October 8

What happens when the carelessness of ritual festivities comes to an end, and the merciless course of history takes over? In this text, Ruben Honigmann gives us an intimate account of the weekend of October 7-8, a weekend where the full extent of the event is not realized until the cell phones are switched back on. He makes this temporal and existential time lag an integral part of the turmoil of the Jews, who are condemned to limp along until the dawn of the 9th.


Pocket watches with Hebrew numerals, Jewish Museum Berlin, Wikipedia Commons


For me, October 7 never happened. It wasn’t until the evening of the 8th that the 7th happened.

On the 7th, my phone was switched off because of Shabbat, and on the 8th because of Simchat Torah, the last of the holidays at the beginning of the Jewish year.
Simchat Torah, like the other holidays, belongs to the category known as Yom Tov, a “good day”. In Ashkenazi lands, we greet each other on these days by wishing each other Gut Yom Tov, which literally means “good day”. With a few exceptions, the same rules apply as on Shabbat, the most salient of which nowadays is to refrain from using electricity. For 24 hours (48 when Yom Tov and Shabbat follow each other), the observant Jew is completely disconnected.

In Israel, Simchat Torah and Shabbat took place simultaneously on October 7. This discrepancy between Israel and the Diaspora can be explained by the fact that, like Christian time, which is divided between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, the Jewish world lives hobbled between two temporalities. In Israel, Yom Tov lasts just one day, whereas in the Diaspora, known in Hebrew as ‘Chutz Laaretz’ (the Land outside), it is split into two days. On October 8, we in the Diaspora were still in the festive season, while in Israel time had already stopped on the 7th.

Historically, this temporal stammering is due to the bipolarity of Jewish geography, always straddling its center (the Land of Israel) and its periphery (the Diaspora).

In Temple times, the beginning of the month (from which the dates of the coming feasts were fixed) was determined by eyewitness testimony of the appearance of the new moon before the Sanhedrin sitting in Jerusalem. From there, the message was passed on to the various diaspora communities by means of a system of bonfires, visible from hill to hill, in the manner of the smoke clouds of the Native Americans. For a community as far away as Baghdad, however, it could happen that the time of the feast (the 10th for Kippur, the 15th for Pesach or Sukkot) arrived before the message from Jerusalem. In case of doubt, the feast days were doubled to ensure that at least one of them was right.

Modern technology should have overcome this archaism, but the masters decided to maintain the two festival days in the Diaspora. So today we celebrate two festival days in the Diaspora, knowing full well that one of them is the wrong one. In Jewish tradition, the rightness of an idea survives its historical origin. In this case, the time lag says something about the exilic condition. It’s a sign of the soft watches that mark Jewish time, far from home. The double is a sign of the trouble inherent in exile. The uncertainty of the ground on which our feet rest feverishly has its temporal counterpart: today is always both yesterday and tomorrow.

In practice, I’ve always preferred the second holiday to the first. I find that Pesach doesn’t begin to exude its full flavour until the second Seder, the first being merely a trial run to get us in shape for the second, the time it takes to regain the reflexes numbed since last year.

Tossing cakes to children at Simchat Torah, 17th century illustration, Wikipedia commons

So on October 7, I knew nothing. I hadn’t been out of the house all day, and it wasn’t until I met Bloch in the early afternoon of the 8th at the neighborhood’s big Lubavitch synagogue that I learned that the ground had opened up the day before under the feet of the Jewish people.

Even though I live in the district with the highest number of synagogues per square metre in France, I rarely go to synagogue. Mainly out of laziness, but also because I can’t really find one that suits me, which is just as well, because if I did, I’d feel obliged to go every week.

Whenever I feel like it, I go to what’s known in Yiddish as a Shtibel (literally “a little room”), which houses a tiny Lubavitch synagogue just a stone’s throw from my home, right opposite the Lubavitch Headquarters in the 19th arrondissement, a gigantic building inaugurated by Jacques Chirac in 1989, where services follow one another at an industrial pace. The Shtibel is distinguished not only by its size, but also by its reputation for being “meshichist” (messianic) in the sense of officially affirming the messiahship of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitch Rebbe (but the meshichists call him “the current rabbi”), who died (but the meshichists say only that he “veiled” himself) in 1994.

