Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Hanging with Naava/Missioning for Israel
or
8 Roller-Coaster Days in a Post-10/7 Holy Land
by
Martin (Mordechi) Bodek



My recent visit to Israel was saturated with meaning, heroes and heroines, nightmarish PTSD realities, despondency and ascendancy, positivity and moving-forwardness, despair and joy, pain and recovery, hope in many forms, and walks through the valley of death and the mountain of life. A kitchen-sink of roller-coaster emotion. This is how I spent my eight days:

Day 1, Wednesday, December 27, 2023

After a usual workday, I finish packing, and seek out my boys to wish them farewell. The younger teenager is gaming, the elder is snacking. They’re teenagers. It’s what they do. I give the elder one a hug before I head out the door, and he says, “Don’t die.” This is love in teenage-speak. I love him too.

My wife, Naomi, takes me to the airport. She’s the voice in my ear that urged me to go, and she’s bringing me there until she can bring me no further. She’s amazing.

I make ELAL security laugh for the first time in my life. She asks me how I know Hebrew. I tell her Yeshiva…and Duolingo. This is better than making a Beefeater lose composure.

I breeze through security (Hooray TSA Pre!) and park at the gate with the meal Naomi provided. Did I say she’s amazing?

As I squish myself into my seat, I take a moment to think about what the next week will be like for me. I’m going to see my baby girl, whom I’ve missed. That’s gonna be the great part. But I’m also going to experience some nightmarish stuff, because the mission is going to visit some very ravaged places, and I’m wondering about the awkwardness of hanging with four-dozen strangers whom I don’t know very well. I also don’t know how to comfort people I know, let alone strangers. I talked to the Rabbi a bit about this. A voice also asks me how I’m going to keep up with Daf Yomi on this trip. Tracht git, vet zahn git, my kid sister likes to say. Think good, it’ll be good. We’ll go with that.

Before all that, however, I have to deal with strangers for eleven hours while confined together with them inside a flying aluminum tube.

I’m actually shocked that we managed to take flight because a) there are only 74 seat-change requests after boarding and other such grandstanding, and only one young bulkhead family refusing all orders from the flight attendants while illegally and dangerously taking off with multiple kids in adult laps. The mom actually calls one flight attendant the R word, and as this is ELAL, they’re allowed to remain on board. Had this been any other Airline on earth, they would have been ushered to the gulag.

Day 2, Thursday, December 28, 2023

I can’t fall asleep at all, mostly because I’ve got double-x chromosome teenagers (Scientific name: annoyingus travelerous) lined up behind me. On their Top Trumps card, they have 10 for Seat Yanking and 1,000 for Back-of-seat Assault and Battery. The specimen behind me plays patty-cake with my seat and I tolerate it for hours while watching the movie Blackberry, which is wild, over-the-top, and filled with unbelievably true business history.

But enough about the movie; let’s get back to the batterer behind me. I’ve reached my limit. I get out of my seat to address the issue. Now I could be nice, or conciliatory, or polite, but right now, I’m all Larry David up in my head. I sometimes think, “In situations like this, what would a gadol hador do?” I then imagine he’d be overly genteel and kind. I then usually do the opposite. When I get to my standing position, I noted that her knees are up against my chair. Of course she’s been speed-bagging me since take-off. This is how the conversation goes:

Me: Hi, you’ve been bashing me around for hours…
She: (With bulging eyes) I’m sorry.
Me: …and you need to stop, please.

She does, for a few hours.

I then find a bit of peace, and nod off.

I wake up a bit later and look for Daf Yomi on the seat display. They don’t have today’s available! I was told they have the whole catalogue! Feh! Also, it’s only in English anyway. Who wants to learn in English when Yiddish is the best? Meh!

So I watch Weird: the Weird Al Yankovic Story, because I’m his biggest fan. The movie is hilarious, overly exaggerated, and a wild ride.

But we interrupt this movie review because Knee Jerk is trying to TKO me again.

I get out of my seat again and find her now with the bottom of her feet up against my chair. This time, I give her the silent treatment. I point to her feet, put both my palms up and cock my head to the side. She says “I’m sorry” again, and goes white. Problem solved for the rest of the flight.

At about 4:00 AM, all the XY-chromosomed individuals on the plane fish out their phylacteries and prayer shawls (Sorry, I’m in airplane mode where I’m forced to refer to them as such when they’re inspected) and start organizing in spaces they really shouldn’t be, especially around the bathroom. We seem to do that in sports stadiums too. What is up with that? Anyway, I see no sunrise to speak of, and I can’t access myzmanim.com, so I just go with it. I enjoy the experience, and my newly unbothered seat.

We land safely at 2:20 PM, and I sail through security, then the next level of security, then the one after that, then I enter the famous corridor that slopes down towards the giant mezuzah before the next security station, and I encounter the reason I’ve come: there are “Kidnapped” photos filling the corridor, and my heart begins to break. It’s going to break a lot on this trip.

I kiss the mezuzah and I’m officially in the Holy Land. I pluck my luggage, find my pre-arranged cab immediately, and Amir whisks me away.

I note along the ride how green and lush the landscape is, and slightly more than 100% certain that the last time I came down this way, these hills were largely barren and mostly rocky. I ask Amir if Israel has undergone some massive greening project since I was last here. He says no. He’s wrong.

As we pass city after city, and as we enter Jerusalem, it is clear that every reachable square inch of this country is dedicated to messaging about war victory through unity and the importance of returning the hostages. It’s ubiquitous, it’s thorough, it’s impressive.

I arrive at my hotel, which I won’t name, because it’s filthy, though the staff is very friendly, and I’ve got a spectacular view of the Rehavia Windmill. However, I will note that it’s right next to a mini-Hostage Square that’s quite active, and that it’s surrounded by Border Police and teeming with them inside. I got no problem with that. I’ll check out the gym later. For now, I crash in my hotel bed for a few hours.

Shortly after waking, my babygirl appears in my doorway. She’s like a breath of fresh air, and I haven’t seen her face-to-face since our little one’s Bar Mitzvah in early November. She’s spending the year in Lindenbaum, and I’ll be spending a few days with her before I have to deal with the heavy stuff. I first show her the view of the windmill, and we’re on our way…

…to the restaurant at the foot of the windmill. No res, no meal, however. Oopsie. So we walk deeper into Rehavia, looking for a place that will take us without a res. Should be plenty.

We find ourselves in Sushi Rehavia, who will have us, which is good, because we’ll certainly have their delicious food! I’m also impressed with my daughter’s capable Hebrew! Nice going, girl!

We then walk back to the hotel, where we decide to check out the amenities. We ask if they have a pool. Nope. Okay, how about a shvitz? Ix-nay. A gym? Locked until further notice. Alrighty then.

The next crash is permanent, even though this hotel has no AC, so we leave the windows wide open.

Day 3, Friday, December 29, 2023

I daven, then Babygirl and I head down for the hotel’s breakfast. Okay, now that is all in perfectly excellent order. Quite a banquet is free-flowing, including halva, which is part of anyone’s Breakfast of Champions.

Then off we go on foot to the Machane Yehudah shuk to resupply the cravings of every nuclear family member back home, plus my momma. My craving stop is Kingdom of Halva. Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.

Once fully supplied, we walk back to the hotel, offload, and practice walking to The Kotel, so we can get there smoothly on Shabbat. No problems. We visit every half-decade or so and everything is surprisingly familiar.

We now have a few hours to kill before Shabbat, so we do what any father and daughter would do at such an occasion: we watch the first two episodes of Squid Game: The Challenge. Okay, we’re hooked.

We then Facetime with my wife, after which I make sure to post my Shabbat cufflinks to Facebook, and Babygirl are on our way to The Kotel to fulfill a personal dream: to spend a whole Shabbat inside the Old City. We won’t be accomplishing that this time, but we’ll get close, starting with my first ever full tefillah at The Kotel. I’ve never done it before, due to being a dad to rambunctious kiddies, but tonight is my first ever opportunity, and I’m excited to take advantage. My daughter and I part on the plaza and I ensconce myself with a minyan that’s about to start. There’s a cacophony of all kinds of minyanim here of all stripes, including the Carlebachians, chasidim, Se Fa Ra Dim (Also pronounced “Sfardim”), and the one I chose: the panoply. It works. I know it’s a quality minyan, because who sits down one foot to my right? Rabbi Meir Goldvicht. He gets no peace as every talmid in the country comes over to say hi throughout the entire davening. Our ba’al tefillah has to yell – litch-rilly yell – so he can be heard over the din of the other yeller minyanim. It’s a lot of fun, and I enjoy. It’s my first Friday night minyan ever at the Kotel, and I’m very pleased. It’s good to be here.

Somehow my daughter finds me in the crowd, and we walk wee wee wee all the way back to the hotel. They’ve split up the dining room into two sections: Balagan, and Civilized. Thankfully, they point us to the civilized room, and we have a nice, civilized meal. I also get to bentsch my child on Friday night in Israel, a rare and treasured experience. I don’t take such things lightly, or for granted. The food is heimish, tasty, plentiful. Halvah for dessert, and coconut rumballs. Ahhhhhh, numnumnumnumnum!

We then read ourselves to sleep. I’m reading The Shochet, by Pinkhes-Dov Goldenshteyn. She’s reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. We’re both enjoying.

Day 4, Saturday, December 30, 2023

Another of the amenities this hotel doesn’t have is a clock. You know, the things that give you the time? Yeah, this place doesn’t have it. I swear to you this is no hostel. I can’t explain what’s going on.

Anyway, my wristwatch stopped working a while back, and I haven’t gotten around to fixing it. Also, my daughter doesn’t wear a wristwatch. Also, both our phones were left face-down over Shabbat.

What all this means is that when I wake up in the morning, I have no idea what time it is. I figure I’ll head out about an hour after daybreak. Daybreak wakes me automatically, no matter how much sleep I’ve gotten.

When I get bored of daydreaming, I head down the five flights to the lobby for a morning coffee, and a time check. I ask the first person I see what time it is, and he says it’s 7:00 AM. Whoa! I didn’t think it was that early! I enjoy my coffee, then head back up the five flights, do some more reading, decide I’m just puttering around while The Kotel is calling me, and I head down the five flights again and head over to the Old City at 8 AM. It’s a beautiful morning.

