Scoundrel Time

I’m Looking for Humans

I want to tell you about my street. It is a one way, winding road lined with Jerusalem sandstone apartment blocks, many old, holding many accumulated stories. On a normal day there is the sound of children playing from a kindergarten where a large lemon tree grows in the yard. Last week was the Jewish festival of Sukkot, and in gardens, on balconies, on the pathway, the street was filled with temporary cloth booths roofed with palm fronds paling in the sun. They symbolize the booths the Israelites dwelled in on their journey to Israel through the desert. Last week, these booths were filled with joyous meals and songs. This week they are gone, and the street is filled with silence.

I fill the silence with my steps. Down the road, there is a handwritten notice taped to the low wall at the blue gated entrance to a corner apartment building. It’s traditional to hang these notices outside of Jewish houses of mourning. It announces the death of a 97-year-old woman. The notice says she was a pioneer, a founder of the Kibbutz Mefalsim in the north-west Negev, in the south. The residents of her kibbutz fought like heroes on Saturday. Many were saved. The neighboring Kibbutz Be’eri was not so lucky. 

This is the week I learned about Kibbutz Be’eri. It was founded by Iraqi Jews after the 1941 Farhud massacre in Iraq, a pogrom in which Iraqi Jews were assaulted and murdered, and hundreds of homes were destroyed. In the aftermath, some escaped, walked all the way from Baghdad to Israel. Since Saturday’s slaughter, more than one hundred bodies were found at the Kibbutz. The body count in the south increases each day. The number of kidnapped is unknown, unimaginable. It is now called the Be’eri massacre. From massacre to massacre my people have walked.

I’m a Jewish woman, an Iraqi Jew, an ancient Babylonian Jew. I am a writer and a mother of four sons.

I’m sitting here in Jerusalem hearing airplanes, hearing the cries of homebound children from balconies. My heart is not broken, it feels like it has disappeared. My words have also disappeared. Since the massacre and war, I can only light candles like my grandmother used to do. I’m searching for the light. I’m searching for heart. 

There is another home on my street. I’m scared to pass it. I’m scared of the mourning notices I’ll see. I’ve entered it twice already since Saturday. It’s the home of a dressmaker, my neighbor and friend. She messaged me Saturday night: “Sorry” (I wish she hadn’t written that) “I won’t be able to sew tomorrow. My son’s girlfriend was murdered, and my other son’s wife is missing… Bsorot Tovot – Only Good News.” After expressing bad news, it’s customary to wish for “only good news,” a necessary superstition that helps us maintain hope.

With heavy steps, I walk up three flights to their home. The son mourning his girlfriend sits cocooned in a blanket; he can’t lift his head. I return a day later and meet the two little boys, sons of the son whose wife is missing. One boy is 3, maybe 4 years old. His foot is in a cast and there are marks all over his small body. The other is a 6-month-old baby. I try not to look at his wounds. I smile at the little boy and see a spark for maybe a second in his eyes. Like he wants to smile, but has forgotten how. The father is bent over his children and doesn’t look at me. I’m sure he doesn’t want to see anyone.

I say the son’s wife “was missing,” but last night I received a message from my friend.

“With great sorrow and shock, we regret to inform you that our beloved Adi and Tehila have been murdered. It would be appreciated if you would avoid further visits until after the funerals have been conducted.” It hurts too much to see people before the dead are buried.

The message was also in Hebrew, and the Hebrew lines read like a poem: “שבר על שבר הושברנו” – Three words in a row containing the same Hebrew word for brokenness – “Shaver.” I don’t know how to translate it, so I’ll transliterate it. Repeat it on your tongue and feel the breaking — “Shaver Al Shaver Hushverainu.” The sounds are those of despair for a mother and a little girl, a daughter who cannot be returned to life. I didn’t realize there were also two little girls kidnapped, the sisters of those little boys. One was murdered; I don’t know what happened to the other.

This is a story all Jews have grown up with, told to them by their parents or their grandparents. My father, a child refugee from Baghdad, always said, “Jewish blood is cheap.” 

I always thought he was exaggerating. Why is it then that spilled Jewish blood is not usually written about, grieved over? This is why I have to find my words. I have to write from deep shock and pain what has happened here.

I don’t have to repeat about the murders, rapes, or kidnappings. The violation of every human boundary. 

I’m looking for humans. 

I’m looking for the intellectual, progressive, writing community’s voice of outrage. One I am used to hearing when wars break out, when atrocities happen that shock us, when there is a pogrom of 9/11 proportions. I have to ask where are you? I thought you were my writing community. How do you not see my people’s pain? Are you there for me?

By the time this is published will the writing establishment have begun posting poems of compassion for dead Jews? 

My story began here in Israel over 3,000 years ago. Twenty-six-hundred years ago my family was exiled from Judea to Babylon. There they remained until 1951 when they were expelled from Iraq. Who understands Jewish history? Who understands the story of the Jews in the Middle East? 

In Dara Horn’s deeply researched and somber collection of essays on Jewish identity, People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Past, she explores the links between historical and modern antisemitism. “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much,” she writes. 

When Elie Wiesel first wrote the memoir that became Night, about his experiences in concentration camps, he wrote it in Yiddish, and it was 900 pages long. The title wasn’t Night then; it was And the World Remained Silent. In the Yiddish text, obviously intended for other Jews to read, he expressed his anger against those who killed his family and the indifference, or active hatred, of the larger world that stood by and made those murders possible. For the French edition, the book was pared down to 100 pages, and Wiesel gave it the title it’s known for—Night, or La Nuit. In that version, Horn explains, the author “repositioned the young survivor’s rage into theological angst. After all, what reader would want to hear about how his society has failed, how he was guilty? Better to blame God.” 

Horn argues that if it’s not the Holocaust, it’s seen as not bad enough or serious enough for most of the world to be concerned about.

The world still doesn’t like Jews to express anger, to complain too much about antisemitic acts, or to defend themselves too successfully. 

I am a relatively new writer. Maybe that’s why I can write this. I don’t care anymore if I’m “cancelled” for writing my truth as a Jew, a writer, a mother. Because the mother part feels more important at the moment. I worry about a future for my Jewish sons in a world that does not care when (as the current number stands) 1,300 Jews are massacred in their own country. I want a world where I can have a voice as a Jew, and where my children can live in safety and security, where they don’t have to run away, where they’re not forced from their home, as their grandfather was in Iraq nearly 75 years ago.

I feel a silence that isn’t just coming from my grieving street.

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Sarah Sassoon is an Australian, Iraqi Jewish writer, poet and educator. Her debut picture book Shoham’s Bangle was named a Sydney Taylor Notable, and received the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award. Her poetry micro-chapbook, This is Why We Don’t Look Back was awarded first place in Harbor Review’s Jewish Women’s poetry. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and her work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Lilith, MER, Ruminate and elsewhere. Her forthcoming picture book This is Not a Cholent is forthcoming in 2024 with Kar-Ben Publishing. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four boys. To read her work visit www.sarahsassoon.com

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Image By: Sarah Sassoon