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December 2023: A Bit of Breath, 105 Points of Light, and Back to It

Dear friends,


Note: Shabbat shalom or shavua tov depending on when you are reading this. Today I left home at 6:30 this morning to drive my daughter back to her army base near Beersheva, and it is now a half an hour before Shabbat starts and I’ve just returned home from a quick visit to my son at his base to bring him supplies. In between, I was helping collect and package cauliflower and trying to finish the newsletter to get it out today…so please excuse any typos or sentence fragments! Scroll down for book recommendations, two Literary Modiin events, a story of the month, a recipe and more.


Most of this introduction was written yesterday.


As I write, we are on day 55 of our new reality, and thankfully we’ve had some glimmers of light in the last week, as some of the hostages have been returned. What tomorrow will bring, I don’t know, but I can tell you that every evening for the last week, I’ve been glued to the news or refreshing my screen constantly until each of the hostages slated to be released has reached Israeli soil. I then spend the following day watching the videos of the joyous reunions and crying happy tears for these families again and again. My husband - who is in the States at the moment - just wrote, “I don’t think people here understand how happy Israelis are for each individual hostage released.” Well, I’m here to tell you that we are. We hear the list of those slated for release and send messages of fingers crossed and prayers that the release will go smoothly. When there are delays it feels difficult to breathe and our stress levels are sky-high. And if this is what it feels like for an ordinary Israeli; I cannot imagine what the families are going through.


As I write, two hostages were just released and we are waiting on the news of the other eight who are supposed to be released today. As I write, the five young men I mentioned in last month’s newsletter — Hersh Goldberg-Polin, our friends’ son; Andrey Kozlov, my former coworker; and Gali and Ziv Berman and Alon Shamriz, my daughter’s friends — remain hostages in Gaza. Please visit oneminaday.com to take one minute of your day to make a call and help save their lives. (Edited to update: six additional hostages were eventually released late last night. So thus far: 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity in Gaza: 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals and 1 Filipino. And Israel estimates that 137 hostages are still being held in Gaza).




The empty chair for Hersh Goldberg-Polin at the Modiin hostage display; images from "Hostage Square" in Tel Aviv, where the members of Kibbutz Kfar Aza met on Thursday.


We are already a nation that is somewhat used to going from the depths of sadness to the heights of joy. Each year, we go straight from the somber, reflective day of Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Hostile Acts) into the joyous day of Yom Ha’aztmaut (Independence Day), often with a transitional ceremony in between. But of course, nothing prepared us for our current reality. A small example: two weeks ago there was a lovely bat mitzvah at my shul; the bat mitzvah girl was surrounded by her family, including her parents and siblings, her grandfather who’d taught her how to read Torah, all of her aunts and uncles and cousins, most of whom belong to our shul. A truly joyous occasion which allowed us to stop thinking about the horrors of October 7 for a few minutes. At the end of services, the names of the (then) ~240 hostages in Gaza were read, and we were brought back to reality. And then we went outside for the bat mitzvah kiddush and to wish the family well. It’s enough to give anyone whiplash.


In the last week or so, many of my friends with kids serving in the IDF in or near Gaza were able to finally visit with them. My older daughter has now joined the ranks of those in the reserves, which means I now have three out of four kids serving, but none are in/near Gaza. It is impossible to plan for the future — will the universities hold a shortened semester (currently delayed by two months and slated to begin on Dec. 24)? What will happen in Gaza “the day after”? No one knows. No one knows what will happen tomorrow, if the truce will be extended further or if we will be back at war. (Edited to update: Hamas violated the ceasefire early this morning, and the short pause which enabled us to get some of the hostages back and a bit of breath, as well as getting some humanitarian aid into Gaza has now ended, and we are back at war).


Israelis of all ages and political stripes continue to volunteer as much as they can, including helping in agriculture, cooking food for soldiers/displaced families/shiva homes, serving in community patrols and more.


Halavai (may it be true) that by the time I’m writing next month’s newsletter, I’ll no longer feel a need to write this long introductory section on what’s happening on the ground here. Halavai that the healing will have begun.


Brief writing update: These days I’ve felt more compelled to write essays or fragments of essays, and very occasionally going back to work on my story-in-progress. I’ve sent off an essay about our day of picking avocados at Kibbutz Sa’ad and I received an initial enthusiastic response from one editor…waiting to hear back if her fellow editors would like

to accept it.


A writing exercise that’s helped me, and maybe it will help you: List-making. I got this one from the wonderful Ayelet Tsabari, who recently led some online sessions on "Writing When Words Fail.” So I’ve been writing lists, such as: people I’m worried about; comfort foods; what I miss from “before”; things I saw/heard/felt on Oct. 7; things I’m grateful for, and a braided list of things that fill me with despair and things that fill me with hope. Not sure if these lists will ever become shaped enough for potential publication, but we’ll see.


Some nice news (in case you missed it in my mid-month report): My essay, Under One Sky, was awarded first prize in the Creators of Justice Literary Awards, given out by the International Human Rights Art Movement.


Reading Recommendations

I read five books this month, so I’m up to 80 for the year; it’s looking hopeful that I’ll reach my self-imposed goal of 85 for the year. Here are this month’s recommendations, and make sure to fill out the Readers’ Survey below.


