The Holocaust – a side order to everything

As the world commemorates International Holocaust Day, one Israeli-American reveals how for her, the Holocaust remains a constant companion.
Yotvata is the 24-hour cafe next door to my hotel and my second home in Tel Aviv in the wee hours of the morning when I can’t sleep. It’s a dairy restaurant, a chain, with all the milk coming from Kibbutz Yotvata near Eilat, established in 1957.

The young adults who work here are saving for their post-military dance-a-thons in Goa, India, treks in Nepal, beach parties in Thailand and rainforest off-roading in South America. This morning, the new one asks me if I want some Holocaust with my shakshuka, a glorious hot pot of tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggs and spices. I tell her its ok to leave it off, I’ve had enough Holocaust.

Except it turns out she was practicing American style politeness where you seek approval for things that already are and can only be.

I figure this since she brings my side order of Holocaust anyway, saying that it comes with the shakshuka. I tell her not to put it down that I will change my order in that case to an Israeli breakfast. She says not to bother, for the Holocaust comes on the side with every dish, with every meal, with every customer, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for the past 60 years. If I want to eat here in my beloved cafe so close always open so good and always fast I must accept it.

And that’s how it is here in Israel.

The Holocaust comes as a side to absolutely everything. You can’t say “Hold the Holocaust.” You can’t get around or get over it. You can’t avoid it, reject it or deny it. If you want to live here that is, truly live and not be a tourist.

The bi-coastal techie

Uzi. That’s his name. You know like the submachine gun. The “Uzi” was named after Uziel Gal, a captain in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) who designed it during the 1948 war. And this name, Uzi, was and is a common one here. So it’s the man’s name that came first. It’s not like the Israelis started naming their children after a submachine gun.

In the year since the passing of his father, Uzi has been on a mission to find his missing uncle. You see, it was known that this uncle had escaped from the Nazis and was alive after the war and resettled in Israel just like Uzi’s father. This uncle was known to be the only person from his father’s family who also survived the Holocaust. It’s just that for reasons left unsaid, and hence unknown, his father chose not to search for his brother. So out of respect for his father’s wishes, Uzi waited. He waited 33 years until his father died and he could start the search himself for his uncle. Uzi hoped he wasn’t too late.

The Israeli classic

Bald, hot, bright, alpha-male, works hard during the day moving money around the globe. He likes to “live the good life” as he puts it. This includes chatting it up and drinking on the beaches of Tel Aviv at night. He’s not so laid back as you would think, however. He’s German. For those not in the know, there used to be a large and thriving German Jewish population? in Germany of course.

Before the war, Germany was a bustling cultural and commercial center for Jews. Liberalism in worshipping practices accompanied a revival of Jewish literature and modern Jewish scholarship. Reform Judaism, the type I practice, was invented to allow “enlightened” Jews to continue to take part in Jewish traditions without having to believe in the literal interpretation of the Torah. From the mid-1800s until the Nazis arrived, Jews enjoyed close to legal equality with other Germans. Great fortunes arose from banking in families such as the Rothschilds, the Warburgs and the Schiffs.

Our Israeli came from one of these banking families, under whose guidance money was moved around the globe, before the war. His grandfather moved to the land of Israel out of Zionist passion. He told his fiancé that he would get settled and send for her, once his finances arrived. His finances never came and the woman was never seen nor heard of again. Eventually the grandfather married another woman and raised a family.

I think how proud of his grandson this man must be now, for our Israeli has grown up big and strong and is once again continuing the family tradition of moving money around the globe.

The peacemaker

Intensity is the hallmark trait of the former New York Yeshiva boy turned Middle East kingpin for peace. His soft-spoken style and gentle manner belies a consuming drive and high ambition. He runs a website that promotes conversations between Jews and Palestinians, along with anyone else who wants to talk peace. He meets with government ministers, speaks at conferences, coordinates rallies and speaks out against violence. He immigrated to Israel four years ago and has 20 more to go before reaching his goal of Middle East Peace.

