Category Archives: history

Standing on the tram this morning

by Tina Oliver (Sale, England)

Standing on the tram this morning,

looking down at people’s feet,

I can think only of the holocaust trains.

I think of seeing no gaps. I see 

lime on the floor and for a brief 

moment I long for a seat, long not 

to have to hold on but I can think 

only of the holocaust trains.

I think of standing for four days.

I see arms held high. A father, 

mother, their children, jostling 

and laughing huddled together. 

I watch this family but I can think 

only of the holocaust trains.

I hear no laughter but see gasps 

for air. I look out the window to

see greenery rushing by but I can

think only of the holocaust trains. 

I think of a barred window

but see no light. A passenger 

gets up and out to depart and 

I watch him but I can think only 

of the holocaust trains.

I think of a guard. I see lines 

to the left. I see lines to the right.

I hear silence. I think only of 

the holocaust trains.

Tina Oliver was born in Connecticut and now lives with her family in Sale, England. Although she has no Jewish roots, she has always felt a deep connection to the Jewish people. Recently, she heard one of the survivors on the Anniversary of the Liberation speak about how “a thought becomes an idea, an idea becomes a habit, and to never allow an injustice to happen before your eyes.” These words moved her greatly and inspired her to write “Standing on the tram this morning.

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The Ultimate Truth

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

At a recent and joyous Orthodox wedding,
surrounded by dancing men all dressed in black
with most stylish hats, I was asked by a young scholar
why was I not singing in Hebrew.
“I don’t know Hebrew,” I said, embarrassed,
owning up to my lack of Jewish education.
“So why don’t you learn?” he said,
“The words are  the ultimate truth, the one truth,
the word of God given to His people.”
“But don’t other religions have their truth?” I countered.
“Spoken like an American,” he said. “Ours
is the only truth. We know this for thousands of years.”
Hard to argue with someone so convinced
of the certainty of his belief, while admitting to myself
I was jealous of his steadfast conviction.
Better not, I thought, to get so engaged
into such a theological discussion while
celebrating with cheers the bride and groom.
The search for truth continues for me
long after the final toast is offered.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit:

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Filed under American Jewry, Brooklyn Jews, Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

Tikkun Olam

by David Hirshberg (Bedford, NY)

My grandfather spent his last year at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Boston, vibrant and spellbinding until the end. Our last conversation took place just a few days before he died in 1970. He was eighty-six, slowed but erect, with enough thinned white hair to hold a part that angled toward his left eye, adding an exclamation point to his winks.

“I have to ask you something, grandpa,” I began, and he instinctively motioned for me to accompany him to the far side of the common room.

“Let’s get away from the altekakers,” he said without irony, many of whom were younger than he.

“Did you . . .,” I hesitated, seeking to gauge his understanding that this was not going to be a question about some mundane issue, a message I’d  tried to convey by accenting the word have, a clear giveaway that something important was on my mind. “Did you have second thoughts about the events during the summer of 1952? And before, going way back, to the early part of the century?”

“O’Connor,” he said, lifting his voice ever so slightly at the end to allow for ambiguity that this was either a question or a declaration. At first, I thought this was a non-sequitur, and not in any obvious way a response to my question. Out of deference, however, I nodded, remembering countless stories of this Irish immigrant who worked for John Francis Fitzgerald—Honey Fitz—beginning before the First World War.

“He comes to me one day, David, and says, ‘Honey Fitz is gonna run for mayor,’” imitating Mr. O’Connor’s brogue, stepping back almost three quarters of a century. “‘So’s I need a favor, I do,’” he continues, and it’s as if I’m not listening to Ezekiel Ginzburg, but rather to an Irish immigrant who’d grown up with John Francis Fitzgerald. “‘Honey Fitz wants to know if youse,’ he meant me and the boys, ‘would help him, ha ha, off the books, coola boola? He asked me special to ask ya, he did, he sends his regards, personal. Ya see, Zeke, the thing of it is, this conversation never took place, are ya with me boy?’”

