Reading Virginia Woolf in Jerusalem, 2023

Jerusalem, December 2023. My oldest child, a child of two passports, is 19 years old. Young enough to think that something changes when you turn twenty, old enough to count as an adult. If she were taken hostage, not only would they call her an adult, but she would also be classified as a combatant, although her stripes and beret, her pin, all signify that she serves in the Education Corps. (This is how we think now.) 

And so I am inordinately relieved when she is home for the weekend, beside me, warm on the couch, sleeping, reading. Reading, sleeping. My daughter may be the only soldier currently serving in the Israeli army who is also reading Mrs. Dalloway. She said to me last night, “Septimus killed himself.” She seemed surprised and I could think only of the shocking image of the hero of Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, a book written in homage to Mrs. Dalloway. The hero is sick with AIDS; he sits on a window sill in New York City and he simply allows himself to tumble out. Shock yes, surprise no.   When you are an immigrant, even if you know your second language well, you hear its nuances in a way that a native does not: in Israel, in Hebrew, you don’t say a soldier was killed; you say he “fell,” nafal. What does it mean to fall? It means to have begun upright, strong-backed, vertical. There is some glory in it. It is also active, rather than passive. Almost like a choice. A choiceless choice. As if there were no enemy. As if there were no draft board. As if there were nothing but that soldier himself and a big wide canvas. Against which his fall is solitary. But it isn’t.

So Priya is reading Mrs. Dalloway in this funny pink hardcover edition we picked up in London, meant to look like a classic. My copy was of the 90s. Paperback, Harcourt Brace. I bought it in New York at the same time that I was finding women to model myself on: my professors, Mary Gordon, Celeste Schenck. Feminists who had freed themselves of so many things that still stood in my way. 

They were glamorous to me, even when they did not look glamorous but tired. Glamorous because they had careers and because they wrote. To write was glamorous.  To have an editor, to receive a carton of twenty copies of your newest book that you could give to those you chose; inscribed with ease, as if everyone were a writer who inscribed books, as if it were a thing of everyday, of no moment at all. They hosted dinner parties, Mary had book parties thrown for her. When I was twenty, I was in college. Mrs. Dalloway meant New York, Broadway above the Upper West Side, Barnard College, Columbia University; alma mater, black shoes I bought in the Village, with a big buckle, Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf. Woolf was difficult. So associative. So sure of herself. Her world was not one I understood. But I knew that she was the female artist one studied if one wanted to know about women and writing. Mary Gordon told me that she wanted to write her PhD thesis on Woolf and that the cadre of male professors who got to decide such things in the seventies had told her that her subject did not have enough heft. Stones give more heft, I guess.

Wearing soft pajamas while her army uniform dries, Priya reads Mrs. Dalloway. Is she surprised that Septimus, “who wasn’t Septimus any longer,” cannot continue living after the war he has seen, the war he has fought, the war in which he has lost his friend? His wife is all alone with him in London; her hand has grown too thin for her marriage band. She sits in the park, as solitary as a person can be. Septimus, though, knows the secret he has learned in the War: that the world is loathing, hatred, despair. That human beings have no kindness and no charity. There, in Italy, after the armistice, he married in a panic when he realized that he could no longer feel. He could not feel anything. He could not taste. Beauty was a shell. Time was a husk.

“The last shells missed him. He watched them explode with indifference.”

Septimus. Septimus. Just your name is an anchor for me. Virginia Woolf thought you up so I could say your name today and be assured that time passes. That old aches get names to tag them. 

I look at my old copy on the shelf. It has moved from New York to Philadelphia to Ann Arbor to Jerusalem. City to city, town to town, withstanding the hell whipping around it, giving us names. 

Roey Elias. Last night, I drove my my sixteen-year-old, Shai, through really bad rain and lots of fog, back to his  gym in Yavneh. Shabbat had ended at 5: 19 in Jerusalem and they had practice in Yavneh at 8: 30, so at 7 we set out. I picked up Shai’s  teammate  at the bus stop by the Arena, lots of fans streaming in for a Beitar Jerusalem game. I have no love for Beitar Jerusalem because they are notorious for some violently racist fans. 

But when I saw crowds braving the rain in their yellow and black gear, I thought that someone we knew, Ben Zusman, z’l, had been, as a child, a fan of Beitar Jerusalem before he switched his alliances to red and black, Hapoel. I know this, because after he “fell” a few weeks ago in Gaza at age 23, there were childhood photos of him on Facebook and in one, his face was painted yellow and black. Shai came home for that funeral. And a week or so later, the newspapers printed a “will,” he had left in which he told his parents that if they got his letter, it would mean something had happened to him, but that he had no regrets, that it had always been his dream to protect his beautiful land and its people, to merit to guard Jerusalem. He told them that he was doing exactly what he wanted to be doing. He added that if, God forbid, he were taken captive, living or dead, that he did not want a single person, soldier or citizen, to risk their life to try to save him, that he did not want any prisoner traded for his freedom, and he asked his parents please not to go against his wishes on this matter. (Children know their parents.) He told them not to sink into grief. 