When I arrive at the plaza, it seems all the lovely stripes of Judaism are all in middle of leining. They must have synced at 7:00 AM. I find a seat, and see what minyan assembles around me.

Just before 9 AM, The World’s Oldest Man approaches my spot, and a bunch of “disciples” pull over a bimah. He sits down at the bimah, and folks start gathering, of all different kinds, mostly chasidim. I’m perfectly comfortable. Various random people run over to this fella and have quick chats. Interesting, he must be someone of note. Looks like a Goldvicht-level personality, but I have no idea who he is. He’s certainly The Guy at this minyan, and he’s definitely davening for the amud. Problem is, I can’t hear him, and neither can anyone else. Everyone is leaning over the bimah to hear where he’s up to. This is getting more interesting by the moment.

Oh, and he’s the ba’al koreh too, and nobody can hear him. I’m finally so intrigued that I turn to the teenager next to me and ask in Yiddish, who this gentleman is. He stares at me like I’m incredulously stupid, and says, “Rav Mordechai Sheinberger!” Oh, of course, sure, sounds great. I’ll have to Google that after Shabbat. Meanwhile, R. Sheinberger is doing hagbah, glilah, and the haftorah. Oh, just kidding, but he does everything else while everyone else leans in.

At the conclusion of davening, R. Sheinberger whips out his tabbik box, and – hey, why not? – I’m delighted to partake. When davening concludes, and R. Sheinberger makes his exit, half the plaza goes running after him to ask him for brachos. Okay, this guy is somebody, and cool, I davened with him. I think what I find after Shabbat is going to be eye-opening.

I check the plaza clock, and it says 10:30. 10:30? I felt like davening took forever! I couldn’t hear what was going on! I guess time-warping is one of R. Sheinberger’s powers. Another of his powers is granting me my first Shabbat morning davening ever at The Kotel.

I mosey back to the hotel in slow-motion, gathering in the day. It’s still a beautiful morning.

I arrive at the hotel, climb the five flights, and find my daughter reading her book. She had returned to the room two minutes before I arrived after giving up on spotting me on my walk back. All good.

We then learn the week’s parsha together, which is something we do weekly despite the distance, but is a pleasure to do in person. We then head down a few beats later to the Civilized Dining Room to enjoy more of the good food. No coconut rumballs this time. Darn.

For our Shabbat afternoon activity, we practice the walk to The Inbal, because I’ll be transferring there tomorrow, and since it’s only a half mile or so, it’s no use hiring a cab. I’ll hoof it. I like to scout these things. Good news: it’s downhill to The Inbal, and I’ll be lugging my luggage with me.

We return to our hotel, read ourselves to sleep, and wake in time to catch Ma’ariv on time, and Havdalah in the lobby.

The first thing I do motzei Shabbat is text greetings into my Alexa app, which my family should receive back at home, where it’s still Shabbat afternoon. I’d later learn these were well enjoyed, especially the news about the Knicks’ OG Anunoby trade. Our youngest is absolutely thrilled to pieces with the insider information.

We then chap arain one more episode of Squid Games, because we’re totally hooked.

After that, we head out to Ben Yehuda on foot to enjoy the scene and see how many random people we know we’ll bump into.

We make a beeline to the place my daughter insists is legendary, aaaaaand they’re closed. So we try some falafel at some hole in the wall that’s actually known as The Hole in The Wall, and the stuff is cold and tastes like dirt. However, I salvage the situation by replicating the photo that Seinfeld recently took with his daughter, where they’re both stuffing their faces with falafel. I’m going to have some fun with it.

Near the top of Ben Yehuda, a flash-mob choir suddenly pops up. They have a giant sign that says “Korea loves Israel,” and they bring it. Israeli teenage boys photobomb behind them, make funny faces, and generally act disrespectfully. Teenage boys only do intelligent and meaningful things.

Before we leave Ben Yehuda, Babygirl gets a bubble drink thing, because teenage girls love bubble things and fish-face selfies. I’m down with all teenage sociological phenomena.

Back at the hotel, we watch two more episodes of Squid Games before jetlag knocks me out again.

Day 5, Sunday, December 31, 2023

I daven vatikin because I couldn’t sleep anymore. My body’s rhythm is completely off. Only one thing to do to get it set right: go for a morning run with my babygirl. She’s totally game and we have a refreshing morning, 2 miles through the shuk, which is fascinating to observe when it’s perfectly still and calm, populated only by workers resupplying the shuk’s booths. Forklifts and hand trucks everywhere.

We then spruce up back the hotel, check out, and clunka-clunka our luggage through the streets towards The Inbal.

The Inbal has no problem holding my luggage until I can check in officially with my mission group, which isn’t scheduled to arrive until the evening. Awesome. With that in place, Babygirl and I head out to look for lunch, even though we just had breakfast, and are still full from our Shabbat meals.

Babygirl and I walk into First Station, but don’t find anything suitable. We then back out and walk into The German Colony, checking everything out on Emek Refaim. We settle on Pizza Sababa, where the proprietor tries to reject my 20 shekel bill because it’s an old bill. I tell him A) Old bills are still legal tender in any economic system, and B) This is what the bank gave me, and they wouldn’t screw me, would they? He accepts the bill.

Babygirl then leads me on an uphill walk through Baka (My favorite Israel neighborhood), Talpiot, and finally, Arnona, where she’s spending her schoolyear. When I’m done, I’m so thoroughly drenched in sweat, that I could use the neck fan that saved my life in Italy. Anyway, I’m going to spend the next several hours here enjoying the shiurim that she does for the year. It’s a great way to spend the time between hotels, and a lovely way to bridge from time spent with my girl to my mission with my shul.

Shiur #1: Daf Yomi, masechet Makot with Rabbanit Sally Mayer. R. Sally is filled with intelligence, and energy, and enthusiasm, and is expansive in her thinking, and connects mightily with her students, and I have never been taught gemara in this way or enjoyed this much. We cover Daf 5, and when I get to it in my current cycle, I will have a better mastery. R. Sally takes a photo of me and Babygirl, that will end up in the weekly newsletter. Neat!

Shiur #2: Navi, a discussion about Joseph and his brothers, with Rabbi Yitzchak Blau. This place seems to only have teachers with loads of energy, because R. Blau has plenty to spare. Also, he geeks out just a bit when he sees me seated, as he’s apparently a consumer of several of my books. He’s adorable, and asks permission to discuss my upcoming one (“This Haggadah is the Way”) at the end of his shiur. I tell him that’d be okay, so long as he completes his shiur and fields all questions from his students to exhaustion, so that I don’t promote any bittul torah. We are agreed. The shiur is filled with energy, and the students are inquisitive, and R. Blau is fast thinking and spinning and pivoting, and the whole experience is an absolute pleasure. I add my own thoughts, and actually formulate a trivia question based on the topic. Guess whose hand flings up before I finish my sentence? The winner of the recent Chidon HaTaNaCH. She is impressive. At the end of the class, we get into my upcoming Haggadah and have a fun conversation. That was fun!

Shiur #3: Chumash, 1-on-1 with Babygirl, in her lovely Beit Midrash. We start getting into it, but a text has me change my plans. Turns out, the mission is heading straight to the first part of our itinerary from the airport, as opposed to landing at the hotel, and heading out from there. Additionally, a handful of folks are already checked in at the hotel, and will head to our first stop from there. So I need to head back to the hotel right away to make sure I’m not left out. Babygirl expertly guides me to the bus stop, and I ride a bus for the first time ever in Israel, which is hard to believe!

Back at the hotel, I retrieve my luggage, officially check in, head down to the lobby, find my group, and part ways with Babygirl (Don’t worry! This isn’t a tearful goodbye! I’ll see her again!) who will take the bus right back to school. Lowkey, I had a wonderful time with my baby. That first word there is an inside joke.

My group and I hop into cabs en route to our first destination. Our mission has begun.

Stop #1: Pantry Packers

Pantry Packers, is, well, why don’t I let the website describe them?: “Pantry Packers® is a food distribution project of Tzedakah Central/Colel Chabad, the oldest continuously operating network of social services in Israel – established in 1788.”

So there. And whoa, 1788 is a long time ago. The building practically straddles the line between Israel proper and Yehudah/Shomron. This is not the first time I’ve been here. My nuclear family came here for Babygirl’s Bat Mitzvah project. I wonder if I’ll find our family’s sticker somewhere in this place (Spoiler: I won’t).

It’s also rather wise to start off our mission with this stop. It’s meaningful, but light, mood-wise and work-wise, because it’s going to get increasingly heavy from here. Everybody’s adorable in their aprons and hairnets, and I get the job of sealer and stacker. We pile up six crates worth of flour. We win!

The photographer comes around and asks me my name, which I offer, and she pauses. Turns out, she’s one of the organizers of Team Ohel at the NYC Marathon, and I ran for the team about 97 years ago. Talk about a blast from the past!

We then receive a seminar about Pantry Packers’ work, including the whopping numbers of families they serve in multiple ways.

I begin to acquaint myself with my mission-mates. There are 47 of us here. I also meet our guide, Maayan, a woodsman-y, backpack-y, Kangol-sporting, flannel-wearing loosy-goosy fella who’s got a head full of brains, and passion, and love, and Torah. I like him instantly. Good people written all over him.

We board our bus, which comes with our security guard, Yair, armed and ready. A note about that: I did state that hostage signs are everywhere, as are messages of hope, assurances of victory, calls for unity, and such. What I didn’t note yet is that everyone is armed, and if that person is not armed, there’s another person who is. It’s casual, it’s everywhere, it’s striking, it’s the reality here. In the States, folks with weapons in their waistband absolutely freak people out. In Israel, it’s part of the scenery. You know how you often read in the news that some jerk started trouble and was eliminated by a bystander? Yeah, it’s real, and this should clue you in as to how exactly this happens. There’s always someone nearby, locked and loaded, and ready to react.

We roll to Sanhedriya, and offboard to a restaurant called Rodriguez. I’ve been here before and the food’s great. I find a seat with some new friends and the food seems aimed to be flowing until someone’s stomach distends and thigh collapses.

Clever gemara reference there, eh? Speaking of which, I haven’t touched Daf Yomi since arriving. Israel doesn’t have the Schottenstein. Believe me, I looked. What’s up with that?

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program.

