“A ‘surreal, lucid dream’” – First Person
Photo: Courtesy Kim Zoller
Benji Zoller, second from left, pictured with his wife, Leah, mom Kim and brother Sammy, following the new year’s first Shabbat Jan. 6, 2024, in Jerusalem.

By Benji Zoller

Monday, Jan. 1, 2024: Day #87

New Year’s in Israel is usually nothing special. In fact, it seems that just about every year my mom inevitably asks, “You have school on New Year’s?” “Yes, mom,” I reply, “Israel doesn’t care about New Year’s.”

Waking up and reading the news this morning I saw that this year was a bit different: As the metaphorical ball dropped, Hamas fired rockets across the Israeli sky in what my Aunt Diana in Tel Aviv called “the most memorable New Year’s Eve fireworks display ever.”

I began my day sitting on a bus watching yet another video of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a friend from my synagogue in Jerusalem. Over these past 87 days, not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about Hersh and his incredible parents, Jon and Rachel, and his sisters, Leebie and Orly. There are so many videos and pictures, but I have to watch every single one. How can I not?

Today I commenced 2024 by touring Otef Aza. Recently I heard Rabbi Sharon Braus describe her visit to Israel and the kibbutzim defiled on Oct. 7 as one of “sacred witness”; today I too would bear sacred witness to the tragedies of Oct. 7.

That day, 87 days later, still feels like some surreal, lucid dream. On Oct. 7, Leah and I woke up earlier than most Shabbat mornings and dragged ourselves out of bed. The day was colder than I was expecting, already somewhat eerie in Jerusalem even before 8 a.m. We arrived early to shul; in fact one of the only other people there at the time was Jon Polin. I don’t think 11 minutes of prayer had passed before we began to hear sirens and booms. The few of us present rushed across the courtyard to an already full bomb shelter. Some people who had their phones on them began to say that terrible things were happening at the kibbutzim in the Otef, but all was still so blurry. Leah went home to wake up Sarah, who was still sound asleep, I returned to our makeshift shul in the community gym to continue the service. More sirens blared as we continued on inside (for a period it was assumed we were safe in the gym), I blessed the congregation and we began Hallel. Yet, Hallel was never finished: Moments before the concluding blessings, another siren sounded and an announcement was made that the number of us who arrived needed to go home and go to a bomb shelter. The all-Israeli Simchat Torah candy bags which were meant for children were handed out to all of us, as we quickly said our goodbyes, coordinated plans and went home.

Photo: Courtesy David Zoller
Benji Zoller leins the Kohen aliyah at a weekday minyan on his base in the Shomron.

The then four of us walked home, attempting to smile it off — this is Israel, “hakol yi’hi’ye b’seder” — “it’ll all be all right.” Like clockwork, just as we walked in the door, we heard a siren. This happened again and again, each time bringing us closer and closer to our neighbors, who, already by the second stint in the bomb shelter, were beginning to bring candies, cookies and whiskey along with them.

After the fourth siren I heard a neighbor mention that reservists were being called up. I looked at Leah and we quickened our steps. By the time I turned on my phone the call had already been made: Get to base ASAP.

Hurriedly I gathered some essentials (minus soap and a towel, which I didn’t even think about) and called a friend. Within an hour I was in line for a kitbag. It was on base where I finished Hallel and the prayer for rain; Hakafot were absent this Simchat Torah. As the day went on and I moved from one base to another, I finished my annual reading of Rabbi Alan Lew’s “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.”

Eighty-seven days have passed since then; this is still real and I am still completely unprepared. We have come to terms with our situation, but are still unable to comprehend.

Today, in uniform alongside friends from the army, I bore sacred witness to the events of Oct. 7. After helping farmers in the fields, we visited two kibbutzim just a number of kilometers apart, one graced by miracles and another utterly broken. The former, Mefalsim, was protected by a series of fortunate events, including a father who fired magazine after magazine from different windows of his house while his wife and children hid in their safe room. The latter, Be’eri, remains scarred with burns, decimated houses and posters with the names and faces of the murdered and of the hostages. It was within these burning homes where families, the elderly and children included, were slaughtered; where fathers, wearing nothing but a pair of boxers, held the safe room door shut for hours upon end; where the only proof of life that remained was a strand of DNA.

Our “tour guide,” a local of Be’eri, led us around his own community, pointing out the homes of his neighbors. “That one survived…. That one was killed…. That one was taken hostage….” All the while booms sound in the distance. He is unfazed, he’s used to it at this point; I think about Sammy, who is just about 20 kilometers closer to the Mediterranean, hearing those same booms.

Atop the rubble of one house in Be’eri, a band had set up shop and was putting on a makeshift concert. They were playing Oded Feldman and Yair Rosenblum’s “Muchrachim Le’hamshich Le’Nagen” (“We Have to Keep Playing”). The song was originally written soon after the Yom Kippur War, yet it could’ve been written in Be’eri over the past three months. No matter the tragedy, we have to keep playing the music, we have to have hope.

And, as we sing, we must also cry. Cry for the broken, the burned, the slaughtered. Cry for the hostages.

Eighty-seven days.

This New Year’s, mom, I’m not in school, although so many of my friends are. This New Year’s, mom, I’m wearing an olive-green uniform and have a rifle slung across my body. I wish today could be like any other New Year’s in Israel, a day that comes and goes like any other. Yet, today is another day since Oct. 7. Homes are still destroyed and families are still broken; we are still waiting for Hersh and all of the other hostages to come home. So today, Jan. 1, 2024, is anything but normal; it’s just another day in the nightmare Israel has been living for the past 87 days. While we have been learning to cope with this warped reality, we are still completely unprepared.

Benji Zoller grew up in Dallas and made aliyah in 2018. He serves in the Israel Defense Forces reserves in Gaza. This first appeared on Facebook and is reprinted with permission.

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