As praying with the Lubavitch is exotic to me anyway, I have no problem with this difference, which seems artificial to me. For the uninitiated that I am, the supposed non-Messianism of the mainstream group is “Takia“, Lubavitch-style dissimulation, because deep down I believe they’re all Messianists, otherwise they wouldn’t quote “The Rebbe” at the beginning, middle and end of every sentence. And since I love Jews for their dinginess, I’m not going to pretend to be offended by one more dinginess, quite the contrary.

At Simchat Torah, however, I deliberately go to the motherhouse, the official liner opposite the little underground hideout. It’s one of those occasions when I take my kids out of our island of post-modern-flexidox-religious-but-not-too Jewish Robinsons Crusoe, who talk about Judaism all the time but don’t go to Jewish school. I want us to blend in with the mass of ordinary Jews, who we systematically discover to be just as full of contradictions, complexities and inconsistencies as we are.

At the HQ, my children and I slipped into the concentric dance circles typical of Simchat Torah, introducing ourselves to the grammar of an Orthodox universe whose language I still understand without speaking[1]: that of men going round in circles, Torah scroll in hand, while, from their reserved space, the women pelted them with sweets that the children hastened to pick up. Some exchange them; others capitalize to lend on credit; sometimes candy micro-casinos are improvised, indexed to the nervous rates of a stock market where the price of a kosher Tagada strawberry without gelatine can fall sharply from one minute to the next, while that of Stoptou climbs at full speed.

When I go to the HQ, I usually bump into Bloch. We hardly know each other, but we automatically move towards each other when our eyes meet. What binds us together is our shared Strasbourg origins and our membership of the minority of the minority: the Ashkenazim of the visible Jewish community in the 19th arrondissement (by a cultural twist peculiar to the history of French Judaism, 95% of French Lubavitch are Sephardic today).

Bloch is a true Alsatian Jew, unlike me, who’s a German import, and his features and ethos always remind me of those of Alphonse Levy’s characters: a good-natured, mischievous appearance that conceals the nervousness and vigilance of those who have no illusions about the malevolent intentions of their non-Jewish neighbors.

Bloch and I had already been chatting for a quarter of an hour – hilariously, given the festive context – when, taking leave of each other, he wished me good luck “considering what’s happened in Israel”. I had no idea what he was talking about, so he looked at me wide-eyed and told me what he’d heard from a guy to whom the non-Jewish janitor of the synagogue had told it after hearing it on the radio. The Lubavitch grapevine had been operating and the news was unclear: Israel was being overrun by Hamas, thousands of terrorists had infiltrated the southern cities, some even in tanks and helicopters, the Iranians had blinded the IDF’s surveillance system with Russian encryption software and there were already at least 500 dead.

As Simchat Torah is also one of the two days of the year when excessive drinking is de rigueur, Bloch, when he told me about the catastrophe, looked as hazy as he was mad: smiling, laughing, misty-eyed and half-drunk. The news had reached me, it had cracked the space-time of Yom Tov, but here it was: the day was far from over. It was only early afternoon, and we still had several hours to go before reconnecting. It was out of the question to abort the party, to talk about it with the children and even with each other, my wife and me. I continued, as best I could, to stay in the festive spirit of the moment, while watching the clock bring me closer to the dreaded moment when I would be swallowed up by the flood of information. I’ve been mired in it ever since that Sunday, October 8, at dusk, around 8.39pm, when I turned my phone back on to compare the objective news of the world with the vaporous account Bloch had given me.

The Israeli October 7 and its diasporic diffraction on the 8th crystallize Jewish squinting. They speak of the vagueness, the distortion of time and space, the permanent gap that governs the existence of a people hobbling between the world and the beyond. Israel is Jacob, who became lame as a result of his battle with the figure-in-the-night at the border post between the land of Israel and the land of exile[2]. But Jewish vulnerability is also the place where its strength lies. Splitting is Israel’s shattering and trembling, but it is also its bulwark: as he prepares to find Esau and confront him, Jacob “cuts his people into two camps” so that “if one is destroyed, the other will remain intact”[3]. Israel and its diasporic twin are struck by the same hand, but, paradoxically, the diffusive can prove safer than home.