Rightfully, because we’re all about to burst, we hear from a speaker named Glenn, who relays to us, in depth, the challenges of hostage negotiation. He knows of what he speaks, as he’s one of the lead negotiators. He’s also a trained psychologist who is concerned with the PTSD of the hostages, but also the entire nation. He talks with a lot of empathy – as it’s his stock and trade. He also shines a light on the callousness vs. humaneness of the treatment of the hostages in captivity. It’s harrowing stuff, really, but it’s illuminating. Glenn is good friends with some people in our group, which is possibly how we secured his services. He also worked for ten years in the Mossad, so the above paragraph never happened.

After this interlude, we all stare at our desserts, because there’s just no way after this banquet. We’re then off to the bus again, and back to the hotel.

I give my wife a long briefing on the day’s activities, and it’s off to la la land.

Happy New Year!

Day 6, Monday, January 1, 2024

I daven with our minyan, and the Rabbi arrives, looking like he’s gone a few rounds. From this point on for the remainder of our trip, I’ll be ragging him about starting a coffee habit. Coffee saves lives.

Breakfast is insanely lavish, and nicely laid out, and fresh, and delicious, but all that matters is that I have my halvah. That’s what fuels my day.

We all hop onto the bus, and Ma’ayan announces that the two seats all the way at the front of the bus will be kept empty, so that anyone who would like to share reflections can have a comfortable seat, and, I suppose, the other seat is for whoever’s on deck. Maayan then proceeds to impress us with his knowledge of Israel and his spitballing of vast swaths of Torah by heart. This guy is impressive.

We arrive at:

Stop #2: Kadima Farming Community

Lest we think that strawberry picking isn’t an important activity, the Rebbe reminds us that if we weren’t here today, the entire crop would completely go to waste after months of preparation. The Palestinian workers have, shall we say, a complicated employment situation, and the Thai workers were summoned home. That leaves us. So we get to work. I partner up with a buddy, and we’re the first to clear our row! I was expecting a stuffed doll as a reward. Nope, my reward is that I get to start another row immediately while wilting in the sun. After one and half hours of this, my back has had enough. I guzzle water to rehydrate and hide in the shade of the bus. Man, I think I’ve had too much halvah. I want my neck fan back. Why do I travel without it?

The Rabbi’s enjoying himself, picking away under the sun while playing DJ for the group, with music blasting out of his pants pocket. He’s adorable, but he needs coffee. I remind him.

We then head to Tel Aviv, for something much heavier.

Stop #3: The “Nova 6:29” Exhibit

En route to the exhibit, Maayan tries to gently warn us about the gravity of the contents of the expo. The Rabbi, too, speaks to us compassionately to prepare us for what we’re about to see. Upon arrival, one of the employees attempts to do so as well.

All these efforts are for naught. No kind or cautious word can prepare anyone for what is warehoused inside this space.

Upon entry, the signage is innocuous enough. There’s a large poster that says “Nova: We Will Dance Again.” That’s hopeful, and good, and affirming.

But once you open the door, you’ve been transported to a dimension of hell.

It’s dark, trance music is playing, and artifacts from the Nova festival have been brought here and laid out strategically, so that a visitor is fully immersed in the experience.

And everything is full of bullet holes or burned to ashes, and there are notes left by loved ones for the deceased that will break your heart to small pieces (“Why did I let you go? I told you not to go!”), and there’s a lost and found full of shoes that have gone unclaimed, and…the porta potties. I get stuck staring at them. Bullet holes. They’re shot through with bullet holes. I’m transfixed. I need to get out of here. I don’t feel so good. I step out…

…and seat myself on a couch in the atrium. I collect myself and breathe. I then begin to thumb out my thoughts, on my phone, about what just happened. It’s my therapy. I feel slightly better after a few minutes, but I’m haunted.

I get up from my doldrums and wander over to the café, to see if they have anything to offer. A fella from our tour, who has joined just for today, approaches me, and profusely apologizes for having left his methods of payment on the bus, can I buy him a coffee, and he’ll reimburse me?

I don’t know what it is about the request, but it brightens my mood. Of course I’ll buy him a coffee. This tiny teeny bit of kindness might be the answer to all of this. Random acts, right? Coffee saves lives. I’ve been kidding about that a bit here, but in this context, I sincerely mean it.

We all then collectively step out of the exhibition space, and are given a selection of sandwiches for our lunch. We line up on the veranda outside, and munch away. It’s rather quiet. Everyone is contemplative. That exhibit was quiet a burden to carry.

We are gifted a salve, however, envisaged in a powerhouse person named Tamar.

Stop #4: Eran’s Angels

At the edge of the property, nestled inside the underground parking lot (to ensure survival in the event of a missile strike), is a charity called Eran’s Angels. This charity was “popped up” in the aftermath of 10/7, and they match goods with the evacuees and soldiers who need them. Thousands of volunteers are already in their ranks, and tens of thousands of items are here. Tamar runs the show, and she is made of nuclear fission. Her son was at the Nova festival, and he survived. She energetically shows us the facility, and spends a maximum of 12 seconds per stop, punctuated with “Come! Come!” every time. A child with ADHD would be blessed to have her as a parent. She has the power to make everyone smile, and she does. We needed her. We needed that.

Back on to the bus we go, from the outskirts of Tel Aviv into the heart of it. We pass the area of buildings where military brass is currently making fateful decisions. We then alight from the bus and walk to an interesting place.

Stop #5: Hostage and Missing Families Forum

We walk down, down, down, several flights of stairs (Perhaps this needs protection from missiles too?), and enter the headquarters (Note: several of these massive organizations began existence after 10/7, which is a wild thought) of this forum. We enter an auditorium and Mr. Daniel Shek addresses us and tells us what his organization is up to. Namely, speaking on behalf of the hostages. He’s a calm presence and has a manner that makes him listenable. This is of high value, because he’s the face for the hostages all over the world. He is the Prime Advocate, and he seems well suited for the role. His mandate to us: keep the hostages, and their plight, at the forefront of public discourse, via any means available to each of us.

We then rise up, up, up and surface at street level back into the sun. We then stroll into the heart of Tel Aviv. Destination:

Stop #6: Hostage Square

The public plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art has been converted into a space for the public to immerse themselves in the concerns of the hostages.

When we arrive, we’re confronted by the count-up clock, that displays how long it’s been since 10/7. When we arrive, it’s been 86 days (As of the writing of this passage, it’s been 111 days). The clock is disheartening, but we have to move on, because it’s time to daven Mincha.

We do so in a tent on the property, that is entirely wallpapered with the posters of the missing. My feelings are a crashing mix of despondency and hope, but I’ll tell you this with extreme clarity: I’ve never davened Mincha with such kavanah. The Rabbi’s Tehillim recital comes from a wellspring of love and humanity deep inside his heart.

After this, we visit various tents. Each is peopled with representatives from each of the devastated communities of the Gaza Envelope. Each person inside has at minimum a dearly close relationship with a hostage. There are a lot of tears; there is a lot of hope.

A noted poet is on the plaza, speaking with emotional candor, and there’s another tent, filled with posters of hostages and their keepsakes. It’s a shrine of sorts, and the two that capture my attention are the ones that explain that these particular treasured souls are special needs individuals, and my heart breaks more.

I exit the tent, and there it is, the original installation of the long Shabbat table with the empty seats. After a day of hard reflections and inner turmoil, this is what breaks my resolve. I weep, and find a space off to the side to regather myself. I am not the only one doing this.

Day turns to night while we’re on the plaza, and with it, a sense of mission rises. You see, the buildings here in Tel Aviv are lit up creatively with messages of victory and unity. The landscape here is a lot like New York City, and if you can imagine the Manhattan buildings all lit up with messages of triumph and togetherness, then you might picture what the nocturnal vista looks like around here. It’s a little bit of magic.

On the way home, several in our group begin to share their thoughts and reflections from the front of the bus. One member mentions how she was struck by the special needs hostages; others reflect on what transfixed them at the Nova exhibit; the Rabbi shares how he couldn’t stop staring at the shoes at the exhibit. It recalled Auschwitz for him. I remember once being frozen in place by shoes. The Shoes on the Danube installation in Budapest, Hungary is a transfixer such like I’ve never seen. I know of what the Rabbi speaks.

We make it back to Jerusalem, and make our way to the Kedma restaurant, which is the last upstairs restaurant in Mamilla Mall, overlooking The Old City.

I settle in at one of the tables with some new friends, while mountains of food are served, and guess who shows up! Babygirl! She’s got an open night at school, and her group came to Mamilla for dinner. It’s great to see her again! Selfie!

Before our meal concludes, we hear from Rav Menachem Bombach, a charming, affable fellow who is working on building various educational and service bridges between the Charedi world and greater Israeli society. Dare I say it, it sounds like this man is succeeding. He’s filled with good humor and is a force of nature. If anyone’s up for the task, he certainly is.

We finally make it back to the hotel, after a long, wearying day, and I crash.

But wait! I’m still stuffed, and I have all this nervous energy to work out of my system. So I head down to the gym and crank out a few miles on the treadmill. Then I try out the shvitz. Okay, now I can shower and crash!

But wait! I still have all this nervous energy. I write out on my phone what’s on my mind, and I send it over to the Rabbi. Don’t worry, he doesn’t sleep, which is why he needs a coffee habit.

I send him the following:

“I was not ready for the Nova music festival expo. As you might know, I’m a runner. I spend half my life in porta-potties, both at races and when I’m out on my long runs. I know where every porta-potty is within 9 miles of Teaneck, and I’m not exaggerating. I’ve run as Far East as the middle of the GWB, and as far north as Northvale, which is the border town to New York State. I’ve run to Teterboro, and Passaic. I’ve run everywhere.

When I saw the festival Porta-potties, I froze when I saw the bullet holes. I’ve never been camping, and I’ve never been to an outdoor music rager, but I’ve been to porta-potties, hundreds of them. I use them to take a break; to recharge, to ask myself how I’m doing, to breathe, and to regather and take stock. I have never had to use them to hide from a gunman. I’ve run away from dogs, wild pecking geese, and once a baby bear darted across my path, but never from a gun.

And I noticed something that chilled me to the core: all the bullet holes were below the bathroom lock, which means they weren’t randomly sprayed, but fired with intent to murder whoever it was that was cowering inside in fear. Once I realized that, I had to leave the expo. I was upset, and I had to step out. I had seen enough.

