The more abstract something that happens elsewhere feels to us, the less real it seems.
One of the reasons that Jews around the world felt the barbarism that Hamas assassins inflicted on their victims in southern Israel on October 7 so deeply is because so many Diaspora Jews have connections to Israel. It’s not abstract to us.
We’ve been there. We have relatives or friends there. We cannot imagine the barbarism, but we can imagine the victims. We look at photographs of the victims, smiling at us from storefronts and light posts, and we’re pretty sure that we’ve met them, or their cousins, at least once. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh — all of Israel is responsible for each of us.
Then there’s personal symbolism on top of that.
“It was my 50th birthday,” Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, who leads Temple Emanu-El of Closter, said. “I was born when the Yom Kippur War broke out.
“My mom was almost three weeks overdue with me. She heard about the war, her water broke in shul, and I was born.” That shul was in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. “My birth was intrinsically connected with Zionism”
“So here it is, 50 years later. Just two days before, I had finished saying kaddish for my mother, who died last October. We were getting ready to go on vacation, to celebrate my 50th.
“I woke up looking for a flurry of texts and emails about my birthday, and instead I got a note from a friend of mine who said, ‘I’m sure you heard the news in Israel. I’m in a bomb shelter and they’re telling us not to move. They’re saying that it’s very dangerous.’
“And then I started looking at the news. I turned the TV on.
“I don’t think we even had a clue how serious it was at that point.
“I was filled with angst, fear, worry, frustration. And I just channeled a lot of that into writing.”
That was the start of Rabbi Kirshner’s first book, “Streams of Shattered Consciousness.” He’ll talk about it at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on Wednesday, January 24. (See below.)
The book is made up of blog posts, one for each of the 50 days since
It started because he felt the need to write, and “I also had this obligation to communicate with the congregation. So I wrote something up that was just a stream of consciousness. A stream of my anxiety — I actually called it a stream of anxiety.’
He posted it on his Jewish Standard/Times of Israel website and sent it out to his congregation.
“The next day, none of those worries, fears, anticipations, feelings of betrayal had dissipated,” he said. “Instead, they intensified.
“So I wrote again, and I sent it out to the congregation again, and I put it on my blog again, and I just found that I needed to keep writing.
“I felt almost like I was on autopilot.”
He wrote a blog post every day. “I just needed that catharsis,” he said. “And I was very flattered that people really needed it They used it to channel some of their own emotions, to give context to what they were wrestling with.
“And it became one of the most cathartic parts of my day. It was three hours every day when I wasn’t watching the news. I wasn’t reading the paper. I was just digesting what I had been thinking about that day.”
Every day was different, Rabbi Kirshner said. He wrote at different times of day, and in different places.
“Very little of what I wrote was news reports,” he said. “People can find that elsewhere. I shared a lot of the ethical dilemmas that Israel was facing, that other countries do not face.
“I was at Wannsee, at the gorgeous mansion on the outskirts of Berlin, where the Nazis gathered to put together the Final Solution,” the German government’s plan to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews.
“I wrote about the similarities between the Nazi henchmen eating caviar and drinking fine wine and talking about how to rid the world of Jews, and Hamas leaders in Qatar, eating off gold-encrusted china, planning October 7.
“I’ve written about the conundrum of fighting the war as if there are no hostages, and negotiating for the release of the hostages as if there were no war.”
His book is a largely unedited chronicle of those first 50 days, Rabbi Kirshner said; he decided not to use those blog posts “as the bones of what would become a book, but to actually remind people of the journey that we took.”
There are some threads that he finds woven throughout the book, Rabbi Kirshner continued. “Number one, the arc of history repeating itself. Number two, so many foundations of what we believed were shattered. The foundation of who were our allies and our friends, the foundation of safety and security we felt, the foundation of the state of Israel meaning that the Holocaust would never happen again.
“Those beliefs all were shattered. They all were broken.”
The third thread is “that the book gives a lot of people license to struggle. It gives license for them to wrestle with it. It gives license for them not to know how this is going to end. It gives them license to be scared, because we know that world Jewry is going to change dramatically because of this event.
“We don’t know how it will change. We want to know how — we’re quite impatient, we want to know right now — but this allows us to be unsure.
“It gives people license to wrestle with trauma, to be angry, to be confused, to know that it’s okay to say that we feel betrayed.
Steve Rogers is the CEO of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades; he’s also a member of Temple Emanu-El and is a past president of the shul.
The JCC always offers its authors the opportunity to talk about their new books, Mr. Rogers said; there were two such author talks last year. This is similar — but it’s also very different.
“With those authors, we were celebrating their achievements. This isn’t a celebration.” Instead, he said, it’s an opportunity to listen to Rabbi Kirshner, and to think about what he’s written and what he’s saying.
“Anyone who has followed Rabbi Kirschner’s writings, in the Jewish Standard/Times of Israel over the years knows that he is both a prolific writer and a wonderful writer,” Mr. Rogers said.
He compared himself to Rabbi Kirshner as a writer. “When I’m writing a piece, I literally futz over every word for six months to get something I’m happy with. He comes out with something every week. That’s amazing!”
With “Shattered Streams of Consciousness,” Mr. Rogers thinks that Rabbi Kirshner has written an early history of October 7 and its aftermath.
“It must have been incredibly cathartic for him to write it,” he said. “At first, it’s painful, and the pain is followed by catharsis. Rabbi Kirschner has always been a deep, deep Zionist, a true lover of Israel.
“What I’m now seeing here on the ground is that he’s captured the pain,” Mr. Rogers, who was speaking from Israel, said after a day spent touring the devastation, talking both to officials and to victims and other Israelis. “This is not a one-day or one-week or 50-day event. This is a pain that is going to be with most of us, at least for people of our generation, for the rest of our lives. And that’s the consensus on the ground here in Israel.
“Reading this book will be cathartic, like writing it was for the author. And as far as the Kaplen JCC is concerned, even if Rabbi Kirshner wasn’t a member, even if he wasn’t my rabbi, we would do anything we can that would be cathartic for our community.” That’s why Rabbi Kirshner would have been speaking at the JCC even had he not had his strong ties to it.
The JCC opened on Simchat Torah, the day after the atrocities, although otherwise it would have been closed, “because we wanted to offer a gathering place to Israelis and others who needed to be with other people.” The JCC had six mental health professionals on hand that day as well and has been providing mental health services since then.
“When I read the book, often I shook my head and said to myself, ‘Wow, I wish I could have said that,’ or ‘That’s what I’m thinking,’” Mr. Rogers said.
“It’s an eloquent way to help us all think through exactly what’s going through our minds.”
Who: Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El of Closter and Steve Rogers, the CEO of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly
What: Will talk about Rabbi Kirshner’s new book, “Streams of Shattered Consciousness”
Where: At the Kaplen JCC
When: On Wednesday, January 24, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.
How much: $25; includes a copy of the book
To register or for more information: Go to
jccotp.org and scroll down to “Upcoming Events” or call (201) 569-7900.