On our way to go grocery shopping Friday morning, when we got the message from the community office that Gil-ad Shaer was missing, it was clear that a real drama was developing around us. Gil-ad, the good, responsible boy, couldn't have disappeared into thin air. Something had happened. When I got to the settlement, frightened, I saw a police barrier erected to keep journalists out. For a moment I steeled myself for the standard argument in such situations, but then I heard myself shouting that I wasn't there to work. The journalist's outfit was in the trunk. This wasn't an item or a news story -- it was Bat-Galim, my good friend, caught up in this awful story in the role of the mother. This time I was too close to the disaster. This time it was my neighbors, my community, the sweet Gil-ad I know well. I was neck-deep in emotional involvement.
A fine family
For three years, we lived next door to each other in Talmon. Now they are a block and a half away. Bat-Galim and Ophir were always models of the perfect parents. An exemplary family in every way. The children were cared for and brought up with devotion to be admired. Bat-Galim, the mother, is a teacher and an interior designer and Ophir, the father, is an accountant and lawyer. The children always came first. They put on shows together at every family event. At the last bat mitzvah, a year ago, they produced an amazing performance that included video clips they had made about Zionism. Gil-ad was involved in every detail. In another six months, they'll have another bat mitzvah to celebrate. Gil-ad was already thinking about the program.
He is the second of six children -- he has an older sister and four younger ones. He is the only boy, and what a boy. Every Thursday he comes home from the yeshiva to bake cakes for Shabbat, the family's own "cake lady." A very smart boy. A boy who loves books and loves to smile. Brilliant, charming, and kindhearted. An extraordinary kid. Extraordinary parents. Once I was asked to bring an empty cereal box to the kindergarten; when I asked the Shaers, they gave me one with a plastic page protector attached to it. When I asked why, they explained modestly that they attached a page of Torah study to each box so the kids could learn something while eating breakfast rather than staring at the ads on the packaging.
"Hitchiking? Be careful"
The first two years he was at the yeshiva high school in Kfar Etzion, his parents would drop Gil-ad off and pick him up most of the time -- an hour and a half each way -- so he wouldn't have to hitchhike. This year they let him, along with all his friends, on the condition that he be careful. That he keep his eyes open. That they travel in pairs. And here we are, praying for Gil-ad's release.
Now defense officials are sitting in the garden, under the weeping willow. They're very generous, but don't have any new information. Again and again, residents of the settlement approach them, offering them a place to sleep, eat, drink, a hot shower. They're here to work and decline the offers. Bat-Galim never stops asking what happened. They don't know what to answer. Are they alive? She asks. They are silent. She looks at the clock. "He's been in their hands 12 hours, what's happening to him?" The neighbors understand that it helps to distract them and start discussing other subjects. She gets up to wash the dishes, serve beverages -- welcome activity. In the kitchen, when the two of us are alone, she breaks down. I won't write what she said to me.
Friday afternoon, brutal rumors on Whatsapp recount in newslike language that "the two boys" have been rescued and are safe. The security people in the yard discount the rumors. Bat-Galim asks that we not read her these messages any more. The prime minister calls with an update that efforts are being made.
Just before Shabbat starts, the family requests a little quiet. They hang a handwritten sign on the door that reads: "We would appreciate a little privacy. Thanks for understanding." The sign, which was posted using magnets to avoid any desecration of the Sabbath, would be taken down later and put up again only in the middle of the night. Members of the community show up in force: love and help on one hand, respect for their privacy on the other. I go home to light Shabbat candles, sobbing with the match in my hand, asking for salvation.
I didn't understood why they say that the settlement is a family. On Shabbat I understood. We all throbbed together with worry for Gil-ad, trembled together in prayer, couldn't sleep at night. In the morning, all the neighbors' eyes were red from the terrible sleepless night when our hearts were wrapped in ice. An entire community is upset, shaken. And people say to each other, from their hearts, with a hint of fear in their voices: "Besorot tovot" (may we hear good news.) Here's another expression. That there be news, that there finally be news, and that it be good. The streets of Talmon are tense. Everything is breathing as one. As if this settlement, with its 280 families, has become one organic body.
The house is full all through Shabbat. Residents of Talmon, strangers in uniform, Bat-Galim's parents, the girls' friends all cross and recross the threshold. The parents welcome everyone warmly, acknowledge everyone, say over and over again to anyone who asks and with marvelous patience that there is no new information. From time to time Bat-Galim leaves for a few minutes, for a private conversation with the Creator. Prayer services are also held in the family's home.
The settlement becomes a family
On Shabbat, I'm the first to arrive. I find Ofer, the reserve soldier, in the garden. He was up all night, refused to go inside, and the mosquitoes took his blood. Roni, the IDF psychologist, went to rest in the home of neighbors who went away for the weekend and left him a key. As the dawn broke, Ophir recited the morning prayers. They only slept a bit. They woke up to a nightmarish morning and saw the sun's rays though a haze of tears. They needed outside confirmation that it hadn't been a bad dream.
After the Kiddush blessing over wine -- heaven knows how he found the strength -- Ophir sits to study Torah. The weekly portion is about spies who slandered this good country and said that it devoured its residents. He manages to concentrate for a few minutes and then raises his tired eyes to the open door, through which neighbors and soldiers are always entering. It seems that one of the soldiers is a former student of Bat-Galim. She recognizes him right away; she remembers the names and faces of her thousands of students, and he is quite embarrassed.
Small talk, attempts to distract. I ask about their grandparents and Ophir tells me about his mother's father, a Holocaust survivor from Romania who was kept alive when a rifle jammed, and who jumped off a train on its way to an extermination camp. The Jewish fate in the Shaer family's courtyard.
In the afternoon, more and more people from the more distant neighborhoods of the settlement arrive. The women hug, talk, and exude love. The men stand silently, not knowing what to say, but giving light pats on the shoulder. Bat-Galim is tense. The garden fills with people from Talmon. The clear sound of soulful melodies rises into the steamy skies, pierces the heavens, entwines with voices pleading long into the dark that the son return to his mother's arms, that the three boys come home.