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Sunrise in Jerusalem

Shortly after the massacre in Israel, I dreamed that I was captured by the Nazis and locked in a vault with a bunch of other Jews. In a thrilling, Netflix-worthy scene, I single-handedly broke through the vault and led my fellow prisoners on an action-packed journey to freedom.

In the days to come, after gorging myself sick on a diet full of doom, scrolling, and despair, I discovered that I was not the only one having nightmares about Nazis. For those of us in a certain age group, the Holocaust is not part of a history lesson. I could not stop thinking about my late grandparents and how they would have reacted to this tragedy. My grandfather would have cried bitterly, the same way he did every year when he read the Haggadah, a reenactment of his own redemption. He was the one who shared with us the details of their life during the war; how they escaped the Germans and ended up in a Siberian labor camp. My grandmother never spoke to me about any of her experiences. She was not a shy woman, so I can only imagine that her reticence was either to protect us or because she figured my grandfather had already told us all there was to know. She was an eclectic combination of classic European bubby and proud Zionist – her reaction would have been a terrifying and fiery rage. I was happy that she was dead already, that she did not live to see this, for it surely would have killed her.


While my nighttime bogeymen were Nazis, my daytime demons were stealthier and lurked around every corner. One morning while taking out the garbage I heard a noise in the sky that sounded to me like dozens of fighter jets. Not that I knew firsthand what those sounded like, but I was sure that we were at war, that death and destruction were imminent. To some readers, this might suggest paranoia or an unsound mind, but to those of us who were adults during 9/11, who were born to a certain set of parents who saw danger in every subway trip and in every stranger’s untoward glance, this was not an unreasonable reaction.

Last Sunday, my husband and I went to the mall. I was conscious of my husband’s yarmulke as we meandered through the crowd, hunting for a store where we could buy a watch battery. Of course the store was at the far end, diametrically opposite from where we had parked, and while my husband had his battery replaced, I wandered around admiring the jewelry and also ready to go home and rest my aching feet. I heard two workers in the store speaking in a language that sounded familiar, but also not. There was a guttural “ch,” a sound that made me look up and lock eyes with the woman speaking. I saw nothing in her face, nothing. It was blank, expressionless, and I smiled at her, but received nothing in return. I left, feeling her eyes upon my back, and I wondered for the millionth time in the past month if this encounter was just my imagination run amok or if my fears had any merit.

I am never going to be the same again. We are never going to be the same again. It is shocking to me that in this new world, the mundanities of life still have to be attended to. My cousin in Raanana texted me that there had just been a barrage of rockets but that they are okay. Okay is a very relative word; what she meant to say was that they were not wounded or dead. I texted her back something stupid, because nothing I say could possibly not be stupid, and I went about my day cloaked in the pervasive sense of helplessness that clings to me like saran wrap. It is shocking to me that I still have to go to ShopRite and pick out decent-looking apples and make small talk with the cashier. There is an inside me and an outside me; I am living a double life.

On my first day back to work after the attack, two separate patient encounters shoved me back into reality. The first patient was a young man experiencing flashes of light and dense black floaters who I ended up sending right over to the retinal surgeon for a laser repair, and the second was an older lady who had a suspicious-looking lesion on her eyelid that was almost certainly cancerous. Both patients were incredibly grateful for my help, even though I would not be the one to fix the problems. For the first time in days I felt useful, like my presence here actually counted for something; at the very least I could help someone in some way. The woman with the eyelid lesion hugged me when she left, melting away some of the icicles around my heart that had prevented it from beating the right way. Once again it is shocking to me that while we hold our collective breath and pray for the hostages and our soldiers and ourselves, daily life and all its messiness still swirls around us; it is impossible to disengage.