I was thinking all this when we picked up Shai’s friend at the bus stop. I had planned to go to the rally in Tel Aviv on behalf of the hostage families. I was thinking, too, that the only thing I would have allowed to stand in my way was taking care of my actual kids, who by sheer luck are not hostages, who are given to me to protect and keep safe and love. We drove through the bad weather, my hands tight on the steering wheel, and I was aware that Shai is now learning to drive. I thought to myself, how many hours of driving have I clocked. I thought of a road trip from Michigan to New York when Priya was less than three months old. We were going to a wedding on our way to New York for the summer. The rain was coming down against the windshield so hard that we couldn’t see anything ahead of us, so loud that we could hear nothing. There was no way to stop and no way to see. Carseat backward- facing in the back seat, just like the security protocols demanded, the two of us up front. The intense focus not to skid, not to speed, not to slow, to keep doing exactly what we were doing so as to avoid harm. Not to fall. 

I drove Shai and his friend, and thought to myself, he can take all these lessons but in the end, he needs good luck from the drivers around him, and he needs life experience. He needs practice driving in the rain. I know how to drive in rain in part because I also know how to drive in snow. I know how to drive in Israel, because I drove in America. I am a woman of two nations behind the wheel. I wanted to give him a few snow lessons, there and then. How you brake, how you turn, black ice, sleet, whiteouts. A few good snow lessons might protect a person from the bravado of other drivers. Snow humbles you. And it’s good to be humble behind the wheel. 

We got to Yavneh safely. I dropped them off. I could feel Shai’s reluctance to begin the week, to be away from home for five long days in the dorm. And then, an hour later, already back home in Jerusalem, as I parked, I checked my phone. The dorm director had sent a message to all the parents: an alum of the basketball academy and the Ayanot youth village had “fallen” over shabbat in Gaza. Roey Elias. He graduated high school two years ago. I gathered from the message that rather than pursuing a professional sports career, he had been drafted to the army and then found himself in a war. 

These were awful tidings. 

I thought about Roey Elias and I thought about basketball. Teenagers like him,   who go to the basketball academy, dream about their future. Their dreams are powerful enough to get them up   five days a week before 6am.  They practice before school. Then they practice again after school. , They play games around the country. They live away from the comforts of home. They complete all their school assignments. Student-athletes. But they aren’t vying for places in college basketball. In Israel, when they graduate high school, they can compete to be classified “outstanding athletes” which becomes an  alternative army assignment, another way to represent the nation..  Yet among those who succeed in   qualifying, some choose, nevertheless to serve in combat units, on ethical grounds. Why should others risk their lives while they pursue their dreams? they think. .  I know, to my pride and horror, that Shai thinks this. He reasons that he is an ideal soldier:  he is in outstanding physical shape, he has discipline to spare. He knows how to lead, he is intensely committed to the group, he has learned to weather disappointment and setback, and he has the drive to win. Transferrable skills, no?. 

Roey Elias trained in basketball but his court became Gaza. I  know almost nothing of his story except that he wanted to get back to playing basketball after his army service, that he regularly returned to visit the youth village when he had time off, to see the younger players and encourage them . Right now, literally in these moments as I type, his parents are burying him in his moshav of Tzofar, not far from Mitzpeh Ramon. I hope it is not raining there. I hope it is dry and warm. What I know about kids in basketball at high levels is that, usually, their parents believed in them. Usually, their parents were willing to sacrifice time, money, and realistic expectations, so that their child could do something he loved and something that gave him hope for the future and a vision of himself in the world. In motion. Always in motion. 

I searched Roey’s name on Facebook before the news had published his name as one of the fourteen fallen soldiers of this last weekend. That night the news had been delivered to his family, and from them it had traveled to his friends and community. Only at noon the next day did it become public information. Facebook isn’t the social media site for most kids around 20, but there were five or six pictures from the last three years. Two of him in uniform from this past summer, a child no longer. Before that, there he was, in the same uniform Shai now wears, Elitzur Yavneh, blue and yellow. Just a kid mugging for the camera, in a group hug after a game they clearly won, then a photo of him with a torn basketball net slung around his neck. Goofy, sweet. Some photos of him outside on a moshav or back at the youth village. And a few of the shots these sports kids love, some friend’s brother having caught them in perfect form as they go up for a layup or shoot a free throw. For every photo he had posted, I have my own version with Shai in his place. 

I sat in the car after I got the message. The dorm director asked parents to wait til they shared the news with the kids, wait until the school social worker was on hand. 

Here is death, in the middle of our party.


Ilana Blumberg is author of the prize-winning Houses of Study: a Jewish Woman Among Books, and Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American.  She teaches at Bar Ilan University.