Six mothers whose sons are deployed in the Israeli army share the sounds of war from the intimate perspective of a mother
ith the siren’s first wail on Simchas Torah morning, the Jewish nation was catapulted into an altered reality of shock, horror, and dread. In the ensuing days and weeks, as millions of Jews across the globe acclimated to a new — utterly abnormal — normal, a select demographic embarked on an altered reality all their own. They are the mothers whose sons donned uniforms and military gear, and, in the morning hours of Simchas Torah, headed to battle.
Rosie, Mimi, Ruchie, Penina, Nechama, and Leora live in the same cohesive religious Anglo community in Central Israel. Each has at least one son or son-in-law serving in the army; most have more. On a late Wednesday afternoon, they gather at Penina’s home to share their encounter with mothering under fire.
Simchas Torah morning unfolded with uncanny similarity for these women.
“We were walking to shul, and suddenly we hear the booms, and we say, okay, something must be going on. And then the next thing we know, someone’s standing on the street and says, ‘Tomer was called up!’ and it became very clear that something was happening,” begins Nechama.
“We have five boys, bli ayin hara, and four are currently serving as combat soldiers,” Leora shares. “All of them were called up, but at that point on Simchas Torah morning, I didn’t know that. All I knew was that one son was the senior officer in charge of his base in the south, on a kibbutz adjacent to the Gaza strip,” and here she pauses, “together with his wife and child.”
Nechama interjects, “Leora, you still knew something, I saw you at the shul kiddush and you had a look… I still remember that look.”
Nechama continues, “But then in our shul, one after another kids start showing up in uniform and saying, ‘Goodbye, Mom.’ ”
Rosie picks up the thread. “We were in Yerushalayim for yuntiff, and while we were in shul, a guy runs in and says, ‘You guys are sleeping! Anyone who’s in miluim, run home and get ready!,’ ” she recounts, her disbelief still evident. “And then we go out, and we see lots of young married men getting in their cars, saying goodbye to their wives and babies, and going!”
Leora witnessed the same incongruousness in her neighborhood: “I was outside, and the only cars I saw were young men in uniform or young men wearing white Shabbos shirts, driving away,” she says. “It was like the Yom Kippur War, which I remember, because I was here as a young child. That’s what the feeling was, something terrible is happening.”
“People started walking into shul and calling, ‘I have to go, I have to go!” Nechama recalls.
Watching hordes of young men heading for battle, acutely aware their sons and sons-in-law were going as well, made the tension unbearable.
In less than 24 hours Leora confronted the impossible reality of mothering multiple soldiers. “My third son, the one in charge of his base over yuntiff, was shot on the first day of the war,” she begins. “He’s baruch Hashem okay, but they went through an absolute nightmare. My daughter-in-law and granddaughter were in the command center on the base, listening to the terrorists on the roof above them while my son was outside fighting. By eight in the morning he’d been shot, but he couldn’t stop. He had the members of the kibbutz, his soldiers, and his wife and young daughter to protect.” She pauses for a moment, remembering. “We didn’t hear from them until many hours after yuntiff. It was terrifying.”
Leora and her husband couldn’t afford to linger at their injured son’s bedside, post-surgery. They raced from the hospital to pick up son number two from the airport; he’d flown in from America to join his unit, leaving his wife and children behind. Yet another son immediately joined his reserve unit; her youngest was sent directly to the South.
“It’s a feeling of absolute terror,” Leora says. “I don’t think anyone who’s not involved firsthand can comprehend it. Everyone can feel the feelings of horror when hearing the stories secondhand. But the terror of not knowing where your child is at any moment, even more so multiple children….” She shakes her head. “And this has been ongoing.”
Mimi adds, “The reality of religious families with children in the army is that you don’t have only one child in, but several, because we have more kids!”
Stone in Your Heart
One of the most frequently asked questions, prosaic during peacetime, now triggers a tornado of emotion: How are you?
“Don’t ask, that’s the worst question,” Penina, who has six boys — both sons and sons-in-law — in the army, asserts. The others instantly concur.