His grandmother was living with her family in a small town in Europe when the trouble began. Her father was shot and killed. When the Nazis came for the rest of the family, her mother’s quick thinking saved her life. As the Nazis divided the Jews of the town into those whose labor made them worth keeping, and those whose lives were not considered valuable, this 16-year-old girl was initially shoved into the wrong line along with her mother and little sister. Her mother pushed her back and said to the Nazi: “Please sir, someone needs to cook and care for him”, pointing towards her older brother who was in the right line. It worked and her life was spared.

She ended up hiding out with an older man who would later become her husband in a hole dug out of the ground for the duration of the war. Eventually, they immigrated to New York City, where they built a clothing business together. But his grandfather always wanted to come to Israel. So at age 90, three years ago, he made the move.

Bless him, this Nazi. For his decision to allow one girl to move into the right line begot a daughter who writes about children of Holocaust survivors, and a grandson who promotes peace.

The party-boy

He has been spotted at every major party I’ve been to in Tel Aviv for the past six months. His flamboyant hats and mischievous grin are impossible to miss. The consummate flirt from Texas, I took him for a rather casual character.

Recently, I discovered that The Partier organizes parties as a volunteer side job with his day role being running a start up. He told me that these parties are fundraisers for Holocaust survivors. In other words, scanty clad young Israelis and associated travelers go drinking, dancing, smoking, kissing, hooking up and generally “carrying on” as my grandfather would put it, all in the name of Holocaust survivors?

Don’t get me wrong, there is no time that is a bad time to raise funds for such a worthy cause. It just seemed??.off. So I asked him if he knew any Holocaust survivors. “Yeah,” he said. “My family. At least those that survived.”

The Tel Avivian

The Tel Avivian has two Jewish parents but adamantly denies he is a Jew. He has lived in Israel his whole life but adamantly denies he is a Zionist. He dislikes Silicon Valley but stayed there long enough to receive funding and an exit that fuels his daily afternoons at the beach. He told me more about his experiences in a military intelligence unit than I know he should have told me so I have forgotten them.

Our Tel Avivian has a family that appears to have materialized only mid-century. Nothing before. He has four grandparents. All alive. Each arrived after the war. Alone. There is a word used for these Holocaust orphans but I cannot find it. Many had to be smuggled into Israel on ships, sneaking by the naval blockade set up by our wonderful British friends who didn’t seem to see that there was something truly inhuman about stopping Holocaust survivors from getting to Israel after the war.

The Tel Avivian can talk to me about just about anything, although mostly we end up on topics few Americans would consider discussing with anyone other than their therapist. He can tell me how each of his grandparents picked up shovels and literally built this country from scratch. But he cannot talk to me about these four individuals’ lives prior to their arrival in Israel. I do not know where they are from, or what happened to their families. At this point, I like it better that way.

Imagine living and working with, not the ancestors, but the close relatives of those individuals headlining at Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem museum and memorial to the Holocaust. Not the overwhelming unknown unidentified blur of six million Jews, but people whom you know and love.

The citizens of Israel don’t talk about the Holocaust the way I do. The Holocaust for most of the Ashkenazi Jews here is about “my father”, or “my grandmother’s whole family”, or “both of my parents’ families” or “only my mother and her sister”. It’s about “he came here alone”.

Imagine living in a city where the same people in those photos at Yad Vashem, those who were children and teenagers at the time, materialize right in front of you in the wee morning hours as you walk along the Tayelet (Tel Aviv’s three mile long beachfront promenade) with their Philippine aides. If they are at least 70 years old and Ashkenazi looking, chances are probably better than 50-50 that they weren’t in the land of Israel soon enough.

Try to remove the Holocaust from your life in Israel. Go ahead. I dare you. Learning to live with the Holocaust is a critical aspect of learning to live in Israel. And perhaps that is a contributing, unspoken factor for why so many who come here – go home again.

Of the five men profiled, Uzi, the party-boy and the peacemaker are real individuals, while the Tel Avivian and an Israeli classic are real but are each composites of two individuals.