He was back in 1906, my grandfather staring at me, but recounting this tale to his Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Polish cronies, the good-hearted but tough-as-nails immigrants who’d decided that it was time to shed reticence and deference, and to turn on the Brahmin clans that had kept them from the best jobs, schools, political offices, and neighborhoods. When it wasn’t outright bigotry, they resorted to shunning, an effective tool that came without their using up any social capital.

He came back to me. “I didn’t have to respond, David, I’d been around O’Connor long enough to know where the conversation was going—it was all about getting the votes. And, then, well, more.”

He started up again channeling O’Connor in that sing-song Irish cadence that was second nature to this Jewish man born in a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement.

“‘Well, we won’t have to worry about us micks, don’t ya know, we’re as good as gold, darn near to a hunnert percent, I’ll drink to that, my friend. And the dagos, especially in the North End, well, Honey Fitz, he grew up there, practically a wop himself, if ya know what I mean. The polacks, too, good Catholics, ya see where I’m headin’ Zeke? Now the Yankees, their investments buy a pol’s pound of flesh, no offense, mind ya, and outside of town, they have the numbers, they do. Have ya ever seen a Pope’s man in Lexington? In Provincetown? In Amherst? Count ‘em up, Zeke, count ‘em up on one hand I tell ya. The numbers are against us and the cash is too, by Jaykers. Ya can’t fight ‘em with the nickels the firemen and the transit workers give us, not with the real money the customers’ men have and the dough they raise with the wives at tea. Did ya know, Zeke, that they spend more on tea than a workin’ man spends on rent? That’s a fact for sure, so it is. They laugh at us, they think we’re eejits, they roll prátas on our stoops at Christmas and throw lumps of coal at the kids on All Hallow, and don’t be fooled, they wished ya’d never come here, would’ve sent the boats back lickety split, one two three, be done with ya’, kicked over the meltin’ pot and spilled it into the harbor, they would. Then they’d send a bowsie Paul Revere, all over the place, he’d ride through every town and village, the yids are gone, the yids are gone, and all the folks would come out, clappin’ and hollerin’ and whoopin’ it up, yes sir. Yahoo! And now they’re saying that ya’re Bolsheviks, communists, and pretty soon ya gonna be blamed for the flu for chrissakes. Ya can’t let them do this, Zeke, will ya stand with Honey Fitz, will ya stand for the workin’ man, will ya stand for the immigrant, the sons of immigrants? ’”

And then he stopped, dead in his tracks, the musicality and poetry of this story replaced by the workaday language of 1970.

“You see?” my grandfather asked me.

I did. I saw all the post-1906 events in which my grandfather participated, the detritus that flowed from Honey Fitz’ election as the 38th mayor of Boston, how my grandfather worked the lists of voters who’d get the $10 bills stuffed into an envelope, the money culled from the shakedowns of officials who’d been caught in compromising positions, and the skims from the bribes of contractors who did business with the city, all to curry favor with the most powerful man in Massachusetts. I saw Grandpa Zeke with the phony documents for my father who left Germany in 1938 on a cargo ship with no papers, met in Montreal by one of my grandfather’s Italian hoods, who drove to the border crossing near Jackman, Maine and presented the agent with a U.S. birth certificate and driver’s license for his passenger, a German man named Heinz Lupholdt who’d never been to the U.S., and a marriage license as well as a Ketubah indicating his betrothal to my mother in Brookline, a place he’d see for the first time when he did eventually marry her in 1939 under his real name—Reuven Hirshberger. (He liked to remark that he had a second circumcision when he dropped the ‘er’ at the end of his name to become Hirshberg.) I saw the results of the polls prominently displayed on the front page of the largest circulation Massachusetts newspaper leading up to the 1952 election of Honey Fitz’ grandson to be a U.S. senator, showing the uptick in voting for young Jack, a testament to his surging popularity, a signal to the undecideds to get on the train of a winner, not knowing that the polls were false, created by my grandfather and the boys at the bar across the harbor in Southie, paid for by the paper’s owner, who’d been caught in flagrante by one of Grandpa Zeke’s hangers-on, only too happy to take on this assignment, knowing a refusal would be accompanied by crippling blows to his arms and legs, the usual punishment for a guy who couldn’t keep a secret from his main line of work as a secretary for the City Council. This was for the cause of taking down one Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the Republican senate opponent, the scion of the well-known Cabot family, for whom the ditty,

“And this is good old Boston,

the land of the bean and the cod.

Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,

and the Cabots talk only to God”

was coined.

I saw it all, including the pride on Grandpa Zeke’s face, not a smugness associated with the arrogance of superiority, rather an admission that the ends had justified the means. He’d been at the epicenter of a social revolution, and had emerged not only unscathed, but had ridden the wave that sprung from this cultural tsunami to a vantage point where he could take satisfaction from seeing the results of what he and his pals had achieved.

I nodded. We sat quietly for a minute or two.

“No, David, I had no second thoughts. It was a measure of tikkun olam,” he said, rather matter-of-factly.

“How were you repairing the world?” I asked incredulously, my mind racing through the images of bribes, vote stealing, fixed races, betting on outcomes when the results were known in advance, theft, forged documents, illegal immigration, kidnapping, shakedowns, and beatings, the stuff of family legends, acted out at Purim, recounted at Seders and Shabbat dinners, so different from the stories my friends told of what went on in their family gatherings.

“Those were different times,” he pronounced as if he were an instructor in a classroom, “so context is everything, David. It wasn’t like it is today, where you, your sister, your children, friends, any of you has access to whatever you want, any kind of job or school. You can be a lawyer, work on Wall Street, join a big company, buy a house in any neighborhood, go places, serve in government, appear in a motion picture, and not think for even a minute about how being a Jew would affect you, not having to change your name.”

“But repair?” I asked.

“It was broken, the world was cracked, the seam right down the middle. The WASPs ate the cake for three centuries; they threw us the crumbs, patted us on our heads, told us we should be grateful. It had to be fixed; not by anarchy, you’ve seen how that plays out. We took a page from their book: the Irish built the railroads, the Italians the streets, the Poles the tunnels, the Jews traded.” If I’d been talking with one of my grandfather’s pals, he would’ve said the micks, the dagos, the polacks, and the yids. “We all saved our nickels, had lots of children, bided our time, got the vote, and then we turned on them; yes indeed, we gave as good as we got.”

His voice was clear, his tone serious; his eyes glistened. He’d given me an epilogue to his life story; there’d be no more chapters, no encores, no need to take a bow. He winked. I gave him a longer-than-usual hug as I took my leave, thinking about how he and his pals had harvested the resentments, slights, oppressions, and grievances of generations of immigrants, and transformed them into a powerful force that generated lasting changes for the good, using the only means at their disposal.

I’d never thought of a revenge motive associated with tikkun olam. I had to process this, in light of its seeming incongruity with the obligation to continually strive for social justice, which heretofore I’d associated only with behavior of the highest moral values. Were unethical activities ever justified in seeking to do good? Was Grandpa Zeke’s trying to right the wrongs of those who’d suppressed the civil liberties of immigrants in Massachusetts by carrying out various illegal schemes so different from his contemporaries in Palestine who plotted to use any means necessary to remove the Arab-aligned British, including blowing up the King David Hotel? Was there a scale of misdeeds where one could assign values from unjustifiable to acceptable, representing black and white? Trying to place myself in his time—and understanding how difficult it was for Jews and other immigrants for whom the American dream could be a nightmare—drew me to the gray that represented the ambiguity that could fit between these two extremes.