Nechama, tongue in cheek, offers her patent response: “Well, besides the fact that I can’t sleep and I can’t focus and there’s an existential threat, I guess all right.”
“There’s a pause after you get asked that,” says Mimi. “So what do you answer?”
“Shlomi k’shlom ami,” a few respond in unison. I am as my nation is.
Their reflexive response mirrors our nation’s peril.
“It’s only a few minutes a day that I don’t feel my insides shaking,” Rosie shares, to fervent nods. “I think I lost four kilo [about nine pounds] since this started. I can’t eat, I can’t even finish a banana.”
“At three twenty in the morning my eyes are open, because — sleeping? There’s no sleeping,” Leora says. The others murmur in agreement.
“Within our workplace, it’s easy to identify who has a child in the army,” Ruchie says. “We share this unspoken connection, a glance that speaks volumes. And then there’s the brain fog….” She pauses, the others acknowledging the familiar struggle with nods of understanding.
“The level of emotion is just so high,” Nechama agrees.
“It’s walking around with a stone in your heart,” Penina adds softly. “You wake up with the stone, you go to sleep with the stone, something’s wrong all the time.” Her tone stiffens with resolve. “You live from moment to moment. It’s so, so, hard.”
You Can’t Knock
For this cohort, the stakes are too high to feel differently. With children deployed on both the northern and southern fronts and scant information filtering in, they’ve learned to garner information on their children’s safety by reading between the lines.
Ruchie describes the bald fear in knowing where your child is stationed and hearing reports of a rocket strike or a fierce battle at his location — but being unable to contact him. “You just want them to send you a message, to just say, ‘Hi,’ but often they don’t have their phones with them.”
She’s learned to decipher ambiguous media statements. The other day she heard reports of a strike that, proximity-wise, could have endangered her child. “But it didn’t say ‘ein nifgaim — no wounded.’” She inferred that the inverse was true — that indeed there were wounded, but she had no way of knowing if her son was among them.
“When you hear ‘kravot azim — heavy fighting,’ you know that means there are soldiers injured or dead, but they can’t tell you yet, they’re setting you up for it,” Leora expounds. “They’re giving you a warning but can’t say more because they haven’t told the families yet. And then you hear which units were hit, and you say, ‘I have a son in that unit! I have two sons in that unit!’”
For these women, it’s living the minutiae of life amid updates like these, vacillating between the everyday tasks, Tehillim, volunteering, and work, while wondering if your child or neighbor was chalilah one of the “nifgaim” in the current rocket strike. It’s Penina’s assertion of “living moment to moment” that characterizes their day.
In a voice clogged with tears, Mimi depicts the incarnation of their worst nightmares. “Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and I heard a loud banging—” But here she stops, too overwhelmed to continue. It takes a moment for her to collect herself. “I thought they were at my door!”
“The knock on the door,” Ruchie explains gently, her voice brimming with empathy.
A nondescript knock at the door assumes sinister connotations for mothers of soldiers. When army officials inform the family of a soldier’s death, lo aleinu, they can arrive at all hours of the day or night, and in lieu of the doorbell, they apply a distinctive, powerful, knock at the door. This is a sound that portends tragedy, and these women have learned to avoid anything like it at all costs.
“You don’t knock on the door,” Nechama says decisively.
Leora adds, “You always phone first, or call out from the doorway, ‘I’m heeere!’”
Even the most everyday of sounds evolve into powerful triggers when your child is fighting at the front.
Leora recounts an incident involving her youngest son, who received unexpected leave in the middle of the night. Leora and her husband picked him up at his base before dawn and deposited him safely in bed for some much-needed rest. Later she got a phone call that opened with, “Hello, are you the mother of….” For a split second her heart stopped, assuming the worst. But to Leora’s utter relief, the caller uttered the name of her youngest, the one she’d ferried home earlier that morning, who was blessedly sleeping peacefully in his bed.
Something as innocuous as rain can generate worry and panic for mothers of soldiers. While the rest of the country moved into winter mode with the first substantial downpour of the season, fretting over boots and umbrellas and waterproof coats, these women were concerned. How were their kids navigating the cold, the mud, the wetness that leaches into your bones? Were they outdoors, slipping through the sodden terrain on a military mission? Or sitting outside on guard duty for hours without shelter, rain obscuring their vision? Or perhaps expected to return enemy fire through torrential sheets of wind and wet?
