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Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

(from a 19th century nursery rhyme Ring Around a Rosie)




Jew woman that I am, the war on Gaza grinds itself into my being, not letting go. The initial reports--hard to believe it’s now 6 months since the start--are losing their power to whip me into a frenzy. I’m more numb now. Seeing photos of dead Palestinian children no longer shocks me. But if we had a wall chart measuring years on earth, my line would reach the ceiling. Theirs would not reach my toes. I, an old Jewish woman, breathe this world’s air. They, a fraction of my eighty plus years, do not. How many more lives have I had than these dead young ones? 


I, an old Jewish woman, breathe this world’s air. They, a fraction of my eighty plus years, do not. How many more lives have I had than these dead young ones? 

The war in Gaza is now over 160 days old. Over 30,000 Gazans are dead. A shortage of food, water, medicine and housing will kill many more. A constant state of terror imperils life and sanity. Hostages taken by Hamas remain in captivity, save for those released or dead. There is talk of a ceasefire, but Netanyahu and his right wing government do little to move towards peace. It is an ongoing horror. And it cannot stop soon enough, leaving broken husks of human lives to somehow be pasted back together.


Shards of what I once held dear lie all around me. These were once solid vessels holding my Jewish identity. The idea of a Jewish god vanished some time ago, as did my observance of most Jewish customs. But I never questioned that I was a Jew. I still do not. When people in my London neighbourhood ask, ‘where are you from’, I answer ‘I’m a New York Jew’ (despite having lived in northern California for over thirty years). Being a Jew is wired into my DNA. It’s like saying ‘I’m a Scot’ or ‘I’m an Afghani.’ My Polish and Ukrainian grandparents reside within me, their Yiddish voices still not silenced by the passage of years.


My gaze, the way I interpret the world, is through the eyes of an urban, smart assed, educated, East coast Jewish woman with street smarts. But secularist though I am, hearing a Hebrew tune stirs me. I’ll hum along; sometimes I’ll even sing the tune. Because I know it. It’s like reciting a child’s nursery rhyme. The joy of the familiar, the pleasure of the knowingness, the links to treasured memories. Rituals around sabbath meals stir me, linkages to my ancestors and to others I hold dear. Jewish rituals, human-made ceremonies to help deal with finitude, touch me. Lighting sabbath candles takes me into a sacred space, even though it is I who ‘sanctify’ this space. I light two candles and chant a short Hebrew prayer. My sense of time is transformed for a blessed few hours.


Jew though I am, I’m not an Israeli. I don’t want an association with this country, daily committing barbarous acts. But the truth is, I can’t completely disassociate myself. I was never an ardent Zionist, but modern day Israel has been part of my Jewish consciousness forever. Like many in my generation, I gave Israel a free pass when it came to its initial seizure of lands belonging to others. Over the years, I knew the ongoing Occupation was wrong, but that knowledge resided in the back of my mind. The forefront was taken up by an unquestioned belief that a Jewish homeland was worth any price. 


Over the years, I knew the ongoing Occupation was wrong, but that knowledge resided in the back of my mind. The forefront was taken up by an unquestioned belief that a Jewish homeland was worth any price. 

I no longer believe in paying that price nor in the notion that a Jewish state is fundamentally different from any other religious-nationalist entity. The war on Gaza has destroyed any remaining sense I held that Israel, and its mainly Jewish citizens, are morally superior, incapable of the kinds of terrible acts other countries perpetrate. Israel is a modern nation-state, and it now joins the company of other nations that do terrible things in the name of preserving national identity.


When this cursed, horrible war ends, how many years of t'shuvah (repentance) will we Jews have to make? Twenty five? Fifty? One hundred? More? How long will it take to atone for those we have slaughtered? If you respond, ‘we owe no apologies to anyone. Hamas’ unspeakably vile acts free us of any obligation,’ consider the emptiness of revenge, the moral destruction when all-consuming rage swallows mercy. Vengeance is up to the Jewish god, not to their human creations.


How do I pick up the pieces, re-glue broken vessels which hold parts of my own personal identity? How do I Jew now? I don’t know and may not find out. But one of the best parts of being a Jew is living with searing ambiguities. I have no choice but to do that.

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