The views expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of ISRAEL21c.

Cinderella and the soldier

Relations between Jewish and Arab Israelis aren’t always what you imagine.They arrived in Akko early that spring morning, an elite IDF paratrooper unit, exploring the narrow stone streets of this ancient seaside city. As part of their rigorous training, they had already learned how to navigate out in the field; now they had to run and navigate in an urban environment. So they found themselves in Akko, a city in which Arabs, Jews and Christians all manage to reside together. The old city walls that surround the port are remnants from the Crusader period. Centuries ago, Akko was the capital of the Latinate Kingdom of Palestine as it was then called. Ships from far-away Genoa, Pisa and Venice sailed into its harbor. Today the port is home only to small, simple fishing boats.

Divided up into groups, the paratroopers started glancing around to get their bearings. Though alike in their olive-green uniforms, with their M16′s casually dangling down their backs, one soldier stood out from the rest of his comrades. His name was Dov, which means ‘bear’ in Hebrew and for him, a most appropriate name. A huge bear of a young man, six foot four without his army boots, his wide shoulders and bulging muscles strained against the fabric of his extra-large uniform. Yet Dov was always cheerful, kind-hearted and popular with his fellow soldiers.

Just then a group of young Arab schoolchildren hurried past, chattering rapidly to one another.

“I wonder what they’re saying?” Yair, one of the soldiers, commented.

“They said if they’re late for school, they will be in trouble,” Dov replied.

“Since when do you know Arabic?” Tali laughed.

“I learned it in school, just like you did,” Dov told him.

“Okay, if you know Arabic so well, go talk to one of those school kids,” Yair challenged, “and we’ll listen into your conversation.”

“Sure,” Dov agreed amiably.

He noticed one tiny girl trailing slightly behind the rest of the schoolchildren. She must have been about five but small for her age, with olive skin and short black hair. A fragile little sparrow of a girl, yet she was spunky too. When this enormous Israeli soldier, whose M16 was almost the same size as she, suddenly squatted down in front of her, she seemed unperturbed. Her dark-bright eyes looked directly into his hazel ones.

“Hello, cutie, how are you today? My name is Dov. What’s your name?” he asked in fluent Arabic, using a soft, friendly tone.

The child smiled but did not reply.

“Let me guess your name then. Is it Fatima?”

The little girl shook her head.

“Could it be maybe, Hanan?”

She giggled. “No.”

“Mm, let me think then… is it Yasmin?”

“That’s my big sister’s name,” the child replied.

Dov’s knowledge of female Arabic names was exhausted. “I give up!” he exclaimed.

“My name is Cinderella,” the child announced proudly.

Dov laughed. “You’re joking! Is your name really Cinderella?”

“Yes,” she insisted. “That’s really my name.”

“Well, Cinderella, it was nice talking to you. Have a good day at school.”

Dov unfolded himself back to his towering height. The child scampered off, down the narrow stone street.

“Well, what do you have to say?” Dov turned to his friends with a smug smile. “Now do you believe I can speak Arabic?”

“I guess you do,” Yair reluctantly admitted.

“Yeah, but you spoke only to a little kid. How hard was that?” Tali challenged.

But Dov was still following Cinderella with his eyes. Perhaps she sensed he was watching her for suddenly she turned, gave a quick grin and a wave of her small hand, whirled round again and smashed her head into a stone wall. She cried out in pain and in an instant Dov was beside her. He scooped her up, examined the bump on her forehead, gently wiped away her tears with his huge hand.

“Cinderella, don’t cry,” he murmured comfortingly. “It’s a big bump but it will feel better soon. I wish I had some ice to put on it. That’s what my mom did for my bumps when I was a little kid.”

Cinderella sniffed. “You bumped your head too?” she asked wonderingly.

Dov laughed. “Sure, my head may be big but I still get my share of bumps. We all do. Tell me, would a candy help your head feel better?” he asked, fishing inside his uniform pocket and offering her the sweet.