At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf by Tara Ison: The protagonist of this novel, Danielle, is a French Jewish girl whose mother sends into hiding after her father is killed during the early days of the German occupation. Danielle must assume a false identity as a Catholic girl in Vichy France. What is striking is that even though Danielle is not a very little girl at the outset, and can remember her parents, with time her Jewish identity becomes so fully subsumed that she buys into the raging antisemitism around her. I liked this blurb from Kirkus: “Ison is unflinching in her depiction of the self-inflicted corruption that replaces the character’s moral core with a twisted version of Christianity…Free of sentiment but not without hope of redemption, this is a suspenseful and chilling story.” I think this would make a great book club selection, and I’m looking forward to hearing Tara discuss the book this Sunday at our December Literary Modiin event.


The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff: Just released and already an instant bestseller, Lauren Groff’s latest novel follows an unnamed servant girl who escapes from a colonial settlement into the wilderness. The timeframe isn’t mentioned specifically but it is obviously around the first forays of European settlers in the new world, circa the 1600s. As with her earlier novel, Matrix, I’m in awe of how the author captures the time period and the narrator’s voice. I listened to the audio version and would recommend it. As NPR put it: “Part historical, part horror, part breathless thriller, part wilderness survival tale, The Vaster Wilds is a story about the lengths to which we will go to stay alive.” Highly recommend.


The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado: This was a major gap in my Jewish library shelf, and I was very glad to finally read Lucette Lagnado’s wonderful memoir. Born to prominent Jewish family in Cairo, the author brings to life the vanished world of Jewish Cairo. Her father, a statuesque man and dominant force, is both fiercely devoted to his religious practice and to the cosmopolitan aspects of the city, spending his nights gambling and drinking and dancing. As the youngest of four, Lucette enjoys a very close relationship with her father. After Nasser comes to power and life becomes very difficult for the Jews, the family flees to Brooklyn and struggles to rebuild their lives. Winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is a “vivid, heartbreaking, and powerful inversion of the American dream” and if you haven’t read it yet, you are in for a treat.


2023 Readers’ Survey

I’m always looking for good book recommendations, as I’m sure many of you are. For the last two years, I’ve held the annual Readers’ Choice survey, to great response. Many of the books I read this year were a direct result of that survey…so let’s do it again. Please fill out this quick, 2-minute Readers’ Choice survey and list your five favorite books of the year. Note: the books do not need to have been published in 2023, just your five favorite reads. Look for the results in my January newsletter.


Events


There are lots of Literary Modiin events on the calendar. Visit this page to register for all of them.


December Author Event (rescheduled from October): This Sunday, December 3, at 20:00 IL / 1 pm ET, we’ll hear from Tara Ison (THE HOUR BETWEEN DOG AND WOLF), Daniel Victor (THE EVIL INCLINATION), and Linda Kass (BESSIE). Register here.


Literary Modiin’s Third Israel Solidarity Event will take place on Sunday, December 17, at 20:00 IL time / 1 pm ET. This is a chance to hear short readings from writers inside Israel and abroad relevant to our current moment. (I’m still finalizing the readers but you can see some of them below). Register here.



Missed the other solidarity sessions? Watch the recordings (session 1 & session 2.)

And then in January, we already have two events on the calendar: January 7 (on Zoom) with Annie Kantar, Adam Mansbach and Nancy Ludmerer, and January 28 (in-person and on Zoom) with Janice Weizman, Jennifer Lang and Ruth Marks Eglash.


Story of the Month: Jerusalem Marathon

Jerusalem Marathon (San Antonio Review) by Ellis Shuman: As a long-time participant in the Jerusalem Marathon, of course I’d be interested in this short story. The marathon in this charming story doesn’t take place along the regular scenic route but in the halls of an old age home. Give it a read, and thank you, Ellis!


Resource of the Month: The National Library of Israel website

I haven’t been to the new National Library of Israel but I’ve heard it is gorgeous and I can’t wait to visit. But whether you’re an easy drive or bus ride away or across the world, the NLI’s website is a tremendous resource, available to all online: Millions of books, manuscripts. archives, photos and rare archives just a click away.


Recipe of the Month: Tomato Rice Soup

Tomato rice soup is my ultimate comfort food, bringing me back to the kitchen of my grandmother. I don’t have her recipe but I made this up myself, a mashup of my friends’ Rachel & Jay’s tomato bisque and something I found online.


Ingredients:

10 tomatoes

1 onion

1 green pepper

1 red pepper

3-4 stalks of celery

1 carrot

1/2 c rice

Basil

Olive oil or butter

~3 cups of water or vegetable broth

Heavy cream (optional)

Salt & pepper to taste


Sautee the onion, celery, carrot and peppers in either butter or olive oil for ~10 minutes until soft. Add the chopped tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper, and water/broth, simmering until the tomatoes are soft enough to break apart, around 30 minutes. Blend the soup with an immersion blender, add more water if necessary, and then the rice. Cook until the rice is soft, and if you’d like, add ~3/4 c of heavy cream. Enjoy!


Top row: avocados in Kibbutz Saad, then avocados in Ganei Tal. Bottom row: lemon picking in Moshav Shuva; cauliflower collecting/packaging in Netzer Hazani


That’s it for this month. Once again, may our hostages and soldiers return safe and sound, quickly, may we keep our humanity in the face of the horror, and may we know peaceful times soon.

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