January 22, 2009
I was born in Morristown and raised in the suburbs, but my current home is a crumbling apartment in Bat Yam, a city located just south of Tel Aviv. As a participant in Young Judaea’s Year Course, I am spending nine months in Israel volunteering and studying before attending college next year.
Since I stepped off the plane on Sept. 1, I have been flooded with new and influential experiences, such as working on a Magen David Adom ambulance and volunteering in a special needs school. I wasn’t prepared however, for the shock I received a few weeks ago when I traveled to the neighboring city of Holon for the purpose of attending an art exhibit with a unique political twist.
The display, consisting of a series of colorful pictures from a newly released children’s book called When the Shark and the Fish First Met, was packed with guests. What makes this book worthy of being exhibited in galleries across Israel is that its author, Gilad Shalit, has been held in captivity by Hamas for the last 942 days [as of today]. On June 25, 2006, Gilad, an Israeli soldier, was kidnapped by a group of Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip. Negotiations for his release have generally involved Hamas requesting the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are responsible for terrorist attacks in Israel. Since the Israeli government is reluctant to concede to such a demand, Gilad remains in captivity, virtually incapable of communicating with his family.
Gilad wrote When the Shark and the Fish First Met when he was 11 years old. His parents decided to publish the work this year in order to keep Gilad and other kidnapped soldiers in the public eye. The book, beautifully illustrated by Israeli artists and children in coordination with the Israeli Illustrators’ Association, tells the story of a fish and a shark who become best friends despite their natural differences. After its opening in Nahariya, Gilad’s hometown, the exhibition has traveled throughout Israel, serving as an opportunity to promote the book and generate sympathy for Gilad’s condition.
“This is the third Hanukka my son has spent in captivity,” Gilad’s mother said at a ceremony following the exhibition. “And after nine hundred days, I find it hard to still believe in miracles. But maybe this year a miracle will happen and my son will be returned to me.”
This winter season is the first I have spent without my family. I wouldn’t want to change my Israeli winter, walking past bakeries filled with jelly doughnuts, watching the display of lights in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Rabin, running through the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem to escape a downpour of icy rain. But I also miss winters in Morristown, the grey slush, hot chocolate from Dunkin Donuts, and my parents with their overzealous advice and fondness for reading poems aloud at the dinner table.
At 18, I am only one year younger than Gilad was at the time of his abduction. I can’t compare my occasional bouts of homesickness with his desolation. I can only imagine what he and his family must be going through.
I bought a copy of Gilad’s book and savored its simple, yet compelling story as well as its unique illustrations. Although it is not yet published in English, a translation of the story, as well as additional information on how to participate in the Gilad initiative can be found at habanim.org. Gilad’s supporters hope that continued public attention on his kidnapping will put pressure on the Israeli government to bring him home sooner. Visit the website, sign a petition, write a letter, and contribute to fulfilling his mother’s request.
Rachel Stern graduated from Morristown High School last June. She has been living in Israel since September and will attend Tufts University in Massachusetts in the fall.