Before I stepped away, however, I recalled a book I had recently read, called “How to Survive History.” The premise was a survival guide. Where would you need to be to survive history’s catastrophes, such as the Titanic, the Pompeii eruption, and others? I thought, “Where would I need to be to survive a shooting at a festival? In an open field, no less! I figured I would run into a porta-potty, and tip it over, to avoid any attention. So I was standing in front of the one that was tipped over, and I noticed that this one had bullet holes all over, including the top. Somebody probably had my idea and didn’t survive. I exited, sat down on the couch for a bit, and reflected in dismay.

A power-plant of energy named Tamar, however, was the antidote we needed.”

The Rabbi insists I have to share this with the group while on the bus. I promise him I will. Having worked through all my emotional energy, I finally crash for good.

But wait! I have to first brief my wife on the day’s events. I need to talk it out. It’s good therapy.

What do you know? That’s just what I needed. Okay, now I’m finally down for the count.

Day 7, Tuesday, January 2, 2024

I daven with our group again, but we’ve lost a few chevra to vatikin at the Kotel. More power to ‘em.

I head down to the Grand Spread again, and one of the senior couples I’ve befriended invite me to break bread with them. I’m with the cool kids now. He remarks about my healthy breakfast. Apparently, he didn’t notice my heap of halvah.

We then all head down a few levels to the hotel boardroom, to be inspired by Rabbi Zvi Rimon, a ray of sunshine in a dark time. He prepares us emotionally for the day ahead, speaks about his, and our, shared missions and gobsmacks us with the most unbelievably sensitive questions that he’s currently faced with.

He promises to meet up with us later, and we board the bus and head for the Gaza Envelope. Several more one-day folks have joined us, and we almost run out of room on the bus. We pass Yad Mordechai, which Maayan informs us is named after Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Oh, I know all this. I know this very well. I’m Mordechai’s gilgal, you see. Bookmark this thought, because I’m going to revisit (Aren’t you glad I didn’t say “circle back”? I dislike corporate-speak) this a bit later.

My seat partner today is Toni, who owns a bookstore. She and I have plenty to talk about over the course of the day, as you can intuitively surmise.

En route to our destination, some more folks in our group share their reflections. The Rabbi gives me a Godfather-y head nod, which I interpret to mean as “You’re up.” I venture to the front of the bus, and share.

When I’m done, it takes me a while to get back to my seat, because so many good folks have so many thoughts, especially empathetic ones, to share with me. One new friend says, “You spoke so well! You could do that for a living!” I’m trying to! Come down to my book talk this Sunday (Which went very well!).

Stop #7: Kfar Aza

As we approach Kfar Aza, we hear booms in the distance, and we see black smoke rising over the horizon. We are mere kilometers away from Gaza, and are non-figuratively in middle of a war. This is bizarre.

As we get nearer to Kfar Aza, we take a gas-station comfort break. We hear more booms; we see more black smoke; military choppers zip by us overhead. This is getting scary.

We finally arrive at Kfar Aza, and there’s no relief to this unease. We are 1 kilometer from Hell, and this place was among the first hit on 10/7. Zaka volunteer Rabbi Simcha Greiniman greets us, and we gather round with a few other groups. His first instruction to us is what to do when we hear a siren. Since we’re one kilometer from the enemy, we have five seconds after a siren sounds. We are to run nowhere. Instead, we are to hit the ground. Now that this is out of the way, R. Greiniman can introduce himself and talk to us about what happened here.

I can’t retell his introduction, it’s too awful, and I can’t stomach it. I invite you to read this article, which contains much of what he said, and whose title is telling enough about the horror of that day: https://www.jns.org/nothing-prepares-you-for-it/

R. Greiniman then walks us to the actual Gates of Hell, through which Hamas burst through using the Israeli tractors left overnight in the crop fields. This detail was left untold in the media. Another detail that bends the mind: since this is a kibbutz, the living quarters of its members are organized by family size. Singles are on the border, couples are next, followed by families and large families, and the methodology is in constant rotation. This fact means that singles were murdered or captured first, then couples, and so on. Systematic cruelty disturbs me more than random cruelty.

More booms in the distance; more black smoke; no sirens.

We then walk through the neighborhood, which has been gutted, shredded, scorched, looted, and annihilated. Posters of people murdered or taken are in front of each house. It’s a devastation beyond imagination. It is easy to notice that some houses have been shelled to the ground, while some are untouched. The Angel of Death passed over. This is “Mi yichye, mi yamut,” who will live and who will die, in vivid color in a manner I’ve never previously beheld in my life.

We are allowed to enter one specific house, within which the surviving family has created a shrine to those murdered inside. Bullet holes pock the entire ceiling of the safe room, final texts adorn the walls, and desperate final phone calls are replayed via video on repeat. Horror of horrors.

I hear people whispering to each other that this is like a Holocaust. That is apt. I’ll explain later why this is so. The numbers “419” are emblazoned in front of many of these houses. I’ll also explain later why this affects me so.

But first, a little light can dispel a lot of darkness. In several of these ruins, are little chanukiyahs. Apparently, family members returned on Chanukah to partake in the chag, and to declare their desire to return. One day this place will be cleaned up, and will return to the thriving commune it once was, but today it is populated with sorrow and death and witnesses who can’t believe their eyes.

Before we leave, the Rabbi recites Tehillim again, from a deeper place in his heart, and I notice how affected he is by the word “mi’ma’akim,” from the depths. Indeed, from here in this hell, that’s where this recital comes from.

Just before we re-board the buses, a chopper flies overhead and lets out flares. We have got to get out of here. We do. We are headed to a place of uplift.

On the way there, however, we must first pass the field wherein the Nova festival took place. We pass quickly, but mouths drop when we skirt by. It happened…here. Right here.

Stop #8: Kerem Shalom

Kerem Shalom is the southwesternmost kibbutz in the state of Israel. It is not 1km from Gaza: it’s more like one inch away. Egypt is something like two inches. We are the first group to visit in the aftermath.

We are greeted by a fine man named Amit. He tells us a story of his initiative to introduce a bit of religious life to the place, which was not just irreligious once-upon-a-time, but anti-religious. He would not be dissuaded, however, and he succeeded in having Purim celebrated in the community, then Yom Kippur, then more. This man is admirable from this perspective alone, but he also helped save everyone in his kibbutz on 10/7.

After this introduction, he brings us to the border wall. He shows us where the terrorists blasted through the concrete barriers; he shows us the power lines feeding Gaza (!!!); he shows us the black smoke just a few clicks out; he explains that his team of nine engaged with Hamas nearly immediately, and repelled them completely. They lost no citizens that day, and no one was captured, but the security team lost two of their friends that day, may God avenge their blood.

We daven Mincha in their new shul before we leave, and prior to davening, Amit stands in front of the aron kodesh, and explains that the Simchat Torah schedule is still on the bima. The community never got to celebrate properly because of what happened, but the paper is there, because once they repopulate the community, they intend to finish what they started, and everyone present is invited. I want to be there so badly.

Stop #9: Military Artillery Installation #3304

We then roll to the actual Middle of Nowhere. I look at a map on my phone, and it just shows dirt. Indeed, we’ve landed in a military post that looks like a scene out of M*A*S*H*. Every jeep, truck, tank, soldier, and mortar launcher is surrounded by mounds of dirt. A South African soldier welcomes us, and explains what happens here: simple, really. They get a call from an officer in middle of the action to send a mortar to a certain position, and this crew fires. If that should happen while we’re here, we’ll need to get back on the bus real fast, please.

So here we are, in middle of a war, in middle of a platoon in that war, in the middle of no-man’s-land. This is strange beyond belief. Folks take pics with soldiers and of tanks, and whatnot, and I sign one of the artillery mortars with “Yipee-kay-yay, mother^%$#er,” because I’m classy. We then do a little bit of dancing, and off we go, in a bit of a hurried fashion. I think they just got a call.

Stop #10: Tzomet Gilat BBQ

We finally get out of the war zone (Well, not really, only to a place where we have a generous 30 seconds to find shelter if we hear a siren), and land at a BBQ in Tzomet Gilat. At this specific BBQ, soldiers have gotten a break from the action, and unwind with some good music, food, and camaraderie.

We drop into this and hand out goodies, and letters from children (The Rabbi is taking care of this the whole time), and cigarettes and cigars.

Ooh, cigars. I’m game for that. I ask permission from the cigar sponsor to hand them out, and I’m obliged kindly. I then spend the entire time, until it’s time to go, making these soldiers smile. That was totally in my lane, and the soldiers appreciated it very much. Totally cool.

Stop #11: Yad Binyamin Graduation Ceremony

We then hightail it to Yad Binyamin, to a scene a bit different from the one in Tzomet Gilat. There, the soldiers were just taking a short break before heading back to action. Here, these soldiers have completed their tour of duty and are moving up in rank. We enter a big auditorium and sit in the back, while the crowd hoots and hollers as their mates receive their honors. It’s quite the scene.

A Mumford & Sons-ish band then closes the show. They’re awesome. Gay & Yahel is the name. I’ll check ‘em out.

Here too, is a BBQ, and we hand out more stuff, and letters, and BBQ food, and cigarettes, and cigars. That’s me. I enjoy that.

I then bump into R. Rimon, and for some reason, he asks me to take a selfie with him – or he’s offering to take a selfie with me. I can’t tell. Anywho, we get into a conversation about various needs that the army brings to R. Rimon’s attention, that R. Rimon in turn asks the public to supply. During this conversation, we discover a particular item that has not caught the public’s attention as an essential necessity, and he asks me if I could cover it. Yes, I can, and I will. I’m happy to fill that gap. Actually, I’m ecstatic.

After this dual boost, following the rough emotional morning, we end the day on a high note and head back to Jerusalem.

I brief my wife on the day’s hard and uplifting events and collapse from exhaustion.

But wait, before I do that, I need to process a bit, so I write this out on my phone:

“When we were in Kfar Aza, I overheard many people whisper that this was like touring Auschwitz. You may not even be aware how apt a comparison that is. The word Holocaust has a specific meaning. It’s a Greek word, and it’s a combination of holos and caustos, which means burnt whole. The word was invented to evoke this description.