I couldn’t make a negative judgment on my grandfather’s methods—not because of our familial relationship (I like to think that I’d come to this conclusion even if he’d been a stranger)—but because of who I was allowed to be as a result of what he’d accomplished. The purity of his motives as evidenced by his acknowledgment that he was out to repair a broken world trumped the skirting of the law. This was the Jewish lesson he taught, and I was the embodiment of his legacy, which unburdened me to think how I might react, should I ever be in his position.

David Hirshberg is the pseudonym for an entrepreneur who prefers to keep his business activities separate from his writing endeavors. As an author, he adopted the first name of his father-in-law and the last name of his maternal grandfather, as a tribute to their impact on his life.

He is the author of the multiple award-winning debut novel, My Mother’s Son, published in 2018. His essay—A Gift—was also published that year. His second novel—Jacobo’s Rainbow—will be published in 2021. His work, Honor Code, is being developed as a stage play.

He is an active member of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, and is the creator of the Shavua Tov Boys Breakfast Club that meets on Sunday mornings to discuss books that deal with the American Jewish experience, as well as the Sichah, a group of 10 Jewish men representing four denominations, who meet to discuss important issues that affect the lives of Jews today.

Hirshberg lives in Bedford, New York with his wife and two setters. He received an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and a graduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently enrolled in a two-year course at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan.

You can read more of his work here:

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Hell Breaks Loose

by Saraya Ziv (Jerusalem, Israel)

I’m in this new building in Jerusalem to observe a Torah class for Crypto-Jews (wrongly referred to as marranos) and to see how I can help two of them with the odds and ends of daily life.

With only five minutes before class Rabbanit Raquel, who is both teacher and guidance counselor, gives me a quick lowdown on Miriam, a young Colombian woman, and her mother, Señora Lopez.

Miriam is doing brilliantly. Her mother (Raquel turns a palm up then down), not so well. Before I can find out more, Miriam flies into the Rabbanit’s office. I hold my arm out stiffly for a good Anglo handshake. Miriam laughs, hugs me, and leads me by my hand to the classroom. Miriam has long loose hair and bracelets of yellow beads on her chubby wrists. The bracelets click as we rush inside.

In the back of the room at a three-seat table Miriam presents me to her mother. Señora Lopez wears her hair in a noose of grey braid. Arms marshaled across her chest, she hears my name, says acidly, “Ud. viene de Nueva York” (“You come from New York”), sighs, and turns away to the desk up front where a pile of books waits with Raquel.

The Rabbanit swaps to reading glasses, bookmarks with her index finger a large tome, and looks up.

“I said last week I want questions, challenging questions. If I don’t get them, I’ll sit down in this chair and stop teaching.”

She points to a void where her chair should be. The class laughs. The class is twenty adults from Latin America, two from Spain, one kid erecting a Lego monster on the Rabbanit’s stolen chair, and me.

I have to concentrate hard as the Rabbanit teaches, in Spanish, the Purim story. Her accent is castellano, same as the professoras who taught us the language in our public high school. Each professora, and most of our class, was Jewish. One teacher, Señora Wislitzsky, took us on a class trip to a fancy Spanish restaurant on Park Avenue, where we ate the rice, shellfish, and pork sausage dish called paella. In our Jewish archdiocese of Flatbush Brooklyn, not a single kid had been taught to abstain from chowing down on that perfectly treif stuff.

Miriam passes me a candy. She takes such fervid, galloping notes our desk shakes, and her mother booms out question after question. She interacts passionately, as though the Rabbanit were discussing today’s news rather than news of nearly 2400 years ago.

“Exactly how much time is there from one part of the story to another?” asks Miriam’s mother. The Rabbanit turns to the white board behind her and bullets and dates the events.

Here’s Esther, unhappy winner of a macabre Miss World contest appalled at her prize – she’s booked to marry the boorish king of Persia. Here’s Queen Esther spilling the beans to her husband and Haman, his prime minister: she is in fact, a Jew. If Haman’s plan to destroy every last Jew goes down, so does she.