I can’t go online without wanting to vomit from seeing the atrocities or conversely, without wanting to thrust my fist through the screen and demand that the rest of the world pay attention. The disconnect between the multiple facets of my life is playing out on every single social media site I belong to. My optometry friends post challenging cases and upcoming lectures, and, as per the rules of most of these types of groups, there is zero talk of war or politics. It is a haven from the outside but also a fairytale where my professional life exists in a vacuum that turns me into a robot devoid of contextual emotions. I try to soothe myself with my knitting, making multiple hats for my grandson in a plethora of styles and colors, most of which will never get worn because this toddler thinks that pulling his hat off his head is an amazing game. Generally, I knit when I’m happy and I crochet when I’m sad. I think it’s because crocheting makes my shoulder and elbow ache, a physical manifestation of my psychic pain. I stop knitting and start crocheting fanciful and unnecessary items, starting out with pink and red roses, and then switching to amigurumi, which is the Japanese art of creating small yarn creatures. I had always sworn I would never dabble in such a useless craft, but there I was, creating penguins and octopi with black beady eyes. Some of them are adorable but others are just sad yarn lumps with expressive, watchful eyes. Half of me wants to toss them in the trash, but the other half inexplicably aches for these ugly little creatures. In the vulnerable state that I’m in, I don’t have the heart to throw them away.

Immediately after the attack, all of the Jewish social media accounts that I follow reflected our collective trauma. As the days passed, it became agonizingly clear that there was no such thing as normal anymore. There would be a different normal, a normal where you went to work and school and dropped off dry cleaning, but also kept saying Tehillim in your head and tried not to think about the dead and missing babies when you woke up with your own baby in the middle of the night.

One of the frum lifestyle accounts threw their proverbial hands up in the air and helplessly asked their followers, what content do you need right now? Their solution was a mishmash of links to inspirational shiurim and women’s events interspersed with the banality of recipes and where to buy the best shoes for your kids. One sheitel macher boldly announced that clearly Moshiach was coming and wouldn’t you like a new sheitel for such an auspicious event? I feel bad for the Jewish businesses whose livelihood is linked to creating content on Instagram; we are all living a double life.

When we first received the devastating news on Shemini Atzeres from the policeman who guards the shul during davening, we were stunned. After the initial processing of the event, even after finding out that it was so much worse than what we originally thought, there was a part of me that wasn’t surprised at all. I’m not sure what I would call this sentiment, it was not acceptance, but perhaps resignation, an acknowledgment that this is the way the world is, that this is our Jewish destiny – to be persecuted, to be hated, to be alone. This fatalistic outlook sustained me but also colored my days with a dingy, sepia tone. I was a dark version of myself, yet this darkness was imperceptible to others because everyone around me was also dark, with life like a chocolate cake glazed with salty frosting, inherently delicious but every bite tasting wrong.

Days before the shloshim for the newest kedoshim, the third yahrzeit for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was commemorated. A speech given by his daughter Gila disabused me of my negative thinking and cast a sliver of light into the darkness.

“What would my father have said to us if he was here?” She admitted that she was not sure what he would have told us to do, but she was sure of what he would have told us not to do. She then quoted her father’s words from his book To Heal A Fractured World, “Faith is not acceptance, but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be.” As she spoke, I could hear her father’s voice, a voice that had always soothed and comforted and explained things to me in a singular way that never failed to penetrate. Protest, she said, and don’t despair.

On the day of the shloshim I lit a yahrzeit candle. It was the last one in the package we had bought the year before, a package that contained a lot of duds, candles whose wicks wouldn’t light, or wouldn’t stay lit, or teased us by staying lit but winking out two hours before the day was done. I was prepared for this candle to play tricks on me, so I was happy when it lit, and happy when I woke up the next morning to see that it was still burning. This candle, though, did not behave in the same naughty fashion as his brothers. He was strong and tenacious, and burned steadily for twenty-four and a half hours. I kept checking on it at the end, marveling at how it continued to sustain itself, even though only the tiniest bit of liquid wax was feeding it. I took a picture of it seconds before it went up in smoke as a reminder that light is a protest against darkness, and we will never, ever, extinguish our light.

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Dr. Chani Miller is an optometrist and writer who lives in Highland Park, N.J., with her family. She is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.