While touring there, a detail you may have thought was paperwork, had a very significant meaning for me: 419 was the name of the team that wrote its digits on each house after they had completed their work. That number might not mean anything to you, but it’s my birthday. The day of my birth was all over these walls because of a day of death.

But this wasn’t the first time this has happened to me. The worst terrorist attack in America before 9/11 was the Oklahoma City Bombing. 168 people were killed. I remember the number. That took place on my birthday, 1995, and that didn’t make me happy at all.

But, because we’re on an emotional roller coaster, this trip has to provide light in this darkness. That came from Ma’ayan again. He pointed out, when we passed Yad Mordechai, that it was named for Mordechai Anielewicz. He initiated the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on my birthday, and I share his name. Not only that, but history has kind of forgotten about the second uprising, inspired by the first. The Bialystoker Uprising, led by, guess who, Mordechai Tenenbaum. So my birthday is also hope, and my name is, clearly, a defiant and triumphant thing, going all the way back to Mordechai Hatzadik.”

After that, I bid myself a good night.

Day 8, Wednesday, January 3, 2024

In the morning, I find a text from my wife telling me she’s proud of me for being here, and for putting up with the awkwardness of not knowing many people on the tour.

I text back saying that’s exactly right. Awkward shmawkward, the experience is worth it.

And I tell her I’m here because of three voices:
  1. Hers, telling me to go.
  2. Our daughter’s, asking me to come.
  3. The Kol Demama Daka, the thin still sound, telling me this is where I’m supposed to be right now.
I realize that today is my grandfather’s - Benzion Malik, of my book Zaidy’s War - 10th yahrzeit, and I post a reflection about him on social media. He stays on my mind all day.

I then continue my morning with a treadmill run, and a quick visit to the shvitz. I daven and have another delicious breakfast.

An armored bus is waiting for us, because apparently, we need that where we’re headed today, but not yesterday (???). My seat partner is Barry today. He and I go way back. He was at my bar mitzvah during the last millennium, on Lag B’omer, and he chose mine over the other guys who had their bar mitzvahs that night as well. That’s love.

We are headed directly south. Maayan entertains us all along the way with tales of his youth, and his knowledge of the area, and various geography facts, and how he knows that this road we’re traveling on is the original Derech Avot. This guy is great.

He also elucidates something I hadn’t realized or thought about. He reveals that the Nova festival attendees were largely under the influence of psychedelics and other reality-altering paraphernalia. This means that when the attack unfolded, many of those present could not separate reality from their new terrifying hyper-reality and suffered unimaginably as a result. I cannot even imagine the healing process afterwards, for survivors caught in these circumstances. Can you imagine, that when terror arrives, you can’t sort out what’s real and what isn’t?

That is some serious stuff to chew on.

Stop #11: Kiryat Arba Security Center

Our first stop is a Situation Room, of sorts, in Kirya Arba. We sit in with the Call Center for the entire region, with video displays all over the room showing what cameras are looking at all over the area. We hear all different kinds of stories of perilous situations, and close calls, and the procedures involved. It’s wild that we get to be here. No one’s been vetted, so far as I can tell, and there’s a lot of us. There’s a trust this nation has for its brothers and sisters.

From there, we head to Chevron.

Stop #12: Ma’arat Hamachpelah

When I booked the trip, I couldn’t believe this was part of the itinerary, and now that I’ve stepped off the bus, walked over, and looked up at the impressive Herodian façade, I can’t believe I’m here. I visited here once a few years ago, and I didn’t imagine I’d have another opportunity. Yet, here I am.

We have free rein of the place, but just for a short bit of time, as we have a packed schedule today. I take advantage by doing what my soul tells me to do with the time allotted, and I maximize the opportunity.

We then finally take the “class photo” that incorporates all of us, and take a short stroll up the road, to visit:

Stop #13: Chevron Security Team

AKA the Lions Brigade. Responsible for the safety and security of Chevron’s 1,000 Jewish citizens, who are surrounded by 300,000 Palestinians. Not the best odds, with the other team one foot away, in every direction. We can’t enter their facility today, because reasons, but we do hear from an Elizabethan soldier (From New Jersey in the present day, that is, not medieval Europe) about the challenges of protecting the community.

We hand out more goodies, and the Rabbi still has wonderful artwork and letters from kiddies to distribute.

Stop #14: Beit Haddasah

We then walk uphill and into the interesting Beit Haddasah complex. It looks half fortress/half-museumy, but in fact, 30 families live in this compound, and the place has both a tragic and triumphant history. Welcome to every piece of Israel.

We have lunch together, and we hear from Mr. Eliyahu Libman, head of security for Chevron, and its mayor. He has a son currently captive in Gaza. He talks to us about the challenges of security, and how he wants his son back via military victory, rather than negotiated exchange.

He then does something I’ll never forget: he pauses to have a cup of water, and makes a very careful Shehakol blessing. When he’s done drinking, he explains his purpose: the blessing isn’t merely a catch-all blessing for sustenance, it’s an acknowledgement that everything – the good and the bad – comes from on high, and is ordained to be so.

He re-frames the Gam Zu Latovah concept for me, and I’ll never make the blessing the same way again. I go into this lunch behaving one way, and I exit with an edited perspective which I will not let go of.

We’re now off to:

Stop #15: Alon Shvut

We hop off the bus into a captivatingly beautiful shul, and take our seats. In walks a demure Israeli couple, who proceed to tell us, with patient and halting English, the tale of their brave, headstrong, focused 20-year-old son, Yonatan Elazari, who fell in Ofakim.

His youth was spent laser-objectived on becoming a chayal and defending his people. He began his training two months before 10/7, and when the day unfolded, he pressed himself into action. Not in possession yet of any weapons, but feeling the need to respond to the chaos unfolding in the streets, he first picked up some stones to use, then found a useful knife, then obtained a weapon, then found himself on a rooftop protecting a household and a shelter across the street, and he was murdered.

I can hear and feel every heart in the room break into fragmented shards, as his loving mom passes out pictures of her handsome (These are her words - she calls him a heartbreaker.) angel. She concludes her talk by reciting a portion of Yonatan’s bar mitzvah speech, in which he says how much he admires a person in his kibbutz, who defended the place with arms against terrorists, and Yonatan wonders if he ever was faced with such a situation, how would he react? Would he be brave and do what needed to be done?

He would be. HY’D.

With hearts heavy, we then make our way to:

Stop #16: Tekoa

Tekoa shares a new feature with several other towns dotted across Israel: the men are off to war, and the women are at home working to hold it all down. The number here is 80% in the battlefield. They will either come home, or they will not. This is the reality.

At the moment, many of the moms and kids are under one roof, entertaining the children with games, a puppet show, and other diversions and amusements.

We have come here to offer solidarity. We hand out gifts to the children, and pizza to the community, and we dance together, and hear stories, and empathize.

During the puppet show, the mission group is gathered in a dining hall to hear stories, with more intensity, about the reality of the daily situation here.

One of the speakers is Arky’s wife. You know Arky. Those videos at the outset of the war from the soldier with the rugged countenance, and beaming smile, urging everyone to “Rock the house” this Shabbat? That’s him. He just came home last night after three months away. You do not want his job. He’s Zaka, under fire. When he gets the call, his wife says, there is some serious trouble.

Throughout this trip, I have done my best to honor the precept of “Chayav adam lirot et atzmo,” A person is required to envision himself. That is, I’ve been summoning my best empathy by putting myself in the shoes of the person from whom I’m listening to and hearing stories. In this instance, I struggle. The Mrs. explains how, in the middle of Simchat Torah davening, her husband was forced to abruptly depart, and vanish for a quarter year (There are more details, but they seem intensely personal, so I’ll keep them with me). How would I behave in such a spot? What would I say? I don’t have the words or the imagination.

Once these tales are told, I step outside to breathe some fresh air. Yair, our security guy, approaches me to ask for advice about running, which I’m glad to offer. The next time I hear from him, he’ll be world-class. Bet on it.

Before I part, I approach Adina, the matriarch and caretaker of the place, to ask an inappropriate question: what is her maiden name? You see, she bears a striking resemblance to my entire family, so I was forced to ask. I show her a picture of one of my sisters, and her jaw hits the floor. You know how sometimes you think somebody looks like a celebrity, and you say it, and the person thinks you’re off your rocker? Yeah, this was the opposite. I have to follow up on this.

After a long day, we finally head back to Jerusalem. When we hit the checkpoint, a soldier boards our bus, and recreates the classic O’Malley Twins Joke. If you don’t know what that is, google it. It’ll totally be worth it.

He asks us where we’re from, and we say, “Jersey!”

So he says, “Oh cool, me too! Where in Jersey you from?”

And we say, “Teaneck!”

And he says, “What? Me too!”

And somebody says, “What’s your last name?,” and he says it, and somebody says, “What? Is your sister so-and-so?” and he says, “What? It is! What’s going on here?”

And somebody was intrepid enough to capture a picture of his eyes popping out of his head, and that was amazing. True story!

We get back to the hotel, and we have an open evening, so Babygirl comes over with her luggage, because we’ll be spending tomorrow together, but for now, it’s dinner time. It’s great to see her yet again!

We walk to First Station and have a delicious meal at Station 9, which is a place she’s wanted to try, and I’m glad to oblige. The food and ambience are excellent.

We walk back to the hotel on a nice, warm night, and I give my wife a call to brief her on the day, but she’s en route at the moment, and can I please call later?

Sure, and I intend to, but when my face hits the pillow, I’m down for the count until morning.

Day 9, Thursday, January 4, 2024

I am way too exhausted to wake up in time for a run and spend some time in the shvitz, but I do make it to davening! Good boy.

I have a lovely breakfast with my girl for company, and we head down to the boardroom afterwards to hear from Rabbi Doron Perez.

Rabbi Perez is the head of Global Mizrachi, who has twice done Aliyah, which is an interesting feat. He’s down-to-earth, calm, gentle, reassuring, sympathetic, filled with wisdom, and has a South African-inflected tamber that puts you in a soothing place when he speaks.

He has a son captive in Gaza, and another son who married ten days after the capture. You have to hear this story to understand, and you have to hear his comforting voice: https://youtu.be/blbmCMjRIMk

Over the course of an hour, R. Perez doles out great, sage advice on a cornucopia of matters, including parental, religious, spousal, and more. He should have come with a stenographer, because it’s hard to keep track of it all.

