Words drown in sorrow, too hard to contend with. I cannot feel it all at once.
I arrived in Tel Aviv for work and to see family for Yom Kippur planned to leave Saturday October 7, 2023, but I could not. Philip Roth says that in writing you’re looking for your own freedom. I have to find my freedom in all of this. Maybe my search will help you find yours.
My maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors from Russia and Poland. They settled in Neve Tzedek after the war. It’s now a chic soho-style neighborhood in Tel Aviv. They stayed there for about seven years before finally emigrating legally to the United States in 1960 (This was their story as refugees of war, The Long Way Home). My paternal grandparents left Morocco, where my father and his siblings were born, in the late 1950’s and emigrated to Israel when Morocco went from a secular nation to a growing Islamic state. It wasn’t always this way: There was a time when King Mohammed V of Morocco defied the Vichy government and refused to deport the country's 250,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps. He said, “there are no Jewish citizens, there are no Muslims citizens, they are all Moroccans.”
My father took me to Israel for the first time when I was twelve. I couldn’t believe how many people already loved me. I met my Safta (grandmother), three uncles and three aunts, a score of cousins–and that was just on my father’s side. On my mother’s side, through my uncles’ Moroccan wife, there was also a Saba (grandfather) and a Safta, a handful of uncles and aunts, each with at least three or four children. By blood or by marriage, I have a Beacon Theatre sized family in Israel.
Almost every summer In my teens until early 20’s, I’d save up money waitressing and go to Israel for six weeks at a time–clubbing, family parties on huge terraces, and Baby Oil® sunbathing. Since my mid-20’s, I’d visit Israel every few years.
Golda Meir, Former Israeli Prime Minister, whispers to a visibly concerned Senator Joe Biden in the weeks before the Yom Kippur War in 1973, “we have a secret weapon here in Israel. We have no place else to go.”
Saturday October 7
9:30 am–I left the apartment on Ranak Street (without reading the news) and headed to Gordon Beach, one of the more stylish and chill Tel Aviv beaches. I went for a run and did a little toning session on the pneumatic muscle machines you’ll find peppered along the boardwalk from North Tel Aviv all the way to Old Jaffa. Then went for a swim in the Med.
10:45 am–Immersed in the warm Mediterranean water, I looked around and realized I was the only one in the sea. The current was unusually strong. I felt danger. My survival instincts flared up. “What the duck is going on?” I asked myself.
10:58 am–I emerged from the water and met two sunbathers, one Russian and one Lithuanian who were here on vacation.
~11 am–The first siren in Tel Aviv went off. I didn’t know what I was about to read, see, and experience over the next few days. I asked the two sunbathers what was going on. They told me that Gaza was firing rockets. We found shelter a few hundred feet away. Israel has shelter built into the landscape. The way New York City’s window bars and roll-top gates are part of the landscape, thick slabs of concrete are built into the Tel Aviv landscape–shelter camouflaged beautifully by its Bauhaus architecture.
11:30 am–I walked back to the apartment and believed things would quickly return to normalcy. The streets are quiet, but it’s Shabbat, I thought to myself. Went to the store to get food just in case it wasn’t a little skirmish.
I was visiting Tel Aviv for Yom Kippur and to meet some new clients. One of my good friends who lives in Tel Aviv is abroad and offered up his apartment on Ranak Street in the heart of Tel Aviv. It’s a beautiful open space with one wall of floor to ceiling windows. Though it is right near the corner of Ben Yehuda and Dizengoff, you can only hear the sound of silverware clinking, hungry cats, and the French neighbors greeting one another from the street and balconies.
I was supposed to leave today but could not. I fly United Airlines where I have privileges and they cancelled all flights as did all other major airlines.
12pm–I checked the Secret Tel Aviv Whatsapp group to see what was really happening because there wasn’t a lot of detailed news other than news of airstrikes. Pictures of missing persons from the Tribe Nova Festival in Kibbutz Re’im emerged where over 250 people were murdered and kidnapped. Separately, other reports of families being butchered and kidnapped in Kfar Aza and in the town of Sderot, among others. The war was unfolding in front of me, not in front of a television in America.
19:25 pm–I downloaded the Tzofar app which would tell me, by the minute, if there were air or ground skirmishes. I needed to be informed and for the first time in my life I wanted to keep track of the war on foot for fear it might reach Tel Aviv. Family was texting to ensure I was safe–at this point rocket fire was happening in every part of Israel.
20:18 pm–When the sirens go off, leave the apartment and go to the stairs–make sure there are two floors below and above. Those are the instructions from IDF website. The sirens went off again and I headed to the stairs where I met some of the neighbors, who were in their early 60’s. We sat and talked about our families. They’ve been through the worst of the wars in Israel, but this was the worst they’ve ever experienced, and they told me it will be a long war.
21:39 pm–Sirens went off, again. I went to the stairs. Galila, my neighbor, and her husband, Moshe, were there. At one point, we heard and felt the vibration of the shrapnel that fell a building nearby. Galila instinctively covered her hands with her head. After ten minutes, things calmed down and we returned to our apartments. We decided that the next time we came to the stairs we’d play small stakes (coins) Blackjack.
“Anyone who wants lasting peace and security for this region must condemn and isolate Hamas,” Austin said. “Hamas does not speak for the Palestinian people or their legitimate hopes for dignity, security, and statehood and peace alongside Israel.”
