The tears do not come at first. My friend texts me Saturday morning, attaching one of the early articles. I read it dry-eyed, scrolling, watching evil rear its ugly head.
I eat lunch with my best friend Yosef and his family. We talk in circles around what we have scrolled through. We need not ask each other whether we’ve read it all. We are Jewish; that is evidence enough of our scrolling.
When the conversation dwindles, Yosef’s mother tells us how worried she is. Everybody speaks then; me too. After all, I know something about that country, don’t I? My mother is Israeli. I speak fluent Hebrew. Over a hundred members of our family live in Israel. I’ve visited them countless times.
“How is your family doing?” That is the question we have for each other, the only one we know how to ask right away. We have not yet said the word “numb.”
It is the first of many tables in the coming days at which I eat tasteless food, speak meaningless words. I know nothing in the face of this evil.
What can be known when our brothers and sisters are slaughtered like cattle?
1,200 Jews have been murdered since Saturday, Oct. 7.
This many Jews have not been murdered in a single day since the Holocaust.
In the afternoon I make my way to Slifka. It is Shabbat as well as the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. I find one of my Israeli friends in the lobby. I ask how she is doing. She speaks of the details, of her family and her fear. I sit and listen and within a minute I am up and fleeing upstairs. I cannot be there. I do not understand. In the face of this evil I know nothing.
I go into the Small Chapel on the second floor of Slifka. I am alone in that room. I sing. It is the only thing I know how to do. I drift between the chapel and the lobby, alternating between my suffering friends and my exhaustion with myself, with my own thoughts. I fantasize about leaving but I don’t. I have nowhere else to go.
We trickle in the rest of the day. We hug each other again and again. I have never hugged so many people in my life. I watch shoulder after shoulder drop, smiles fade. The air grows thick with loss. Some of us are crying by early afternoon. We comfort them; one says she’s a mess, she’s been crying all day. I tell her, trust me, it’s much more frightening when you feel like crying but you aren’t, you can’t. I say it as a sad joke, but today the unbelievable is true. I know nothing.
We are caught between our sorrow and our duty to celebrate Shabbat and the joyous holiday of Simhat Torah, which runs from Saturday night to Sunday night. It reminds me of the night my father died almost three years ago. It was a Friday night, and my mother cooked a feast for Shabbat dinner, thinking the grander the meal, the less likely the hospital was to call in the middle and ruin it. It didn’t work. It doesn’t work now. I cannot celebrate away my pain. I cannot outdance my heart.
I go to English class Monday morning. We are reading Moby Dick. Ten minutes in I think, “What is this whale to me?”
I cannot read Shakespeare after that. I cannot talk about Victorian love poetry. I cannot conjugate Old English. I try describing this and I fail. How do you make someone understand your own lack of understanding?
I find a bench on Cross Campus and scroll. Not a single one of my non-Jewish friends has reached out to me without my saying anything first. Exactly one has followed up with me after seeing me in person, disheveled. It is my third year at this university. I have dozens of friends with whom I have spent the past two years. Why do they not see me now? Why are they not disturbed? How can they eat and sleep and study? I see students smiling, throwing a frisbee on the grass, and I stifle a scream.
I have never felt more invisible. Why is Slifka the only place I can go to get a hug? What could I change my name to, what clothes could I wear, what country could I come from, what people could I belong to, that would make my friends and classmates see me?
I am desperate for a kind word. I wonder, if I cry out into this silence, will there be an echo?
I go to Google Docs to type, but I’m no longer on Google Docs. I’m reading the Yale Daily News. I am thinking: where is the word “innocent?” Where is the word “civilian?” Where is the word “massacre?” The News has avoided these words. I hear them the loudest.
I am not on a bench on Cross Campus. I’m in Haifa, where my aunt is texting me how she is doing: tragedy, tragedy. I’m on Israel’s border with Lebanon, where one of my cousins is deployed as a medic. I’m on the border with Gaza, where another cousin of mine is waiting for orders, which way to go — in or out, home or hell. She is 21 years old.
I’m with my uncle Shelomo Sammy Susan in October 1973, almost fifty years ago to the day. He is killed defending his people, forced from the synagogue to the battlefield by a surprise attack on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. He has come to this land all the way from Casablanca, married and fathered a son, and I am with him as he dies for them.
I’m in San Diego, describing to my mother over and over the maimed limbs of her country, the gaping wounds from which it bleeds. Ima, I sigh, when she asks me “how many” for the third time. Ima, Ima. It’s as if I’m explaining to her the nature of blood itself: how it flows, how much. “Ya Allah, ya rab!” I tell her, in the little bit of Moroccan Arabic I’ve inherited from my grandparents. Who am I to measure these things for her? I know nothing.
On Monday night I go to the Women’s Table outside of Sterling Library for the vigil. I am struck by the scale of it. I cannot see the table through this crowd of Jews and our allies. We stand arm in arm there in concentric circles. It is only at the very end of the vigil, when we spread out and form one large circle, that I realize there must be hundreds of us here. It is later reported that over 400 Jews and our allies have gathered here to sing and to listen, to hold one another and weep. I have never seen anything like it. I have never heard the voice of anguish in so many mouths.
After the vigil we go back to Slifka and sing more. I sit by myself for a while first. I am one of the last ones to arrive at the circle on the third floor. I take my seat on the floor. A new song starts. That is when the tears come.
“Ah,” I think. “I have been waiting for you.”
They stream, and then they pour. A minute later Yosef and our friend Zach are on either side of me, linking their arms with my arms. They are like two wings to me. I am lifted.
An hour later, I am sitting in the Big Chapel again on the second floor. I am alone in that room. I sing. It is the only thing I know how to do. This is a new desert, a vaster and harsher desert than I have ever wandered through.
I hear footsteps. Then Yosef is with me in my desert, his arms around me. He tries to lift my head. He cannot. He cannot shift me left or right, up or down. We stay that way for half an hour, him standing by my chair, wailing with me. He is the only person I know could sing those words with me just then. He knows them by heart. He is my brother. I am still stood before the face of evil, but I am not stood before it alone. I am witnessing evil with my brother now. He will not depart from me; day and night he will not depart from me.
To the Yale community: Say something. If you are not sure what to say to your Jewish friends, I would offer you a formula. Turn to them, say:
“I see you. I may know nothing, but I see you.” I know nothing, but I see you.
NETANEL SCHWARTZ is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.