Now, we each have challenges with our children, and you and me are no exception. R. Perez talks about one of his children in such a specific manner that is of such extreme relevance to my own nuclear family, that my hair stands on end. He gives advice for such a matter that I hold on to, with no need for a stenographer.

When his talk is over, I approach him, and I explain just how similar our parenting challenges are, and how his advice has given me a positive direction, and how he’s helped me more than he can possibly understand. His eyes go wide, and he gives me a heartfelt hug and a blessing, and a thank you for sharing. Wow, that’s never happened to me before.

No wait, it did. Rabbi Avi Weiss once gave me a hug at a wedding, but that was because I said hello, and it was Tuesday.

The front two seats on the bus are open again, and we do lots of sharing and emoting over the course of the day. Various folks are still, psychologically speaking, in other places we visited. Me? I’m still stuck at the Nova expo and in Kfar Aza.

My seat partner for today is my daughter! It’s great to have her along. We’ll lean on each other’s shoulders because of where we go next:

Stop #17: Machane Shura

This military base in Ramla serves two functions: 1) It is the headquarters of the Israeli Army Rabbinate. 2) It is the place where Israel’s military dead are brought in for identification, burial preparation, and, shall we say, final reunification with family.

(A man like Arky, by the way, would be the kind of person to escort them here.)

The reason these two functions must be placed in close proximity is obvious, and simple. The Rabbinate needs to be immediately at hand to make some very tough calls about life and death, particularly around Aguna matters, and other serious complexities.

I struggle at this site. I won’t be explicit about my emotions and clattering thoughts, but I’ll allow you to read between the lines.

I also won’t detail everything we learn here, because it’s too awful to relive, so I’ll point you to this article that gives extensive detail, and I’ll fill in the gaps:
https://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/handled-with-holiness/2023/12/01/

We are greeted by Rabbi Bentzi Mann, who looks like a person who has seen too much. Part of his introduction is explaining to us that on 10/7, he got a call to show up at the base immediately, along with two dozen other unsuspecting individuals, and in the aftermath of the days that followed, two-thirds of this cohort had quit and were already in therapy, and during one of these sessions, the therapist stated clearly that the patient would have to see someone else, because the therapist was traumatized himself by the patient’s case.

I struggle with this.

We’re brought to the processing facility. The kohen is excused at the large bay door. I look down and notice a drainage system that seems larger than usual. For rainwater, you might think. No; rivers of blood.

We’re told that although some people consider this building the gate to hell, a certain member of the rabbinate offered that no, this is the gate to eternal life. This echoes the tradition in some circles to call a cemetery a Bait HaChayim, or House of Life.

I struggle with this.

We’re then given the grim details about the intake, identification, and preparation. One detail the article above leaves out is that all soldiers are placed in coffins. Why is this so, when Israeli society generally does not do this? Because a fallen soldier could be relatively whole, or there may only be a limb, or even traces, and all soldiers are equal in death. There is also sensitivity to the family to be considered, who are given the option of seeing, or not seeing, their fallen loved one.

We are then brought into the identification room. If you’d like to picture it in your mind’s eye, just imagine any Medical Examiner scene on Law & Order.

Rabbanit Noa explains the process to us. She has a team of four who work to identify the female fallen who arrive, and she reminds her staff when doing their work that there are five souls in the room. I peek over at my daughter, who is looking at R. Noa with eyes wide in appreciation and admiration. Interesting.

R. Noa has placed on the wall, in her own handwriting, the words “Admat Kodesh Hee,” This is holy ground.

I don’t struggle with this. That it is.

We then walk down the hallway to the Farewell Room. I easily overhear that half the crowd is asking the other half of the crowd if they’re okay. I ask my daughter if she’s okay, and she really seems to be perfectly fine. We will have a very interesting conversation about all this.

We are now in the Farewell Room, where families come to say goodbye, perhaps minutes after initially getting the call that their loved one has fallen. I cannot imagine being in that position.

For some reason, while R. Bentzi is talking, I find myself staring at the space where the coffin is placed, and for some insane reason, the cadence from Full Metal Jacket comes flashing through my mind:

“If I die in the combat zone - if I die in the combat zone.
Box me up and ship me home - box me up and ship me home.
Pin my medals upon my chest - pin my medals upon my chest.
Tell my Mom I done my best - tell my Mom I done my best.”

While my brain is racing with this, we all suddenly start singing Hamalach HaGoel. I can’t mouth the words, because I’m grieving a blank space, inhabited by nothing at the moment, and my throat is choked to the point of being rendered mute.

While the singing goes on, my brain locks on something else. I had recently published my grandfather’s holocaust memoirs, called Zaidy’s War, and I had actually won an award for one of my quotes, which I included on the last page, and which was how I felt when I saw how small my grandfather’s coffin was, I thought then, and wrote later, “The lives we live are so much bigger than the bodies we inhabit.”

Oh how true that is in this context, and oh, how relieved I am when we exit this sad space into the sunlight. People all around me are in tears.

We then walk into what might be considered the word’s largest aron kodesh. From here, each military unit in action receives a sefer Torah. The hundreds remaining are the non-kosher ones undergoing repair.

The Rabbi here tries to explain to us that this is what we rally around, this is what we fight for, this is our standard for us to bear, and he tries to make a connection from a fallen soldier to a risen sefer Torah. From darkness to light.

I struggle with this.

When it’s time for us to go, I panic because my daughter hasn’t come back to the bus yet from her comfort break. I self-check and realize the problem: I don’t want to be here any longer, and I don’t want to get stuck in this place if the bus has to go ahead.

I struggle with a lot in this place, and the sense of relief when we leave is like removing a boulder from my back, and a vise from my throat. This place is not for everyone. It might not even be for most.

Be warned, ye who enter here.

Stop #18: Ofakim.

Ofakim, so far as I can tell from looking at a map, seems to be the easternmost place that Hamas infiltrated on 10/7. An unfortunate feature of the neighborhood is that the infrastructure is so old, that in-house safe rooms were never built. Instead, safe rooms are part of the communal public infrastructure, dotting the landscape of the city. When the sirens went off, families in their pajamas headed out of their houses towards these rooms and were murdered en route with ease.

It was here that Yonatan Elazari, whose parents we heard from in Alon Shvut yesterday, fell.

We visit his Yeshiva, and have a nice lunch in the dining room. His Rabbi talks about him the same way his parents did. Determined, focused, proud, mature, primed to do whatever is necessary.

We daven Mincha in a new-agey, trippy beit midrash. Then Yonatan’s friends escort us to the spot where he fell. Along the way, we pass the house where the grandmother famously held off her attackers by offering them cookies. The house is riddled with holes, large and small. We also pass a pomelo tree, which holds my attention for some reason.

When we arrive at the house of Yonatan’s last stand, something amazing happens. We encounter an elderly gentleman, in the midst of patching the bullet holes in the wall on his property. Turns out, he’s the owner of the house. Maayan asks him politely if he wouldn’t mind describing to the group what happened that day. The man obliges and tells us the incredible story, including the firefight that resulted in Yonatan’s death. He then allows us onto his property, which is pocked with bullet holes everywhere, and also includes a grenade crater.

We now have heard Yonatan’s story from his parents, his Rabbi, his friends, and this gentleman, who was the last to see him alive. This man’s life – and the life of his family – was probably saved due to Yonatan’s actions.

With the group agog at these circumstances, and the experience of capturing a life in full, from beginning to end, we head to our final stop:

Stop #19 Tel HaShomer

Tel HaShomer is a hospital complex where the military injured come for care and rehabilitation. R. Rimon spends a lot of time here, and greets us upon arrival. We then are whirlwinded to various interfaces with various injured soldiers, some of whom are candid about what they experienced – including out-of-body experiences that are probably too personal to reveal – and some not (“Stop taking pictures. I’m not a museum!”). For each of the soldiers we meet, the Santa in our group hands out gifts, mostly electronics. In each instance, R. Rimon makes a misheberach. Let me tell you, it is one thing for an ill person to know that caring people are mentioning his/her name in shul. It is another to have a beloved, respected rabbi lay his hands on you and bless you for good health while lying in a hospital bed recuperating. I can feel the soldiers’ appreciation.

Our final interaction with a wounded soldier – indeed, the final stop of our mission-related work - is with a soldier named Elisha. His story is emblematic of everything we’ve experienced: a little bit of darkness, and a little bit of light. Elisha is a combat veteran, who was close with his unit in civilian life. The men grew apart because of Judicial Reform disagreements, but when the call came to re-constitute their unit and report for duty in Gaza, they told each other their disagreements were “shtuyot.” Stupidity. They were brothers-in-arms once more. Elisha lost his legs to an RPG strike, and the friend with whom he was once divided sleeps next to Elisha’s bed, and helps him, and will do so until Elisha goes home. (Update: Elisha went home!)

With that final window into endearing humanity and brotherhood, our mission is complete. We’re headed to dinner, and we share reflections from the front of the bus one last time.

One of these voices is from one of the teenagers in our group. She is brave, candid, urgent, and eloquent. It was very important for us to hear the perspective from a young person currently on campus, and I thank her for stepping up.

We get dropped off at the Tel Aviv Port shopping/dining complex and walk along the Mediterranean to Lechem Basar, where we chow down one last time.

We have one last talk while dining. This one is from an individual who went missing during our Tel HaShomer visit. What was he doing? Checking on the ICU he designed at the hospital. That’s the kind of interesting people we’ve had along with us.

Back on to the bus we go, for the 87th and final time on this trip (No, I didn’t count), and off we go to Ben Gurion.

Just before we offboard, I attempt to pluck my power cable that was charging my phone on the bus, and I get my hand into a tight spot and lacerate my middle knuckle. Then I try to shake everyone’s hands and wish everyone farewell without getting blood on them, so I give everyone my elbow like I have Covid. I need a band-aid, stat.

I wish my babygirl farewell. The bus will take her back to the hotel, and she’ll make it back to school from there. (Update: she made it back in time for curfew!) It was wonderful spending all this time with her.

As we snake up and down the security lines, I keep asking the folks on our mission if they have band-aids. Finally, one member of the group presents me with band-aids she’s collected from everyone else. Now isn’t that nice? I’m all patched up and ready to talk to security without a bleeding hand.