Sending Positivity to Gaza
Remarkably, they all concur on one thing. When they asked their offspring how they managed in the storm, every one of their kids responded with a blanket “Hakol beseder — everything is fine.” “I believe they received specific guidance on responding this way,” Ruchie says.
“They don’t want to worry us,” the women acknowledge.
Putting on a brave face isn’t just a job for their sons; it’s a bilateral undertaking.These mothers invest significant energy in maintaining their family’s morale and are especially vigilant when speaking with their children who are serving.
“I remember the first Friday night of the war,” Rosie relates, “and the mood in the house was terrible, everyone was crying. My older daughter gets up and says, ‘Enough!’ I was wearing my usual Friday night robe, but when she said that, I ran upstairs and changed into a simchah dress. I came down and said, ‘Yalla!’ We spent hours singing and dancing.”
She continues, “The first time my sons came home on leave they took a look around and said, ‘This is terrible!’ My husband hadn’t shaved, his hair was overgrown, and my boys said, ‘What’s going on here? You guys have to be positive!’”
She shares a gem she heard at a shiur: “You have to embody so much positivity, that your kids feel it all the way to Gaza! If you’re crying the whole time, they’re going to feel it! Send that warmth and light over to them. When they come home, they need to see the house is functioning and taken care of.”
When Leora’s son called home his first question was, “Mah matzav ha’oref — How is the home front?”
“Not how is the family, but ‘How is the home front?’” Leora repeats. “If you’re okay, we’re okay.”
Rosie chimes in: “We are the battery, we’re the engine.”
Their children, the ones still at home, and those who are fighting, have repeatedly told their mother, “We need you to be strong. You want to cry, cry somewhere else.”
The burden these women carry is onerous. They are the emotional barometer for their families, the “adults in the room,” and breaking in moments of panic or uncertainty is not a luxury they can afford. So when do they indulge themselves in the most natural of human emotions, tears?
“I made a list for myself of the places I cry,” Leora says. “There was one common denominator: Anywhere there’s no other people. In the shower, in the car, in my backyard, on the deck, but certainly not when my kids are around.”
Nechama will cry in the bathroom at work, but even there she takes care to erase the signs before resuming her duties.
Rosie’s youngest will hear her mother sigh and advise, “Ima, cry, it’s the zeyah (sweat) of the neshamah.”
A Mother’s Worry
All six women shared concerns for their children’s emotional well-being, particularly considering the grisly battle scenes they inevitably witness.
“I’m 100 percent worried about their mental health,” Nechama avows. “What all these kids have seen and done and what they’re going through….” She leaves the statement hanging, but the other women know enough to fill in the blanks.
Rosie’s son exacted a solemn promise from her. After his second day in the South, he’d seen enough to text his mother, “Ima, promise me you will never ever look at the news.”
She may not have seen the news, but her son’s battle time experiences can’t simply be deleted. “I know what he’ll need afterward.”
Sometimes, having a sibling serving alongside one can be a liability. Leora describes a heart-stopping scenario that transpired between her two sons. “One son was in a tank with a senior officer, so he heard all the radio communication between the tanks and the infantry operating nearby. Suddenly he hears his brother’s voice on the airwaves saying, ‘We’re under heavy fire,’ but there’s nothing he can do about it. He’s not allowed to make a move without his commander’s directive, and he can’t say or do anything to help his brother. He said he didn’t breathe for a few hours until he heard his brother declare, ‘It’s over.’ ”
Most of their sons have lost comrades, some more than one. They mourn close friends. Leora’s son walked in the kitchen one day and said, “My yeshivah just lost another boy.”
“I said, ‘That’s terrible, did you know him?’ He said, ‘Yeah, of course I knew him, he was in my year,’ and walked out of the kitchen.”
Leora’s maternal instinct kicked in. She followed him out and continued, “How well did you know him?”
“Well, he was my roommate for a year and a half.”
