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The Alternate Story to Suffering Is Joy

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Jerusalem-based author Sarah Sassoon reflects on the devastating effects of the Israel-Palestine conflict

By Sarah Sassoon

Sunrise over Jerusalem; photo by author

The streets are quiet here in Jerusalem. Sombre. It is lightly raining. The sun peeks through, alternating with the grey clouds. This is a time of funerals. This is a time of visiting houses of mourning. This is a time of taking care of children whose fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters have been murdered or kidnapped, or whose fathers, brothers, and sisters have gone to serve. The children remind us that we have to smile, that the alternate story to suffering is joy.

Joy is our most profound act of resilience. This is an idea that I have been meditating on for months, ever since reading “Enchantment and the Courage of Joy: René Magritte on the Antidote to the Banality of Pessimism” in Maria Popova’s The Marginalian. She writes:

In a world pocked by cynicism and pummeled by devastating news, to find joy for oneself and spark it in others, to find hope for oneself and spark it in others, is nothing less than a countercultural act of courage and resistance. This is not a matter of denying reality—it is a matter of discovering a parallel reality where joy and hope are equally valid ways of being.

This is why I sat for coffee this morning at my local café with friends, mourning, some on their way to funerals.

I write this and I miss my son. He is serving. I have to remind myself to breathe. I have not been able to write. I have only been able to light candles. There will never be the right words.

Yesterday, I attended a Zoom session for English-speaking parents with a psychologist. He said that we are fighting terror as a nation, but we are also fighting what terror does to us personally: terror constricts our breathing, terror steals our spirit and joy.

Our spirit and joy are what we need to keep going, especially for our children.

He says our sadness does not help the massacre survivors from Sderot and the Southern settlements. Our depression does not help our children. He says we can share our grief, shock, and fear, it is natural and human, but our courage and resilience lie in finding our joy, singing songs with our children on the way to security shelters. What comes to mind is the award-winning Italian Holocaust movie Life Is Beautiful, where a father creates a game—an alternative story of joy—for his small son out of their dire reality in a concentration camp.

I visit a home of mourning—my neighbor whose son’s girlfriend was murdered. Whose daughter-in-law and two small girls were kidnapped. My neighbor was not home when I visited. She was at the hospital with her injured grandsons and son. I came bearing an open box (I swear I thought it was closed) of Celestial Seasonings Bengal Tiger tea and a jar of homemade muesli. A paltry offering.

With every heavy step I asked myself, Why couldn’t I be something more useful, like a doctor? What do I have to offer, except my love of tiger tea, chocolate, poetry, children, and the ever-changing colors of the sky?

I am learning the small things are what matter. An open box of Bengal tea is enough. The grieving son asked for a cup of tea. “It’s the first time he’s agreed for anything to pass his lips,” his uncle tells me.

A spark.

“To find joy for oneself and spark it in others, to find hope for oneself and spark it in others, is nothing less than a countercultural act of courage and resistance.”

Yesterday, I invited friends and friends of friends with small children, some with husbands away serving, to my garden for morning tea. It was threatening to rain with gray clouds, but we laid out the spread of sourdough bread, cheese, jam, strawberry yogurt, tea, and coffee. We laid out the picnic blanket and box of books. I read to the children. I picked pomegranates with them. We dug and planted the flowers that I had bought the previous week but had not found time to plant. We sang songs and I handed out my son’s stash of chocolate in the security room when the sirens sounded. It was all very small. It was all very needed.

Many sparks of hope and joy were lit.

The sparks are like the memorial candles I light every evening. To mark these days of war, to mourn the fallen, to bring some light to the living. It takes time for the flame to grow strong enough to photograph. It takes time for it to gain light, to become settled and bright, a full flickering flame. Is this the same for every act of vulnerable kindness? So gentle, so small, it takes time for it to be felt. But it is felt. It brings light even if it’s not seen. Even if it’s not photographed for social media.

I feel it.

I come from a family of Iraqi-Jewish refugee immigrants. I was brought up to bless every cup of tea made with reused teabags. To bless each slice of bread and the crust. When a morsel of bread falls to the floor, to pick it up and bless it. To swoon at mountains of cherries and eggplants in the market. Small joys. My boys think I’m crazy when I point out a tree abundant with bitter oranges. How can that be important when there is a war?

The psychologist says, “Take care of yourself to feel better. To feel even better, take care of others.”

I cannot eat much besides coffee and chocolate. I cannot be still. When I am still, I feel lost. I busy myself feeding my family three meals a day. Feeding others makes me feel fuller, less lost.

Everyone is making sandwiches, baking cakes, buying supplies to donate to the survivors from the South, and to the war effort. My seventeen-year-old son went for the third day in a row to donate blood. There was a five-hour-long line. Again, they turned him away. They had enough blood.

No one can sit still.

I keep asking everyone, “How are you managing?” “Are you okay?” I ask an older Arab woman at the fuel station. She replies that nothing is okay, she wants to return to peace like it was before. “Why can’t they leave us in peace?” she asks. I realize that we are all in this together. Across all social, political, cultural divides. We all need to care for each other.

It helps to forget myself.

It helps to not look in the mirror and see the war wrinkles forming between my brows.

It helps to keep lighting candles every night and pray in the name of Ezra the Scribe, in the name of my grandmother, in the name of all those murdered and kidnapped, all those fighting together—Jews, Druze, Bedouins, and Arabs—for peace.

Rene Magritte writes:

Life is wasted when we make it more terrifying, precisely because it is so easy to do so. It is an easy task, because people who are intellectually lazy are convinced that this miserable terror is “the truth,” that this terror is knowledge of the “extra-mental” world. This is an easy way out, resulting in a banal explanation of the world as terrifying.

Creating enchantment is an effective means of counteracting this depressing, banal habit.

My Iraqi-Jewish grandmother used to light many candles. She insisted on joy. Commanded me to be happy: “With all the suffering going on, you need to bring joy and heart back into your world. That’s fighting back against the terror.”

I am looking for my heart’s pieces amongst the debris of sad news. I need to find the sparks. Keep acting even though it doesn’t seem rational to have morning tea parties, to go for coffee, to keep cooking three meals a day.

I miss my son.

Reigniting our spirit is anti-terror. We start with breathing deeply.

Posted October 18, 2023

Sarah Sassoon is an Australian, Iraqi Jewish writer, poet, and educator. She is an editorial advisor for Distinctions: A Sephardi and Mizrahi Journal. Her debut picture book Shoham’s Bangle was named a Sydney Taylor Notable, and awarded the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award. Her poetry micro-chapbook, This is Why We Don’t Look Back, was awarded first place in Harbor Review’s Jewish Women’s poetry. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and her work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Lilith, MER, Ruminate, and elsewhere. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four boys.

*This essay was originally published in a slightly different form at Consequence Forum on Substack.