Dates are written in red, events in black. I see that Esther hid her Jewishness for five years and think “got it, let’s move on,” but this class of Crypto-Jews, in hiding for five centuries, is stunned. Miriam’s hands fall limply over her pen. Her eyes are fixed on the timeline.

Her mother smacks our desk, then like pistols, fires both index fingers at Rabbanit Raquel. “Why did Esther tell? That king,” she yells, “will bury her on fire.”

I expect the Rabbanit to laugh, to explain that Esther lives, that Purim is joyous, a real holiday. Instead, Rabbanit Raquel picks up her book, marks it with a post-it, closes it, and looks up at Miriam’s mother, “.”

When Miriam whispers to her mother, “It ends well for the Jews” her mother shoots back, “but not for us.”

We break. From a tray onto the snack room table where her mother and I have been waiting, Miriam unloads three lemon sodas and three tall glasses of ice. Her mother holds an icy glass to her forehead.

“How easy it must have been to grow up Jewish in New York” she says. There is jealousy in her voice, and menace.

“No,” I reply.

I ask Señora Lopez how she knew her family was Jewish. Her reply is animated.

“My grandmother lived with us. She spent all day Friday cleaning the house and making sure we bathed and changed into clean clothes. By the afternoon she had a pot of beans and potatoes on our hearth. I wasn’t allowed to touch it. No one was allowed to touch it. On Saturday all my aunts and cousins came for lunch. Only then did my grandmother take this special stew off the hearth and serve us.

“She never ate pork, and she never let us eat it either. In fact we ate no meat. One of my friends from school asked her if we were so poor we could only afford vegetables. My grandmother lied, ‘My belly has never been able to tolerate rich foods, so I never cook it and I never serve it.’ That way no one was suspicious when we didn’t eat pork.

“And our names.” Señora Lopez looks at her daughter. “Outside she was Maria, inside, when the family was alone, we called her Miriam.” She pauses, “A name in our family forever.”

Miriam picks up her mother’s thread. “But we didn’t know what it all meant. I started looking on the internet, and found a rabbi in Colombia. When we told him about the Shabbat stew, he grinned.”

I look around. There’s the Lego kid in his yarmulke. On the streets of Jerusalem every day I see thousands of Jews who wear fun masks on Purim, few who wear the disguises of half a millennium.

Miriam must think I’m bored; she shifts the conversation. “Tell us about New York. To go to sinagoga on Shabbat, to fast on Yom Kippur in the open, to buy matzos in a shop – it’s true, right? In New York you buy your matzos in a shop?”

I don’t know what a volcano I’m leaping into. Stupidly, I tell the women the truth.

“My family never went to sinagoga, not once; we watched TV on Yom Kippur same as every other day. But yes, you could buy matzos in the supermarket, which my mother did. We had matzos and we had bread on Passover – both.”

I tell them more. I confess honestly that I was well educated in the civil rights movement but learned about the holocaust accidentally from a TV show, which made me vomit. I tell them my beloved cousin wonders if she was given a Jewish name. Was her mother? Her father?

This all sounds ponderous to me. I want to entertain the two women with funny stories.

I tell them I had the lead part as the Easter bunny in our elementary school play. In Spanish, I sing for them Here Comes Peter Cottontail. I recall my aunt’s yummy meat and cheese lasagna and confess I still miss that forbidden mix. I tell them that at age twenty-one I made embarrassing mistakes at a renowned rabbi’s Passover Seder, the first Seder of my life.

I am about to tell them the dumb things I did at that Seder when I see that Miriam’s mother has turned the color of lava. And now it’s too late.

It’s too late to explain that’s it’s not our fault. It’s been five generations since anyone in my family knew Purim or Passover; we’re not unusual. We’re programmed to throw away what Miriam’s family  has struggled to preserve.

Señora Lopez shakes her ice violently, then bangs her glass on the table and opens her mouth to speak. I brace myself. Now I know, when she does speak, hell will break loose.