Nechama jumps in. “And what are you supposed to say? You’re not supposed to say, ‘That’s so awful’ — What do you say?”
Rosie’s son was nearly tasked with identifying a friend who’d been killed in battle. He had a last-minute reprieve, but she wonders how he could have emerged from that encounter whole.
Leora makes a chilling point: “One of the most horrible things I witnessed with my boys wasn’t the funerals they attended, but the funerals of friends they missed, because they couldn’t leave the battlefield.”
The women worry for their daughters and daughters-in-law, wives with young children, whose husbands have been away for too long.
“There’s a support group in Beit Shemesh for wives of soldiers,” Penina shares. “But we worry — forget about for ourselves — we worry about our kids, about our daughters who are managing on their own.”
They’ve become impromptu trauma managers, with their own children their main clientele.
Their concerns extend to younger children still at home. Many have friends who have lost siblings, and they have attended too many funerals for children their age. Rosie saw behaviors in her children she’d never witnessed before: Kids who’d never raised their voices were yelling; she found another child lying on the floor crying.
And their husbands need them as well. “It’s the first time I found myself having to be strong for my husband,” Rosie muses.
These women are indeed their family’s battery. And they can’t outsource their responsibilities to another power source. How do they keep going?
Some women joined a local Zumba group; others hike to serene lookout spots. Nechama finds that her work as a physician keeps her sane, as well as learning regularly. Penina goes on peaceful early morning walks.
Leora volunteers outdoors, harvesting fruit and vegetables which, in the absence of workers, remained in the fields, unpicked. It was here, in the field, that Leora recalls the first time she laughed since the war began. “And I remember it because it was like, ‘Wow! I haven’t done this in a while!’” The memory is so entrenched, she can pinpoint the coordinates: “It was the third week of the war, and I was picking pomegranates.”
For many mothers, helping out with their grandchildren while their daughters and daughters-in-law parent solo, is therapeutic. Penina wheels a grandchild during her morning excursions, as much to give her daughter a few extra minutes of sleep as for her own well-being. Most of them have children who’ve moved back home with their families in the interim; some have multiple move-ins. Emptier nests have refilled and their households have unexpectedly grown exponentially.
They have learned to shop for their expanded brood, stocking up on diapers and formula, and shopping for the foods and brands their grown children need. They’ve also taken on other tasks usually reserved for their husbands, like resolving car issues.
“So it’s not just that we’re going to work, running our home, doing chesed, worrying for our kids,” Nechama say, “We’re also pinch-hitting for the fathers who can’t be here right now.”
That includes caring for toddlers, waking up at night to help with newborns, and babysitting all day long. In fact, as Penina hosts a living room full of friends, her sweet ten-month-old grandson crawls about, playing with the box of toys she stocks for him. She excuses herself to put him down for a nap, and when she’s unsuccessful, prepares and feeds him a bottle instead.
A busy pediatrician, Penina rearranged her schedule to accommodate her daughter’s childcare needs. All the women had busy lives before the war — most are professionals with full working schedules — yet they’ve all willingly recalibrated their multiple responsibilities to welcome and nurture their married children.
The neighborhood has stepped up to fill the gap. Leora describes the teenage girls who ran a daily shul-based playgroup, a mis’chakiyah, for all the grandchildren, so the mothers and grandmothers could have a little break. “The neighborhood is full of grandchildren!” she says. “But the grandmothers need a break. We’re not as young as we once were.”
“It was a real lifesaver for the young mothers,” Mimi says. “They not only had some help with the kids, but it was therapeutic for them to gather together and talk to the other wives.”
Mimi invited a friend who’s been hosting her two daughters and their children for a Shabbos meal. “She almost cried, she was so happy to be off. She’s exhausted!”
Ruchie shares a story that typifies the spirit of stepping up. “During one of our visits to the mis’chakiyah with our grandchildren, an unexpected siren blared, and suddenly, Penina and I found ourselves running with our grandchildren, our hearts pounding, toward the nearest shelter. Amid the chaos and the frightened little faces, I felt a surge of responsibility. I have to be there for them. I have to be the grown-up, I realized. So in that shelter, surrounded by worried children, I took a deep breath and started to sing, “The Wheels on the Bus.” It turned a moment of fear into one filled with the comforting power of song. The kids not only joined in but became remarkably good at it.”
