Leftovers: Looking to the (Middle) East

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At 91, Aunt Shirley left her Florida condo to move back to Israel. 

She left just days before the most recent, escalating outbreak of the conflict that’s plagued that part of the world for generations. While the timing wasn’t ideal, Aunt Shirley’s move was long overdue: Her immediate family, including her only living child, most of her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren are there. Her husband – my Uncle Nat – and her son Gene are buried there, so her return was natural and expected.

Yakir, my dear cousin Martha’s son, took family leave from his job as an executive chef in Hawaii to coordinate his grandmother’s move and accompany her on the overseas journey. Having previously lived in Israel for decades, Aunt Shirley has dual citizenship and knows the lay of the land.  

It was Aunt Shirley who told me the changes brought about by 9/11 in the United States were child’s play compared to the security measures taken just to see a movie or ride a bus in Israel. Rather than inducing anxiety, she said it was reassuring to feel protected, and a reminder to appreciate life and live large. 

Aunt Shirley and her younger sister, The Betty (my mother, may she rest in peace) were the kind of siblings who shared a closeness brought about by the necessity of their otherness. A little over three years apart in age, “The Fivel Girls” as they were known, were raised in a small town in upstate New York by my grandparents, who kept a Kosher home and went to synagogue weekly, even though it was several miles away. 

Although my grandparents lived out their days in Florida, they were laid to rest back home, in the oldest Jewish cemetery in upstate New York. Removed a bit from the other sections, The Old Orthodox area sits highest on a hill shaded by huge trees and faces east toward Jerusalem. 

The author’s Aunt Shirley, right, and her grandson Yakir Rettig the day before leaving Florida for Israel.

That beautiful, historic cemetery was vandalized twice since my grandmother died; replacing her parent’s headstones was one of the deepest, most impactful sorrows of my mother’s life. It was impossible for that travesty not to work its way into how I view the world around me. 

Which leads to this: Although I’m asked daily, I am not ready, nor perhaps brave enough, to express my deepest thoughts about what is happening now and what should happen in the Middle East.

I struggle with “Who is at fault?” and “Whose land is it, really?” and “What about a two-state nation?,” let alone “It’s great Biden just sent $10 million to Gaza, but why is he really supporting Israel and side-stepping the Palestinian situation?” or “Why has there never been a solution that can be agreed upon?”

Why? Why? Why?

I don’t know.

Just because I’m Jewish doesn’t mean I have answers, or would even respond the way people might expect me to. Like other concerned Americans who believe in humanitarian justice, I have read and reread the historical recaps of the age-old conflict. I suggest others do the same. But take heed: There are no clear-cut answers there, although they do shine light on why this ongoing situation seems so unsolvable. 

What I do emphatically believe is no one should negotiate with known terrorists like Hamas, whose leaders strategically mingle among innocent civilians, knowing the “martyred” death count will rise when the other side defends its right to exist. Especially when my (or anyone’s) 91-year-old Aunt Shirley has spent much of her first week back in Israel in a 6-by-6-foot safe room. Even if she feels protected, I know that’s not her idea of living large.

I’ll also emphatically share that I am devastated every time I hear of the terrible living conditions in Gaza. It’s unacceptable, wrong, and denies people basic human rights. Yet, that part of the world is under Hamas rule, and the borders are closely guarded. I’m sure there’s a proper political science term for it, but the whole thing is a tragic mess. 

As world leaders reach out, hoping for even a temporary stop to the escalation, American Jews are bracing for yet another wave of antisemitism. The seemingly endless conflict in the Middle East plays into divisive politics and the world’s oldest hatred here at home. 

I don’t believe that if someone is pro-Palestinian they must also be anti-Israel or anti-Jewish. And, vice versa. We can and must honor Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland, and still wish for an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people.

I certainly do.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].

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