Security asks me the one question only ELAL ever asks: what does my middle initial of “M.” stand for. I answer, and I’m on my way.

En route to the departure gate, I send a text to our group, because everyone else is doing that, and because I’m ever the showman:

“Folks, it has been a privilege embarking on this meaningful mission with all of you, and a pleasure getting to know you. On the theme of bearing witness and Never Again Is Now, I’d like to invite all of you to my book talk this Sunday. I will be honored by your attendance. Have a restful flight and a Shabbat shalom.”

Day 10, Friday, January 5, 2024

Aaaaand of course, it’s an absolute balagan at the gates. There are two fights leaving for EWR and JFK, at the same time, and nobody can sort themselves out. No one is helping either. Miracles do happen, and presumably every one here gets on the right flight. Hey, if they get on the wrong flight, at least they’re landing in the same general area.

I’ve got the middle seat, which is hell on earth, but I’ve got the last row in the plane, on the right side, which is heaven on earth. There is balance in The Force.

To my right is a snooded, long-skirted, Jewish woman. To the left of me is a Jewish teenage girl. Both are polite and accommodating. This middle seat might not be so bad after all. Neither puts their knees or feet on the seat in front of them for the whole flight.

My Daf Yomi still isn’t available on the entertainment system, and I realize that I am now eleven days behind. Uh oh.

So I do the only thing I can: watch nonsense until we land.

First I try Blue Beetle, which is a truly terrible, and horribly racist, movie.

Then I sleep for two hours.

Then I watch Dog Day Afternoon, because it’s on a small list of films that my mother says I still have to see. This one is awesome, with great performances, and brings Brooklyn to life vividly, and has a strong satiric edge, and I’m going to be happy to report this to my mom. She also wants me to see Serpico. Next flight.

Then Mrs. Snood politely asks if she can use the bathroom please. I begin to get out of my seat, but she actually says there’s no need for that. She can jump over me. Huh? Oh? Okay, whatever floats your boat! And there she goes, leaping over me in a single bound! Whoa! That was crazy! When she returns, she again bounds clear over me, and lands in her seat perfectly. This is wild. I have to ask, so I do, “High school gymnastics?” She says, “No, dance teacher.” Well that certainly explains it!

I then start The Flash, but run out of time, as we’re about to land. Snood leaps over me one more time, and does a return flight again. Impressive.

As we’re about to land, I notice a warehouse fire outside the window, just a mile or two from the airport! What’s crazy is that this isn’t the first time I’ve seen something like this. I noticed a house fire below while taking a flight from Brazil to Argentina several years ago.


We land safely in the early morning, and I zip through Global Entry in exactly zero seconds.

Yehonatan is waiting for me, and he brings me home. Who is Yehonatan? Well, he’s a young man, who in about 48 hours, will ask my sister to marry him, and he’s picking me up today because he wants brownie points. He definitely earns the brownie points.

Home sweet home. I miss my boys by minutes as they’re on their way to school, but I’ll see them later in the afternoon. I enjoy my usual Friday homelife/worklife with my wife, and promptly fall asleep in my soup at Shabbat dinner.

Takeaways:

Kol Yisroel areivim ze l’zeh – all of Israel is responsible for one another. You get the feeling that, on a global scale, the lines have been effectively blurred between denominations in Judaism, particularly in matters of concern, care, compassion, and raising of voices. You get a very strong, acute sense of it here. These lines fell like Jericho’s walls, and everyone’s got everyone’s back, and everyone’s in everyone’s corner. May it hold.

Everybody is busy – there is a bustling in the state of Israel, an extreme activeness. Folks who were doing something for a living before 10/7 are now doing something else. Folks who weren’t doing anything were pressed into action. Retirees are re-activated. Soldiers in the front; civilians in the rear. You know how NASA employed 400,000 people to get humans on the moon? Well, there are 9.3+ million people here working towards victory over Hamas and securing the hostages.

There’s something for everybody – as we toured place after place all over the south, I thought about my diverse children and their interests and burgeoning lifestyles. There’s a community for every individual here, concentrated into a place the size of New Jersey. If you’re looking for a fit, you’ll find it.

I wrote this for a reason – “You don't write because you want to, but because you have to." - Judy Blume

Thursday, February 01, 2024

Announcing This Haggadah is the Way: A Star Wars Unofficial Passover Parody!

 

Hello there!

A quarter-score years ago, I created The Emoji Haggadah.
IV years ago, I produced The Festivus Haggadah.
ד years ago, I generated The Coronavirus Haggadah.
√4 years ago, I wrought The Shakespeare Haggadah.
This year, I bring you This Haggadah is the Way: A Star Wars Unofficial Passover Parody.

I've got a good feeling about this.

Know what else I have a good feeling about? My haggadah book talk/launch at the YU Seforim Sale on Sunday, February 25th, at 12 PM. Believe you me, in touch with details I will be.

I've spent a year and half all over the book talk/zoom talk/podcast map bringing Zaidy's War (Currently on an 8-week serialized run in Der Yid, translated back to Yiddish in a Q&A format) to the public in shuls/schools/JCCs/institutions/cyberspace (Up next: libraries all over NJ), and my haggadot want a turn. Reach out to MartinBodekBooks@gmail.com if you'd like to bring me in.

As for my new haggadah, I had already seen the original trilogy exactly 137 times, and the rest of the films at least 26 times each, so I was well versed with the entire mythos. I then shoehorned, crammed, wedged, jimmied, wrangled, and squished every quote, scene, legend, storyline, character, meme and plot into the haggadah text that I could, and voila! A final product. Now you know I like the end result, but don't take my word for it. Here's what Publishers Wookliee had to say:

""GRRRRW HHHHWWWRRGGA WWWWWWRR!!!"

That's quite the endorsement, don't you think? But wait, there's more! This is what the Gungan Review of Books said:

"Dis book is muy hot, un Mesa berry recommend it."

Now if that joke didn't go over your head, then this book is totally for you. If it *did* go over your head, then this book is perfect for that lovable nerd in your life who'd appreciate this kind of thing.

In either case, come on down and see me on the 25th. We haven't seen each other in a while, and I'd love to catch up a bit. Oh, and if you have ideas for my next haggadah, let me know what those are, because as of right now, I'm fresh out.

Speaking of which, a big thanks to Dave Cowen for allowing me to catch up to him on the Most Haggadot Ever Published leaderboard, before he inevitably pulls ahead. This is why I'm asking you for ideas.

Happy early Passover! Way early! Oh man, I have to order matzah...

May the Schwartz be with you.

-Martin (Mordechi) Bodek

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Thankful: The Year I Became a Public Speaker

Or: Gratitude, Past, Present, and Future

I. The Recent Past

Hi! I'm thankful today for the year I've had since launching Zaidy's War. My publishing ambitions took a quantum leap forward the moment the book was released. It took no time at all for it to a) become my best-reviewed book, b) spider to libraries faster than anything I'd published before, and c) get gobbled up by reviewers, bloggers, and TikTokers with immediacy.[*]

While that steamboat was rollin' down the river, I paused to launch The Shakespeare Haggadah, and give it the attention it deserved. The book certainly did so (Hiring a publicist certainly helped. Thank you, Judy!). There wasn't a major article about the year's crop of new haggadot that didn't feature mine, and I got coverage in some major press, including the UK's Jewish Chronicle, and Yahoo!, which syndicated everywhere. I also received a book award from the New York Shakespeare group. On top of that, I was invited to participate in a few podcasts, namely New York Shakespeare Live, and the Cindy Grosz Show.

While *that* fire was burnin', I garnered speaking gigs of all kinds, in all places, in front of all kinds of audiences - with big assists from my publishers, publicist, and fellow Amsterdam Publishers authors. I delivered in-person talks, podcasts,[**] zoom sessions, book club drop-ins, book club zoom sessions, other forms of engagement, with many more of each forthcoming.

Now the award I received for The Shakespeare Haggadah (Which, BTW, is now my second-best selling book behind The Emoji Haggadah) was only the appetizer. For the entrée, Zaidy's War has scored three awards,[***] and is still in play for more.

I'm grateful to you for getting behind me and supporting me all the way.

II. The Immediate Present

The big wheel keeps on turnin', because I have talks scheduled I) in libraries and classrooms all around Jersey, II) at several Yom HaShoah engagements, and III) in my own Teaneck, NJ neighborhood, finally, which I'll be sure to keep you informed about.

III. The Awesome Future

Two more things I'm thankful for today, and then I'll let you get to stuffing yourself with turkey: 1) I just completed my 7th - and final - draft of my next haggadah. 2) I started the groundwork for my next Holocaust-themed book. There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh, says Ecclesiastes, and I'll continue plying my trade in both.

Happy Thanksgiving, from a heart that's happy to give thanks. I'm also thankful today for the hostages that are coming home, but I want more. I want them all.

And now, for some reason, I think I'm going to queue up Proud Mary...

-Martin Bodek

[*] A sampling:
https://jewishlink.news/martin-bodek-s-zaidy-s-war-honors-his-grandfather-s-memory/
https://www.jewishpress.com/sections/books/book-reviews/zaidys-remarkable-survival-story/2023/04/20/
https://jewishbookworld.org/2023/08/honor-history-holocaust-thoughts-on-zaidys-war-by-martin-bodek/
https://www.authorsreading.com/book-reviews/martin-bodek/zaidys-war/
https://www.jewishinspirationatyourfingertips.com/2023/10/17/book-review-zaidy-s-war/#more-3002
https://jeyranmain.com/2023/08/24/zaidys-war-four-armies-three-continents-two-brothers-one-mans-impossible-story-of-endurance-by-martin-bodek/
https://readersfavorite.com/book-review/zaidys-war

My own contributions:
https://jewinthecity.com/2022/11/my-orthodox-grandfathers-fight-against-cannibalism-in-wwii/
https://aish.com/my-grandfathers-breathtaking-act-of-kindness/
https://shepherd.com/best-books/holocaust-memoirs-on-the-protagonists-development

[**] The podcasts, thus far:
Jewish Agnostics, FL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wp3lesbn2I&t=910s
Too Jewish Radio, AZ: https://toojewishradio.podbean.com/e/too-jewish-7923-martin-bodek/
Let Me Tell You a Story, ID: https://open.spotify.com/episode/3PtWjvKT22WHKwyOkQNu7d
Jewish Small Communities Network, UK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqVPI9suxnc&t=1033s
The Jewish Link Pitch Meeting, NJ: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYI7EEkvU64&t=2398s

[***] The awards:
1. Finalist, International Book Awards, General History.
2. Bronze medal, The BookFest Awards, Memoirs-Portrait.
3. Winner, International Impact Book Awards, Memoir.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Zaidy's War Wins its First Award!

