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What it means to be an Israeli mother in a time of war

Israeli mothers are the shepherds of a troubled flock. It is our duty to raise smart, curious, kind boys who turn into good men, but we work against the ticking clock of an army summons.

Family and friends at a funeral service for Captain Arnon Moshe Avraham Benvenisti Vaspi on Nov. 21, in Rosh Pinna, Israel. The Israeli military said he died in the Gaza Strip, while serving in the Givati Brigade.Amir Levy/Getty

When I went for a scan in the early stages of my pregnancy, the ultrasound tech asked me if I would like to know the gender of my baby. When she told me it was a boy, I started to weep. She immediately approached the top of the bed and held my hand, repeating the same mantra women in Israel have been telling ourselves and each other for all of time: “Don’t worry, by the time he’s 18, there will be no more war.”

What she meant was that most Israeli boys born in this nation must one day serve in the Israel Defense Forces, probably in a combat unit, and that every mother bears this burden upon hearing that it’s a boy she will bring into the world. Increasingly, women are also finding their places on the battlefield as pilots, combat doctors, medics, and in artillery units supporting the ground troops.


A baby's crib in a bomb shelter where a teddy bear was left on the ground near blood stains, Nov. 1, near the border of Gaza, in Holit, Israel. According to an Israel Defense Forces officer, two grandparents who resided here held the bomb shelter door closed during a Hamas attack on Oct. 7 to protect their grandchildren. All were injured but survived. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty

This knowledge can produce a kind of emotional whiplash, best described by Israeli writer Etgar Keret when asked if his infant son will serve. He suddenly imagines a “surreal world in which I saw dozens of sturdy babies swathed in environmentally friendly cloth diapers sweeping down from the mountains on miniature ponies, weapons brandished in their pink hands.”

My tears that day fell for a different reason: It had been a hard-won pregnancy, prayed over for many months. I had suffered a miscarriage in May 2021, during a previous bout of round-the-clock rocket fire directed at Tel Aviv by Hamas. I hadn’t even thought about what it would mean that my child would be a boy, only that he would be.

Israeli mothers are the shepherds of a troubled flock. It is our duty to raise smart, curious, kind boys who turn into good men, but we work against the ticking clock of an army summons. How do you cultivate gentleness in your son when you will also need him to be brave if he needs to fight?


Amir Tibon, a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in Mishmar HaEmek, Israel, Nov. 2.OFIR BERMAN/NYT

I often look to my father-in-law for answers. Noam Tibon became a national hero on Oct. 7, when his eldest son Amir was trapped in his home with his wife and two daughters, with Hamas terrorists on their doorstep. Noam, a retired general, grabbed his pistol and, along with his wife, drove straight into battle to rescue them, saving many other lives along the way.

My husband and I sat dumbfounded that morning after receiving a text message from Amir. “There are terrorists here, they are at our house.” And then the immediate response from Noam, “I am coming.” As my husband packed his bags and donned his uniform — an army doctor, he was called into work immediately — we gave each other a look without speaking our fears out loud: His parents had set off on a suicide mission.

Noam is a trained sniper and veteran anti-terror operative, and anyone meeting him could be forgiven for thinking that this lifelong soldier would raise his boys to be warriors. Nothing could be further from the truth. He never pushed his boys toward sports or martial arts, never expected them to come up in the military units where he served. And while to the rest of the country Noam represents the strength and wisdom of our founding generation, to me he is the grandfather who showed up at my doorstep after battling Hamas on Amir’s, only to hug my child.


A newlywed Israeli soldier was visited by his wife as he took a break from duty near the border with Gaza on Nov. 14 in Southern Israel.Christopher Furlong/Getty

The soldiers of this country have now been called up to exact a price from Hamas for the savagery waged last month. They have to summon their strength to fight a just war against a cruel enemy, with the awareness that many in the West look upon them with disgust and horror. And I look at my son, who is in the wild and curious and funny stage of toddlerhood, and I wonder what the world will ask of him or how the world will condemn him if he’s ever called to defend his people.

If you look at social media here in Israel, you can see in real time how our soldiers are processing what is being asked of them. There are thousands of videos of reservists returning after weeks away to surprise their families with a short break from the front lines, embracing their mothers and lifting their children into the air. Young men proposing to their girlfriends among their units, hanging “Marry Me” signs between tanks. And instead of postponing weddings, some young brides have surprised their fiances by showing up to their bases with a rabbi and a chuppah, the traditional wedding canopy, to hold the ceremony before their men go into Gaza.

My husband is a pianist and a chess enthusiast who has been trying to convince our son that Mozart is superior to Cocomelon and reads him “Goodnight Moon” several times a night. For a long time, I was reluctant to buy him shoes, enjoying the pitter-patter of his bare feet across our marble floors and also avoiding the day when he would be able to run away from us faster than we can catch him. I hope he has inherited my husband’s gentle spirit, but I see a streak of brazenness that could only have come from me.


And every day since Oct. 7 feels like an impossible choice as I hold him in our bomb shelter and whisper what feels like a contradiction: “Be safe, be brave.”

Jessica Kasmer-Jacobs is a literary agent at the Deborah Harris Agency. She lives in Tel Aviv.