelled Israel once more, the next day. Then the low-level dread that always permeates this society, even if beneath the surface so we are not always conscious of it, became less ignorable. We asked ourselves the question we often ask: this how it starts again? Israel edges into wars these days, rather than declare them. Three boys are kidnapped and killed in the summer of 2014. Horrific murders, horrible tragedies. Somehow, though, it doesn’t stop there. Each side takes another step, and before you know it, Israel is in a full-fledged war with Hamas. Thousands of people die, entire neighborhoods in Gaza are reduced to rubble, and Israelis spend the summer running to bomb shelters. Is this going to be that again? Did we get through the summer of 2016 with quiet, only to fight again? Is that where this is heading? On Yom Kippur?

Then we remember even more. Yom Kippur has been transformed—forever—in Israel. Unlike other holidays in which most of the TV programming leading up to them focuses on some spiritual or religious dimension of the holiday, television about Yom Kippur in Israel is almost exclusively about the Yom Kippur War. We learn a little bit more each year. Some new story of a hero we had not heard before. A battle that hinged entirely on some small piece of equipment, or on whether a certain order could be heard over the failing radio.

Yet what we are left with, more than anything, is the reminder that nothing here is predictable. Yom Kippur is the day when people literally stroll in the middle of the streets, because there are no cars. Yom Kippur is the holiday in advance of which secular kids often receive bicycles as gifts, because they can initiate them on a car-free highway. Yom Kippur is the day in which in most neighborhoods, there is a stillness in which we are all wrapped, whether we are in synagogue or not. It’s a day of reflection, of introspection, of utter stillness.

Unless, as the TV programming in the days preceding has reminded us is possible, the sirens go off. Will that happen this year? We suspect not, of course, but we know we do not know. So the country slows, quiets, and prays…and on some level, dreads. That is Israeli life.

Often, therefore, in synagogue, I find myself asking, “Is this what we’re going to leave to our kids? Is this what my granddaughter will ponder when she is old enough to walk to shul on her own? Is this what her kids will feel?”

Somehow, amid the soul-burning melody of Kol Nidre, another song always hovers in the back of my mind. The Children of Winter ’73. First performed in 1994, it was the “voice” of the babies who were conceived when their fathers came back from battle in 1973.

We are the children of winter 1973

You dreamt us first at dawn at the end of the battles

You were tired men who thanked their good fortune

You were petrified young women, and you wanted so much to love

When you conceived us with love in winter 1973

You wanted to fill up with your bodies that what the war had obliterated.

It is an elegy, but also an accusation. It is our children, accusing us. Of not doing enough, of not trying hard enough.

You promised a dove,

an olive tree leaf,

you promised peace

You promised spring at home and blossoms

You promised to fulfill promises,

you promised a dove

Maybe there was more we could have done. Maybe not. Perhaps it’s too late, perhaps not. Yom Kippur here, though, has still not recovered from that war. Here we spend the day in prayer, in self-reflection. And in dread. And begging for forgiveness. Not only from God, though. From our children, no less.

Have we done enough to earn their forgiveness for what we will likely bequeath them? Of all Yom Kippur’s questions, it is quite possible that is the most terrifying one of all.

Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, was just awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Book of the Year.