I am delighted - nay, overjoyed - to inform you that Zaidy's War has garnered itself an award from the International Book Awards. It beat out hundreds of competitors in the "General History" category, which was quite a crowded field.

This accolade follows the wonderful recognition I received earlier this year for The Shakespeare Haggadah from the prestigious New York Shakespeare Group. I have quite a streak going.

Additionally, my colleague Roni Kayne Robbins received a Multicultural Fiction Award for her remarkable book Hands of Gold, which you should read. https://www.amazon.com/Hands-Gold-Silver.../dp/9493231852

Also, our publisher - Amsterdam Publishers - should be feeling really good. It does important work, and I'm proud to be associated with such a well-recognized house. These awards are just for this round. They garner other awards around the clock all year.

Now if you'll excuse me, I do have to speak with said publisher about putting my little ribbon on my book cover. That will be quite nice.

Finally, some folks get the honored distinction of having certain titles before their names, such as Sir, or Dr., or Reverend, or World Renowned, etc. I wouldn't mind it at all if "Award-winning" was affixed before mine. That will be cool in certain contexts.

Have a GREAT day!

Tuesday, April 04, 2023

Chag Kasher V'Shakesmeach!

 Table of contents

(jump to any section you like; I'm not twisting your arm to read *all* of this):

1) Insane, electric coverage for The Shakespeare Haggadah
2) An article answering why I do parody haggadot in the first place
3) My chag sameach wishes for you and yours
4) Zaidy's War, waiting in the wings.

1.

You'll please pardon the silly wordplay in the subject of this e-mail. I've been giddy with the coverage The Shakespeare Haggadah has gotten this season. It's been in everything, everywhere, all at once.

Out of the blocks, it reached shelves in places no book of mine has ever reached before, including Walmart, Target, gift shops in Jewish Museums in the northeast, and get this, Harvard University's library. I'm an Ivy Leaguer!

The roster of articles and interviews, includes, but is not limited to (because I may actually have missed a few):
  1. JNS.org: https://www.jns.org/nay-leavend-bread-shalt-beest-eaten-author-martin-bodek-has-a-shakespearean-twist-on-passover/, picked up by The Jewish Exponent (Staten Island), Columbus Jewish News, Cleveland Jewish News, L'chaim Magazine (San Diego), Baltimore Jewish Times, the Jewish Ledger (Connecticut), and the wildest of them all, Christians for Israel International.
  2. The Jewish News of Northern California: https://jweekly.com/2023/03/28/ai-rushes-in-but-the-best-of-2023s-new-haggadahs-are-human-made/
  3. Times of Israel: https://www.timesofisrael.com/shakespeare-at-the-seder-author-writes-passover-haggadah-as-the-bard-would-have/, picked up by Qoshe.com, JewishNews.com, Alberta Jewish news, and TheWorldNews.net
  4. The Jewish Chronicle: https://www.thejc.com/news/news/to-dip-or-not-to-dip-the-shakespeare-haggadah-2PgR4h8OW6T03SryDOalW7
  5. Jewish Journal: https://jewishjournal.com/judaism/holidays/357462/why-is-this-haggadah-different-from-all-others/
  6. The St. Louis Jewish Light: https://stljewishlight.org/our-jewish-learning/3-different-ideas-for-you-next-passover-haggadah/
  7. Jewish Rhode Island: https://www.jewishrhody.com/stories/a-haggadah-for-everyone,31943
  8. The Jewish Link: https://jewishlink.news/features/58511-the-haggadah-still-a-template-for-jewish-creativity
  9. Yahoo: https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/looking-haggadah-fits-family-11-164653582.html, picked up by Parade, Gossip Chimp, Clayton News Daily, Henry Herald, Kilgore News Herald, Tyler Morning Telegraph, Longview News-Journal, Victoria, Longview, Panola Watchman (they love me in Texas!), and The Rockdale Citizen.
  10. Finally, last night I was a guest on New York Shakespeare's Instagram Live show, which was a blast: https://www.instagram.com/p/CqmPZMiqbqR/
So if you're keeping track, The Shakespeare Haggadah was covered by press in 4 countries (U.S. Israel, UK, Canada), and 10 states.

I couldn't have done any of this without an enormous media push from my publisher, Wicked Son Books, and superhuman efforts by my Fairy Godpublicist, Judy Tashbook Safern. Thank you, guys!

2.

I've been doing a lot of talking lately, and the number 1 question I get is: why? So I wrote a long-winded answer that I'm happy to present to you. I didn't send it to any news outlet because it's more of a personal response, so consider this an exclusive:

Ask Not Why I Write Parody Haggadot; Ask for Whom

By

Martin Bodek

I recently published the second folio of The Shakespeare Haggadah, and the question I’ve been most frequently receiving is, “Why?”

To this, I reply, “Can you phrase that in Elizabethan English, please?”

As the questioner stammers back with “Whyeth?” or “Whyfore?”, I then volunteer a little bit of history, so that they understand the full picture, and I launch into an elevator speech that goes something like this:

Deep breath, aaaaaaaaand:

A long time ago, in a galaxy right here haggadot were generally gorgeously-wrought masterpieces of artistic expression. This “era,” if you will, lasted for hundreds of years. This gave way to an era of less artistic – albeit highly useful – proliferation thanks to the godsend of the printing press. After this time came the next era of customized haggadot for all manner of movements, religious stripes, causes, activism, and advocacy. On the heels of this push came the late-20th century surge of scholarly works, which dove deeper into the text, and then deeper still. At the turn of the 21st century a new age began: the age of wildly creative versions of the classic haggadah, both those hewing to the original text and those departing, but with imagination and innovation.

Aaaaaaaaaand exhale.

I created The Shakespeare Haggadah in this era, which is still thriving, and looks like it will last a while. As a gentleman named Albert Einstein once said, “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

I estimate – and this is debatable – that this era kicked off in 2007, when both Sammy Spider’s First Haggadah and 30 Minute Seder: The Haggadah That Blends Brevity With Tradition were published. The former targeted children’s interests; the latter targeted anyone whose attention span was shrinking along with the rest of human culture. Both perpetually rank rather high on Amazon.

This was immediately followed by the publication of Joyous Haggadah: A Children and Family Cartoon Haggadah, which continued to lay the groundwork for including children, and pulling them back and towards the seder table.

More haggadot continued to get published over the next decade that specifically targeted children, tweens, and teens, but the years 2017-2019 experienced an explosion of creativity and inclusivity.

These were, by my count and opinion: The excellent The (unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah, The all-encompassing Welcome to the Seder: A Passover Haggadah for Everyone, the fully-inclusive The Kveller Haggadah: A Seder for Curious Kids (and their Grownups), and the gobsmackingly- beautiful The Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel.

Each of these mightily served further to invite and urge and welcome the entire family back to the seder table, with eagerness aroused by the new creative expressions they could hold in their hands and inhale with wonder while the master of ceremonies carried on with his duties.

Into this window of opportunity, I like to think that my The Emoji Haggadah helped to usher this movement along. My purpose was the same that had been established with the rest of the excellent new expressions: get that seder table brimming again, and the family talking, and enjoying, and geshmak-ing. The Emoji Haggadah still does very well, and it remains – as of this writing – the first, and still only, book written entirely in emoji. If that doesn’t get your children’s attention, perhaps my next three haggadot will.

I then published The Festivus Haggadah, targeting Gen X’s interest, and, surprisingly, Gen Y, who love Seinfeld and Friends, for some wildly inexplicable reason that escapes me.

I then published The Coronavirus Haggadah, because humanity needed comic relief in a bad way.

Finally, I wrote The Shakespeare Haggadah specifically for teenagers and college youth, because, in my view, they remain the most underserved market for haggadot. The adults have been catered to for almost a millennium; the children for at least a decade and half; let’s do something for our teens.

I have more haggadot in the works, and the answer to the original question posed is now very simple, after all this has been explained. The sum of the matter is: I write parody haggadot to enrich everyone’s seder, to promote inclusion for everyone, to foster family harmony, and to create a fun, loving atmosphere for my Jewish people, to the best of my ability and the talent given me.

Chag kasher v’sameach!

Mar­tin Bodek is the author of The Emo­ji Hag­gadahThe Fes­tivus Hag­gadahThe Coro­n­avirus Haggadah, the recent­ly re-pub­lished The Shake­speare Hag­gadah, several future haggadot and seven oth­er books.

3.

It's been an amazing season for me, as you can imagine. The Festivus Haggadah continues to benefit from its natural dual-holiday sales seasons (Festivus/Passover), The Coronavirus Haggadah still supplies comic relief, and The Emoji Haggadah is showing up in bookstores all over Israel (I know because friends keep sending "shelfies" with the book).

I'm thankful; I'm grateful; I feel accomplished.

I'd like to use this positive energy to wish you and yours an enriching and enervating, wonderful and winsome, innovative and imaginative, uplifting and upbeat, meaningful and memorable, invigorating and inspiring, familial and fantastic chag sameach.

4.

P.S. Haggadah season is a wonderful diversion, but once Passover is over, I'm going to throw myself into continuing to push Zaidy's War into the public consciousness. It's my most serious and most important work.

It's done well out of the gate, with excerpts appearing in Jew in the City, Aish.com, and FJJ, reviews pending in The Jewish Press among other outlets, more reviews on Amazon and Goodreads than I've received for any of my previous work, blogger and TikTok reviews, and talks in interesting places. I'm scheduled to speak to 5th and 6th graders on Yom Hashoah, and I'm looking forward to the meaningful experience.

So, thank you for making it this far, and I'd like to please ask you, if I may, to a) send me pics of my haggadot if they happen to adorn your seder table b) review my books online once this crazy season is over, and c) consider/recommend me as a speaker for fun things like haggadot, and serious things like Zaidy's War.

Thank you very much!

-Martin (Mordechi) Bodek