Wading Through Widowhood: Peace in our time

‘Ah, but your land is beautiful,’ said South African novelist Alan Paton. ‘Ah, but your land is complicated,’ is a novel just waiting to be written here.

A Book Club meeting of students from the Lady Davis Multidisciplinary High School in Tel Aviv and the Multidisciplinary High School in Taiba. (photo credit: COURTESY AMAL)
A Book Club meeting of students from the Lady Davis Multidisciplinary High School in Tel Aviv and the Multidisciplinary High School in Taiba.
(photo credit: COURTESY AMAL)
As I sit and type these words, it’s exactly 30 years, almost to the minute, since Martin knocked on my door – and walked into my heart.
I remember everything so clearly: his beautiful voice, his beautiful face, his beautiful body; the beautiful feeling of falling in love and realizing that with this man at my side I’d always be home – no matter where we were. I remember what I wore, what we spoke about and how he gave me his sweater – it was a surprisingly cold July evening in Jerusalem.
I remember when we said goodbye, we knew it was not really “goodbye,” and the happy certainty that soon we would not part at the end of a date.
Martin was in Lebanon when we got engaged; his Shlav Bet army service for new immigrants just coincided with the First Lebanon War. Soon after that we bundled our babies into gas masks during the Gulf War, and I’ve lost track of all the other operations and battles and full-out wars since then.
Now I am sitting in my study, with one ear open, again, for a Color Red alert. The first siren caught me in Tel Aviv, having dinner with a lovely friend from the States, here on an official course for Jewish educators from abroad. As people poured into the restaurant from the street, seeking shelter, my friend’s first reaction was how frantic her family would be. “I’d better go home,” she said, “it’s not fair to my husband and kids that I stay.”
She did stay, however, running to shelters for days, with the rest of us. Many friends who live abroad have come to support us and stay in our rapidly emptying hotels, and we welcome them and feel embraced. It is wonderful to have the warm hug of a whole extra community outside who care about our common country.
But as the siren wailed overhead, and the Tel Avivians smiled through it, gate-crashing our fish ‘n pasta meal, I had an epiphany. We who live here can’t go home in troubled times; we are home. When times are good we mellow and thrive, when things go wrong we try to survive, and we ask ourselves, often, what we’re doing here, and will things ever, ever come right. But our kids are here, and our work is here, and our hearts; here is where we go to bed at night.
It’s not a warm and fuzzy place to live, Israel, when the rockets are flying. Our boys are called up to Gaza border and there they do what they have to do, boiling in the Middle Eastern sun. We wait breathlessly for news, praying for peace. It’s so very, very complicated and seems so insane. Oh no, we think to ourselves, not again. What will Hamas achieve by chucking missiles at us this time, we wonder, why don’t they channel their donated dollars into parks and schools and industry for their kids instead? We can’t change Hamas’s mind-set, but the bombs bang home to us that we simply, absolutely, indubitably have to heal the schisms in our own land, ein lanu brera – we have no choice. For Rachel Tal, head of the English department of Amal’s network of 70 schools in Israel, building bridges (preferably through English) is an imperative. Together with Ahuva Dotan and Rina Akotonas of Amal’s English team, and funded by the US Embassy, Tal has created a series of programs to bring Muslim, Jewish, Druse, Beduin and Christian students and teachers together, as they agree – or disagree – in English.
A negotiations program, for example, developed with Harvard Law School, pairs Jewish and Arab schools, with each population hosting the other for one day. The pupils work on negotiating skills, not politics: “I lent you my tablet; you returned it broken – what do we do?” is an easier conundrum with which to cope than: “Should Israel bomb a mosque that stockpiles Grad missiles?” The rights and wrongs of political intricacies are given a rest, while pupils grapple with universal issues.
Israelis are not world-renowned for their restraint; the rhetoric in this hot corner of the globe is often harsh and cutting. Another Amal program teaches debating skills – how to demolish your opponent’s arguments without raising your voice, or calling your interlocutor a blithering idiot. With Arab and Jewish students on the same side, discussing whether teachers should express political opinions in class, or if cyber-bullying would diminish if Internet access was barred to young teenagers, friendships are cemented and barriers are broken down.
I am fortunate to be involved in these efforts: I moderate a book club for English teachers from Tel Aviv and the Beduin town of Tel Sheva, Petah Tikva and Tira, Kfar Saba and the Druse village of Kisra- Sumei. So far we’ve dealt with children’s behavioral problems in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, and how individuals cope with deprivation and war in The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie and Literary Society. We’ve kept the discussions light and literary: images, themes, allusions. But literature cuts to our core – marooned on an island commandeered by enemy forces, would you capitulate to their demands and directives? Would you smuggle food to a starving “enemy”; would you stay silent or stand up and get hurt? “Ah, but your land is beautiful,” said South Africa’s great novelist Alan Paton. And “Ah, but your land is complicated,” is a novel just waiting to be written here.
With this latest drama unfolding in our skies and on our shores, the men and women in our reading group are tackling Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It, a post-feminist scrutiny of whether working women really have it all.
We have decided to use this novel to segue into women’s worlds – all women – whether we pray to God or Allah or Jesus, or none of the above. We aim to move our sessions from secure library spaces or pretty restaurants right into our homes: We will host each other and eat each other’s food, and see if we can get past dietary constraints right to the heart of issues – and through that into each other’s hearts. One woman at a time, dragging our men with us.
I think of my man and I think how short life is, and how fragile, and I wonder if we women can possibly get it together to move past the big issues, break babkas and baklava together, and find some sense.
Here’s to peace and health and sanity for women the world over… with some of it spilling over to the men at our sides. Shabbat shalom!
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya; peledpam@gmail.com