I have finally gotten around to reading Ari Shavit’s book “My Promised Land” about a month after moving our family from Sag Harbor NY to Jerusalem. At first it was too intense to read, isn’t there something a bit lighter–something on the New York Times‘ top 10 summer reading list–that I could pick up instead, especially at a time of war when things are so intense here?
But now, I find the media/internet/Facebook posting cycle so fast and dizzying that I need to slow it down–getting a little bit of historical perspective helps. Shavit’s book paints a picture of the triumphs, challenges, and tragedies associated with establishing the State of Israel.
But there’s one line that struck me so deeply. Describing the experience of an immigrant mother who had left Baghdad after the farhud (pogroms) there and immigrated to Israel in the 1950s, Shavit writes, “She pretended that all was well for the children’s sake, that this was some sort of sandy summer camp and not the end of the world.”
While immigrating to Israel from New York in 2014 is nothing compared to the journey Jews took sixty years ago, and while my desire to bring my family back here was a decade-old dream of mine–to make the Jewish homeland my home–the impulse is the same. There is a war raging (for veteran Israelis this is not new) and as a mom, my job is to make it all OK for my children. I spend the mornings checking online media sources and speaking to friends and colleagues about the matzav/milchama (situation/war), and the afternoons are filled with ice cream, swimming pools, and crafts for the kids.
By making it OK for the children I am making it OK for myself too. There was a program on Israeli TV recently about how to cope with the war. Mothers were talking about their sons who were just called up, fathers who are doctors by profession spoke of treating injured soldiers while reflecting on their sons who are on the front line, and a therapist was talking about the importance of listening to yourself and figuring what you need to manage.
Focusing on the kids puts healthy distance between me and the pain caused by the war. And while I admit, that back in the United States, I would (dare I say) sometimes dread spending a long afternoon with my three kids under the age of 6, now I can’t wait till 2:30 p.m. when I pick up my first child from gan (camp).
Here are a few of my coping mechanisms:
1. Take breaks from the news. While learning about every new development in this war feels necessary sometimes, it is too much. There is pain and loss and ache and fear on both sides. Turning off the news every once in a while is helpful. It helps me focus on the world that is in front of me, and how grateful I am to inhabit it.
2. Laugh. A friend of mine told me this morning that it doesn’t help anyone to cower beneath a dark cloud of gloom. While there is certainly a heaviness to being in Israel right now, it needs a release. Laugh, be with friends, savor good food, connect. One of the things that I love about living in Israel is that it is so raw. Because there is death and pain in so many places, you cultivate a very real sense of gratitude for the life that you have and the relationships you’ve developed. Nothing is dull or muted here.
3. Be kinder than you have to be. To everyone. Tip the waitress more, say hello to people in the streets. Give way.
4. Pay attention to the little things. The touch of my daughter’s body on mine when she crawls into bed with me in the early hours of the morning is a welcome way to ease me out of sleep. The belly of my 16-month-old breathing in and out as she nurses gives me pause. The bright green eyes of my son and the way that they reflect the Jerusalem light at 6 o’clock each evening while he is playing on the playground fills me with hope.
5. Practice being peaceful. When peace feels so elusive right now, it feels like the only spiritual practice we should have. And it’s not always easy. This past Friday night, I had one of those every day kind of arguments you have with your spouse. “I already put out her clothes, why doesn’t she have any underwear on?” I asked my husband in a more accusatory tone that I would have liked. It was just moments before Shabbat, and things heat up at my house around then. Right before lighting candles on Friday night I started to slow it down. By lighting the candles I wanted to bring peace into my home, but really, I wanted to bring peace into myself. To practice peace for the 25 hours of Shabbat and to not react when provoked (by my kids or anyone else), or to speak a little quieter and to give my full attention to whoever needed it a little bit more felt like important work. I noticed a difference. I felt more open, like there was more space between me and everything else.
Making everything OK for our kids and for ourselves during a war is all we can do. To cultivate peace within ourselves and our most intimate relationships first and then to our neighbors, communities, and the others who share this land with us will one day, one day help those feelings radiate outward.