Saraya Ziv attended SUNY Buffalo, worked as a Business Analyst on Wall Street, and left the United States one April morning in 2015 on a one way ticket to Tel Aviv. She was born and lived in New York City all her life, but now lives a short drive to Jerusalem. You can find more of her work at her website, Jerusalem Never Lies (https://www.jerusalemneverlies.comwhere this piece first appeared.

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Ancestral Memory

By Jena Schwartz (Amherst, MA)

You know that feeling when you remember something but you don’t know if it’s because you really remember or if you’ve heard the story so many times, or seen the photo, that maybe your mind thinks it remembers but doesn’t really?

What is “real” memory and what is imprinted on us by exposure or repetition?

My daughter was leaving the house yesterday. As she was passing through the kitchen, I stood to give her a hug, but I stopped short when I reached her, taking in a long look at her face. She looked stunning to me, her beauty timeless. For a moment, I saw so much of my father’s side, and in the very same instant, my mother’s side. It felt uncanny.

This was on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and I thought all day about memory.

How can we possibly remember what we did not experience firsthand? It does not make sense from a logical standpoint. But I believe in my bones, quite literally, that such memories are real.

I remember the Holocaust and the Inquisition just as I remember lighting Shabbat candles at a table in Romania, in Macedonia, in Poland, just as I remember that I, too, was a slave in Egypt.

I remember nursing babies in the red tent, long days of walking.

I remember running through the forest barefoot in terror.

I remember the smell of soup on the stove and challah in the oven.

I remember weddings, the drinking, and how the girls were not allowed to daven.

I remember fathers teaching daughters and daughters screaming as fathers were hauled away, so many fathers, and brothers, sons.

I remember. I remember the sound of glass shattering, I remember huddling, I remember waiting it out, holding our breath, afraid of every floorboard, every footstep.

I remember the songs and the spices of Saturday at sundown, wishing each other a sweet week, a week of peace, even after, even then.

I remember it all.

Jena Schwartz is a promptress and coach who offers fierce encouragement for writing and life. She lives in Amherst, MA with her wife and two children, ages 13 and 17. Her poetry and personal essays have previously appeared in On Being, Mamalode, Sliver of Stone, and Manifest Station, among other places. She is studying to become a bat mitzvah in May, 2020, at the age of 46. Visit her online home at

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A Letter to My Great Aunts and Uncle: Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1942

by Kayla Schneider-Smith (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

for Miri, Rosa & Benny

When you left your homes not knowing where you were going
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
turn around jump off the train don’t stop running
out of Poland out of Germany out of Holland
far until you reach the West or East
anywhere but here

when your cattle-car pulled through the arch
when you stumbled off the train without understanding
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
say you are 16 say you are a brick mason
don’t let them take you beyond the gate
to the tall trees where you cannot return

when they led you to the showers
and shaved your undressed bodies
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
stand close to the ventilation stand straight under the gas
if it hits you first it’ll be quick
it’ll be over in a second like a band aid like a blur
you won’t have to suffer long or
hear the wailing mothers and children or
climb the pyramid of suffocating bodies
gasping for air

when they shoveled you into the crematorium
in bursts of smoke and ash
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
I love you
to kiss you goodbye to say kaddish
to tear my clothes to get angry to start a revolution

I’m sorry I came too late.

Now, 77 years later
in this inhuman slaughterhouse
unthinkable bright green forest
in front of the lake in front of the puddle
where they took your lives and dumped your ashes

I only can tell you
I am alive

your nieces and nephews
and great nieces and nephews
and great-great nieces and nephews
are alive and thriving

Miri Rosa Benny

I carry, cherish, remember you always
I speak you back to life
I say your names aloud

Kayla Schneider-Smith is a poet, musician, and social activist from Monmouth County, New Jersey. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she wrote this poem while completing the Yahel Social Change Fellowship in Rishon LeZion, Israel, where she taught English, piano and guitar to children, adults and senior citizens in a small neighborhood called Ramat Eliyahu. Kayla is currently attending the Master of Fine Arts Writing Program at The University of San Francisco. She aspires to be an English professor, Rabbi, or Interfaith Minister one day.