She nodded, blinking away her tears, and popped the candy into her mouth.

“Now tell me where your school is, Cinderella, and I’ll take you there.”

She pointed with a tiny finger. “Down that street.”

So Dov, the huge Israeli soldier with the M16 on his back, gently carried his new little friend right to the gate of her school. Both were unaware how incongruous they looked. But to them at that moment it did not matter that he was an Israeli soldier and she was an Arab child, that their peoples were bitter enemies, at war with each other for the same piece of land. Cinderella’s uncle may admire suicide bombers, viewing them as holy martyrs. In her school, she might be taught to hate the man who had so tenderly carried her there. And yet perhaps she would remember him with fondness, as he no doubt would remember her…

The media was totally unaware of this event. CNN was not there to record it, British reporters did not witness the sight, the Peace Now movement was nowhere near. However, this story did come from a very reliable source – my own soldier son, who was there in the narrow streets of ancient Akko early that spring morning.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of ISRAEL21c.

President Obama – a role model for Israel’s Ethiopians

For Israel’s Ethiopian community, Obama’s political success stands as an inspiration that equality and justice for all can be a reality, and not just a slogan.An open letter to President Obama Shalom, on his inauguration as President of the United States.

President Obama Shalom,

Tebeka (“advocate for justice” in Amharic) and the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews are two Israeli non-profit organizations working towards the advancement and full integration of the Ethiopian-Israeli community into Israeli society.

We congratulate you on your election as President of the United States and upcoming inauguration. In our eyes, your election to the most powerful office in the world stands as a symbol to humanity that Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision – judging a person by the content of their character and not the color of their skin – is closer to being attained.

With your rise to the presidency, the eyes of the world are watching your every move. While many will judge your presidency by your political successes and failures, there are still others who will unfortunately not be able to see past the color of one’s skin.

We know that we still have a long way to go. Ethiopian Jews may have returned to their Jewish homeland, but their integration into Israeli society is far from complete. Cultural and language barriers together with stereotypes and racial bias serve as obstacles to full integration. At the same time, the Ethiopian-Israeli community has made great strides towards equality.

As advocates for bringing equality and justice to Israel’s Ethiopian community, we are inspired by your election.

Your shattering of the glass ceiling and political success empowers and serves as an inspiration to all of us working tirelessly to achieve our mission that one day the Ethiopian-Israeli community will break through the racial barriers that still stand before it today, making “equality and justice for all” a reality and not just a slogan.

We wish you the best of luck in your presidency.

With deep respect and admiration.

Itzik Dessie

Executive director


Danny Admasu

Executive Director




Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews

Ashkelon under fire

Israeli city Ashkelon is under constant missile attack by Hamas, but the residents are determined to stand strong. Their deepest desire: a true peace.As the sirens go off and we wait in our shelter to hear the boom of the missiles, we wonder when this will end. For the past eight years there has been constant bombardment of Sderot and the surrounding settlements. This is not about political issues; it is about civilians under extended fire.

In Ashkelon, 122,000 residents have been under fire with little protection. Most homes do not have shelters as they were built in the 1950s and 1960s. The neighborhood shelters are underground and impossible to reach in 30 seconds. Today alone, we have suffered 14 rocket attacks with accompanying physical, psychological and personal damage.

The resolve of our people to stand strong against this onslaught is a direct desire to end a situation where we have to live in fear.

Our children are climbing the walls as they cannot leave their homes. There is no school, and no shopping centers are open. These children are terrorized to the point where even at the ages of six and seven they are wetting their beds. They demand that the light stay on all night, and even then tell of their nightmares the next morning – all this on a daily basis. Our children will need psychological help to overcome their fears of loud noises and sirens.

“I’m not running anymore.”

Our elderly are unable to reach their shelters, even if they have one. They suffer from the ongoing missiles and cannot leave their homes to buy food, get their medicine, or see their doctors. A good friend, who survived five death camps during the holocaust, TB resulting in the loss of a lung, a quadruple bypass, and cancer, sits in his chair and waits for the sirens. He is not moving as it is too difficult. His answer is: “I’m not running anymore”.