“They were better than I was,” Penina sheepishly admits.
Do They Understand?
Beyond their herculean daily struggles, the mothers interviewed shared a particularly distressing facet of their experience. They feel that women who live in other communities, friends and relatives, clients and patients, and especially people overseas, seem to be somewhat removed from the reality of the war. True, they are davening and donating, but they can’t begin to wrap their heads around the grueling experiences of people like Penina, Ruchie, Rosie, Leora, Mimi, and Nechama.
“People would rather not know. They’re sleeping at night. We’re not sleeping,” Rosie says.
Is it that outsiders can’t relate, one woman wonders, or that they don’t want to relate? Perhaps they’d rather avoid having to digest the grittier aspects of this conflict and prefer to sidestep the sobering daily realities of people like these women.
“Anyone who says, ‘That’s going on in Israel, that’s not me,’ that’s way wrong,” Nechama says. “Israel isn’t just a vacation venue. It’s our home.”
Ruchie found that she needed to step away from some WhatsApp chats that seemed too far removed from the reality of her day-to-day life. When she told a friend that she was taking a break because she needed a more supportive environment, her friend replied, “I’m so embarrassed, it’s terrible what I did, I’m so sorry.”
“I so appreciated her response,” Ruchie says. “I just wanted to know that there was awareness of what’s going on, even though I know everyone is busy in their own life. And I understand.”
Mimi interjects, “I think people are very far removed… It’s hard for them to understand what we’re going through.”
Rosie points out that there are many people who are truly in sync with her reality, “My sister in England, when she davens for my sons who are fighting, will accidentally say X ben her own name, instead of mine — that’s how interconnected she is. And she is both geographically and ideologically removed from my situation. But she’s absolutely with me.”
Mimi adds, “It really gives me chizuk to know that when we’re asleep, and some of the worst fighting is happening, in America they’re awake and davening.”
“In the beginning of this war we were in such a bad place as a nation, so to me it’s about cheshbon hanefesh,” Nechama says. “We all try to do what we believe is the right thing, but we should do a real cheshbon hanefesh and evaluate what we are supposed to be doing as a people, as an individual, as a family, as a society.” She sees a message in the chesed initiatives of the community. “Everyone does what they can, in the areas they excel, and then push to do a little more.”
“Just listen more,” Ruchie says. “Achdut. Where everyone listens to one another, even to people you disagree with.”
“Just be tolerant,” Penina adds. “Do what you can for everyone else, not only to get back. Do what you can and then pass it forward, and it doesn’t matter what specific camp you’re in.”
“After this war, this kind of achdut that we’re experiencing should just continue,” Mimi says. “People should love and support other Jews who are different from them and understand that we’re really just a family. Am Yisrael has to stick together.”
“We need to stop fighting with each other,” Leora adds. “That’s the message. We have enough people to fight with.”
Before everyone heads home, Ruchi makes a final request. “I say perek 142 every morning, and I’d like to say it now.”
For the first time all afternoon, the women fall silent.
“Maskil l’Dovid, b’hiyoto bame’arah, tefillah. Koli el Hashem ezak… behitateif alai ruchi… ki tigmol alai. — A maskil by Dovid, when he was in the cave, a tefillah. With my voice I cry to Hashem… when my spirit wraps around me… for You have bestowed me with good.”
Ruchie finishes the perek, a piece of Tehillim that seems, uncannily, to have been written for Klal Yisrael’s current predicament, and continues, “I sent this to my son and asked him what he thought, because I see everything written here. I said, ‘What does it say to you?’ and he says, ‘Ima, it says, “Ruchi” (my spirit), it says your name in it.’”
The women chuckle appreciatively. But Ruchie isn’t finished.
“And I said to myself, wow, it’s the mothers. We’re there, and we’re worrying about them all the time. When they’re in a me’arah [cave] when they’re in the dark, even then ‘Ruchi.’ A mother is always there. All the mothers are always there.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 871)
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