If you’d like to read her work in prose, visit:

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Everything as usual

by Hannah Winkelman (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

The mass exodus of people evacuating the bus should’ve clued me in. My phone had been buzzing all morning with Red Alerts; little did I know that for the next six hours, my phone would buzz at least 150 more times, signifying the deployment of rockets from Gaza to cities scattered around Israel.

I assumed this bus stop must have been a popular one. It wasn’t until the bus driver also exited the vehicle that I realized something was wrong. I took out my headphones and my stomach churned; the sirens were unmistakable.

This is my third time in Israel—a country marked by constant political turmoil and tension—yet I’ve never been confronted with any threats until now. The first time I came,  in 2011, I was 15 years old. The second time was last December on Birthright. The only time I felt unsafe was when too many fighter jets were flying at once for my own comfort. Our guide told us not to worry, so I pushed it out of my mind as the jets flew further and further away.

As I exited the bus, I turned my head toward the direction of the phones people pointed at the sky. Two or three thin lines of smoke were trailing after white objects in the sky punctuated by bright red. I expected fear, panic, anything of the sort—and yet, I was met with casual silence. No tension, no dread, no awe; I sensed impatience.

The sirens stopped, halting without a warning just as they had started. After a beat, the bus driver looked to his awaiting passengers: “ok, yalla” and I followed the Israelis as they jumped back on the bus.

The rest of the bus ride felt like a blur. A woman tried to speak to me in Hebrew, but her words fell on essentially deaf ears as I tried to piece together what she was saying with my remedial understanding of the language. She was impatient as I stuttered out in Hebrew “I speak a little Hebrew, do you speak English?” She rolled her eyes. I spent the rest of the bus ride in silence until I reached my stop.

The 20-minute walk home proved daunting. I couldn’t help but think about the possibility that if a rocket attack were to strike, I’d be stranded and defenseless, unsure of where to go. My mind spiraled with these anxious thoughts as my body moved through spaces both familiar and unfamiliar until I reached my apartment.

The assumed safety was brief. Only 20 minutes later, the sirens went off once again. We found the appropriate fall-out shelter—what looked like a closet ascending from the concrete about 20 feet away from our apartment—and we descended beneath the ground into the concrete bunker, finding inside children playing cards and dogs playing with their owners. The white walls and bare floor felt stifling as my roommates and I—three Americans—stood arm to arm. Voices of Israelis echoed and enveloped us, their casual treatment of the situation once again astounding. We were only in the bunker for five minutes.

I’ve always had a basic understanding that Israelis live in a state of apathy regarding their constant state of vulnerability. I’ve wrestled with my own opinions on Israel with the knowledge that it is a state that occupies while also under threat. But to witness the nonchalance Israelis have towards an imminent threat such as rockets dotting the skies was almost more jarring than the threat of the rockets themselves. I asked my friend in Ashkelon, the biggest major city closest to Gaza, if he was okay. He responded promptly in two messages: “hey thank you I am fine. Everything as usual.”

I didn’t write this post to report anything novel; most could surmise the ever-present internalized threat. But to witness it is so much more shocking than what I could have ever imagined. I will never understand what it is like to have lived in a country under constant threat; even after these nine months on Yahel, or if I stay for a few years after, or for the rest of my life, I don’t know if I’ll ever understand it. So while I will never be able to engage in the conflict or even day-to-day life as an Israeli citizen would, I can still fulfill what I consider my responsibilities to be as a global citizen—observing and learning to the best of my ability. That will have to be enough for now.

Hannah Winkelman graduated from Tufts University in 2018 and is currently living in Rishon Lezion in Israel on the Yahel Social Change Fellowship. She volunteers teaching English at a local high school and at various non-profit organizations. She is originally from Seattle, WA. 

Note: This post first appeared on the Yahel Israel Blog and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.  For more information about Yahel Israel, visit:

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