The Municipality and the Home Front are doing a great job as far as immediate response to every emergency; however, we are ill prepared in terms of safe rooms and public buildings with secure rooms.

A number of years ago I was involved in building programs and projects on Israel’s northern border (known as the confrontation line). I would watch katyusha rockets hitting the road in front and behind my car. I was fulfilling a Zionist ideological imperative by assisting those in need. Who would have thought that today I would be living in the “new” confrontation line in the south?

The real desire is that this current war comes to an end that provides a strong beginning. We pray for a true peace that can allow us to reach our potential as a people that are involved in developing new medicines, new science and technology. A country that can assist our neighbors in developing their potential as true partners. Can this dream ever become a reality? Herzl said: “If you will it, it need not be a dream”. I think we can sum it up in one word, “tikva” – hope.

Of missiles and chocolate – a tale of weight gain and war

There are those who would say “the first casualty of war is truth,” and there are even those who would say that what Israel is currently undergoing is not a war.

Whatever the case, I am here in Beersheva – on the “almost” frontlines of the conflict with Hamas – to tell you the first thing to go when missiles start to fall nearby, is your diet.

It could be the chemical high of the carbohydrates, or maybe the immediate kick of the sugar. It might even be the emotional pleasure of indulging in the chocolate in a guilt-free environment. I am no scientist, but my first-hand study has shown that when sirens are screaming, particularly if it is the second or third alarm in less than an hour, there is nothing more calming than a bite of fudge-filled chocolate cookie. Particularly when shared with the random gathering of strangers in the nearest bomb shelter.

Maybe it is different for people who are alone with the families in their residential “safe room,” but since I have spent most of the last week at my office at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in the heart of Beersheva, I have had an opportunity to research the dynamics of public shelters. All the more so as my office is on the ground floor, so each new alarm brings in a different collection of random passersby.

For even the toughest among us (and I am pretty tough), find it hard to maintain the stoic façade when faced with the group dynamics of panic and fear. Be it the child crying loudly in the arms of his panting father who has just done the 100 yard dash to the safe room, or the woman hunched in the corner with tears streaming down her face because she “heard the boom,” I have found myself passing out chocolate and cookies, jokes and silly stories. Anything to distract us all from the brutal reality that someone really is trying to kill us. And not just the immediate “us,” but the hundreds of thousands of residents in the cities of Beersheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod, and towns like Sderot, Gedera and everyone else in between.

Israel is not going to go away

According to my understanding of the world, it shouldn’t be this way. Israel left the Gaza Strip over three years ago, offering the Palestinians an opportunity to determine their own future. Unfortunately they chose Hamas, a party that advocates Islamic fundamentalism and a commitment to fight for the destruction of Israel. This agenda can only bring death and destruction as Israel is not going to go away. Nor will we average Israelis accept a reality where the Palestinians can shower a region with missiles and go unscathed.

The Home Front Command has closed all the local sports centers, closed the schools and canceled all afternoon activities. My children are now happily turning themselves into couch potatoes aware that no one will tell them to go outside and play. They are second-generation missile-dodgers: I met my husband in a sealed room during the first Gulf War.

Let me say loud and clear: my neighbors and I are willing to pack on a few pounds if it will mean the ultimate destruction of Hamas’ ability to shoot missiles at us. We are willing to sit in our safe room until the threat of missiles has been eradicated once and for all. (Maybe while Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is in France this week, she can ask for a humanitarian shipment of quality chocolate to make it a bit more bearable…?)

Do not let the images on the news confuse you. Yes, there is suffering in Gaza. But Hamas chose to smuggle in weapons and ammunition to the Gaza Strip when they could have been supplying food, education, and health care to their people, developing their economy and working towards building a future for themselves instead of towards our destruction.

I blame them for my weight gain.

This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.