Simchat Torah festival. Lodz ghetto, October 1943. Yad Vashem Photographic Archives 4062/300[4]

In the days following the October 7/8 earthquake, I experienced another split, this time within myself.

Over time, the most contradictory thoughts and emotions began to follow one another, jostling and canceling each other out on a daily basis.
When I woke up in the morning, I thought that they’d had it coming, that Gaza had to be annexed, that the natives in Sinai had to be driven out, that UNRWA had to be liquidated, and that in any case “the son of a bitch who’ll stop Israel hasn’t been born”[5]. After dropping my children off at school I tell myself that in truth Ein Lanou Al Mi Lehishaen Ela Al Avinu Shemabashamaim[6] and that this whole war is indeed proof that the Jews are invariably a “cadaverous and stupid people”[7]. As I begin my lunch break, I wonder if we are not well and truly becoming the Nazis that antisemites have been accusing us of being for so long, and if Israel has not become a Moloch country that sacrifices its own children on the altar of revenge. On the way back to the office, I convince myself that, even if it means being Nazis, let’s go all the way, and that in any case “Israel’s eternity does not waver”[8]. Around snack time, I wonder about this new category of Jews-of-October 7, the national version of the Yom Kippur Jew, and wonder where they were until October 6 and how long their October 8 will last. On the way home, I’m enraged to see that Tsahal is able to locate and eliminate with a surgical strike a Hamas oil and its henchmen hiding in an apartment in Beirut, but hasn’t been able to realize that thousands of men have been preparing a colossal attack under its nose for two years. Before going to sleep, I’m annoyed by those who pose and take selfies, bulletproof vests in force and tears in their eyes, in Beeri and the other Kibbutzim instantly transformed into Israeli Ouradour-sur-Glane artificially frozen for eternity.

It goes on and on in my head and, deep down, I don’t even know what I’m really thinking. I don’t discuss it with my family, friends or colleagues.

October 8 is a big black hole in which we wander, bewildered and terrified.

I often wish that time had stopped during that suspended moment when I knew nothing more than what Bloch had taught me. I long for that parenthesis when the Yom Tov fortress was still intact. As no territory is ever a refuge, the Jewish people have moved their shelter into a parallel temporality, inviolable and beyond the reach of the merciless course of History. But since October 7-8, the pas de deux of the double festive day has become the limp of a crippled people.

At the little neighborhood synagogue, no one ever talks about October 7 and the war. Neither Bring them back now, nor Baby Kfir’s birthday, not even “Together we shall overcome”[9].

Only, as in most synagogues, two Psalms added at the end of the service and recited in dead silence with piercing intensity. In one of them, Psalm 121, we convince ourselves that God won’t let our foot falter, stumble, take a false step[10]. I don’t know if We will dance again; it would certainly be nice if we could stand on our own two legs.

Since October 8, a friend of mine, an atheist in the same way as I am religious, i.e. by birth and therefore arbitrarily, has been ironically calling me “Colonel Honigmann” and taunting me: “It’s not with Jews like you that we’re going to ensure Israel’s security!”.
It’s incomprehensible to him that for a period of time, the 7th already existed in the world without having penetrated mine.

The Torah often stutters, but rarely rambles. In the second Psalm recited in the synagogues, 130, we identify with “the watchmen of the morning, the watchmen of the morning”[11]. The dawn of October 9.

Ruben Honigmann


1 I owe this formulation to Sophie Bigot-Goldblum, may she be thanked here.
2 Genesis 32, 25-32
3 Genesis 32, 8-9
4 Collection of photographs of the Lodz ghetto, taken by photographer Mendel Grossman and his assistant Aryeh Ben Menachem. In the photo, Aharon Jakobson (center, in white shirt), with comrades from the “Zionist Youth Front”, dance with Torah scrolls.
5 Lo Nolad Haben Zona Sheyaatsor Et Yisrael, chorus of Hatikvah, a popular Israeli song by the rapper Subliminal.
6 ”There is no one to rely on except Our Father in heaven” (popular religious song in Israel)
7 Deuteronomy 32:6
8 Netsach Yisrael Lo Yishaker (excerpt from 1 Samuel 15:28 taken up as a Jewish rallying cry in times of persecution)
9 Yachad Nenatseach, the official Israeli slogan for the ongoing war.
10 Psalms 121:3
11 Psalms 130:6

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