US Defense Secretary
Sunday October 8, 10 am
I went for a long walk in the morning. People were out getting their morning coffees, trying to have some normalcy. Walking towards Hilton Beach, I spotted a beautiful sculpture, Gate of Peace by Pietro Cascella, 1972. I was energized by the hope and optimism of this piece. “Space is in the breath of art.” A quote by Frak Lloyd Wright that I always remembered. I did a small workout and headed back to the apartment. I still thought this war would be over soon. That there would be a cease fire. My family in Israel were all safe and told me I needed to get out of here as soon as possible.
The rest of the day and night was calm. It was deceiving. You could hear only the cats and the random child playing outside with his scooter. I spent the rest of the day working. I sent a note to my team and was in a bit of denial. This would be over soon. It had to be. Planned our live show and client presentations for the upcoming week.
Despite having a brother in Jerusalem with his wife and daughter, it was time to mobilize and figure out a way out of Israel. I had a business to run, family in America. I had to return and booked a ticket for Tuesday October 10th on Pegasus Airlines to Madrid via Anatalya and Istanbul. I needed to get a city with a United Airlines connection.
After the IDF warned civilians in northern Gaza to evacuate south, Hamas sent messages demanding Gazans stay put and set up roadblocks to prevent Gazans from leaving.
Hamas continues to use Palestinian citizens as human shields.
Palestinian Peace Activist
Monday October 9, 10 am
Galila knocked on my door and told me I should find a way to leave because there were plans for skirmishes in the north and south and the apartment building did not have a proper shelter, though there was one next door. I told her I booked a ticket and was leaving Tuesday for Madrid, via Anatalya then Istanbul.
I was checking LinkedIn and noticed there were very few posts from brands or people in my industry or the big holding companies putting out statements in the way everyone rallied around the war in Ukraine. It was business as usual. I was confused. For one second, I felt ashamed for being Jewish. Many times, I thought to change my name. I never did because the shame always triggers courage within. Alona means “oak tree” and Elkayam means “god exists.” I’m not religious at all ( I believe in the universe and in you), but it’s a powerful name.
I wrote a post on LinkedIn letting people know I was safe and shared my experience. I hoped it would connect and inspire more people to speak out. It did.
It’s a simplistic worldview that insists that the first and last question to ask about any political controversy is who are the oppressors and who are the oppressed, and treats the latter as practically incapable of doing wrong. This ends up dehumanizing everyone, implying as it does that Palestinians have no choice but to kidnap and murder children.
Tuesday Oct 10
I don’t remember the flight from Tel Aviv to Anatalya except a symphony of crying babies. From the airport in Anatalya, I went to Booking.com and played the hotel lottery. I chose a hotel with this distinguishing feature: “Adults 18 and over only.”
Checked into the hotel and with myself. I needed a minute. To my surprise, The Pergue Hotel was one of the most magnificent hotels I’ve ever stayed. War zone, paradise. Humans can and will experience many things at once–all the time. I can be worried about my family and pray for the safety of the hostages, donate to the IDF, but also take care of myself in paradise for a night.
Wednesday Oct 11
I arrived in Madrid. Tomorrow would be a national holiday, Spain Day. Everyone in Madrid dresses properly when they show themselves in public. There is not a loose collar or wrinkle in sight. Did some work and had a few client meetings. Checked in with my team and my family. Took a long walk and it was comforting to not be in a bomb shelter.
Is it so hard to support Palestinian independence without condoning the deliberate massacre and kidnapping of children?
Is it so hard to criticize Israel without denying the country's right to exist?
Thursday October 12
Took a bike ride and there were hordes of people with the Spanish flag draped around their necks and waists. It was Spain Day–a day where Spanish citizens reconfirm their commitment to the nation's future. Tuesday morning I was in a war zone. Tuesday afternoon I was in the Turkish Riviera. Today I was in the middle of the most celebrated holiday in Spain where people celebrated into the wee hours of the night screaming and cheering.
Friday October 13
Left Madrid for Washington DC. Checked in with family and friends in Israel. Here is one that I received from a friend: “Thank you for checking in. We are fine. Today there were 2 alarms in Tel Aviv. Very tense on the northern border. Hezbollah. We pray that it will be alright, but we know that it will be very long.”
The rest of us are justified in judging, scorning and ridiculing anyone who makes excuses for Hamas
Saturday October 14
I’m in DC with my family–need to be here for a bit before heading back to New York City. My neighbor in Israel texted me that today marks the beginning of annual Torah cycle (Genesis) and that we need to create a new reality. Spent time with my mom. We cooked and caught up. Then, I sat down to write this. My stomach knotted.
Being a Jew in America, people cannot help to think we are ambassadors of oppression of an apartheid government. The history of this state the size of New Jersey cannot be told in soundbites. Standing with Israel does not mean that you aren't sympathetic to the lives of the innocent Palestinians, but that you believe that Jews have a right to a homeland because they have been, historically, expelled from every country they have ever tried to inhabit. Only the destruction of Hamas can reinstate hope for the freedom of both Jews and Palestinians.
It's a difficult time to be a Jew or a Palestinian. I cannot be silent because my freedom depends on it right now. Despite Jews only accounting for 2% of the population in the United States, the FBI report found that more than half of religiously motivated hate crimes were committed against the Jewish community in 2022.
Wherever you stand, I hope it is for peace. Whatever you think, I hope you’ll share it with me.
United Hatzalah is affiliated with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, which provides medical aid in Gaza. The organization's mission is to "reach and help people when and where it is needed most".
Established in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors, FIDF is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation that operates 26 regional offices in the United States with headquarters in New York City.
CCFP is an apolitical organization that strives to provide balance to the discourse regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and encourage entertainers to travel to the region to experience it for themselves.