'We’ll be back, but only if the reality changes'

In first event for new National Library, southern artists talk life after Oct. 7

New building hosts first in-person event, ‘Southern Wind,’ featuring artists from Gaza border communities that were devastated by the Hamas massacres

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Rapper and singer Jimbo J (right), performing in the National Library of Israel's first in-person event in its new building, on November 29, 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Rapper and singer Jimbo J (right), performing in the National Library of Israel's first in-person event in its new building, on November 29, 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

It was a different opening than originally planned for the National Library’s new, NIS 860 million ($225 million) building, meant to take place in mid-October but delayed due to the ongoing war with Hamas.

Instead, the library has eased in readers and researchers, as well as free public tours, and now the first in-person event Wednesday evening, featuring several artists from the Gaza border communities.

Called Southern Wind, the guests spoke with filmmaker Rino Tzror about how their lives have changed since October 7.

Tzror’s first guest was Israeli rapper and singer Jimbo J, whose real name is Omer Habron. He lives in Kibbutz Or HaNer, one of the Gaza border communities, with his wife, toddler daughter and baby daughter — except for the last eight weeks as his kibbutz and others have been evacuated.

Habron and his guitarist sang “Booms,” a chillingly prescient song that came out in August, about rockets from Gaza, and time spent running to safe rooms or stairwells in Tel Aviv, about music festivals canceled and soldiers on jeeps.

“‘Booms, baby
Let’s get out of here
Doesn’t matter where
Booms began again….straight out of the Gaza Strip”

The typical mix of spoken word with folk-like tunes goes right to the heart of life in the kibbutzim, moshav communities and towns near Gaza.

As Habron described to Tzror, “Life can be a bubble” in Or HaNer, a kibbutz near Sderot established by immigrants from Argentina and Chile, and where there’s a deep feeling of security and community, despite the steady rocket barrages from Gaza.

Of course, acknowledged Habron, that was all before October 7. On that black Shabbat day, he and his wife were at home with their two-year-old and three-week-old. He was on the living room couch at 6:30 a.m. with their newborn when the rocket barrage began, and they all headed straight into the safe room.

With two small ones to care for, they didn’t look at their phones or follow the news that was unfolding that morning. When Habron did read his WhatsApp messages about Hamas terrorists attacking Sderot, Ofakim and the other kibbutz communities, he didn’t quite believe what he was reading.

“It’s one lone pickup truck and the army is there,” Habron told the audience. “How many terrorists could have crossed the strongest fence in the world?”

The stream of text messages continued rolling in, telling of all the various people he knew from the area, and the terrifying events that were taking place. And still, Habron couldn’t quite wrap his mind around it, thinking that “this crew of terrorists is meeting all the people I know,” he said.

One reason for his suspended disbelief was that the security team at Or HaNer was able to fight off the approaching terrorists, together with the emergency squad from neighboring Kibbutz Erez.

Police near the southern towns of Or HaNer and Sderot, October 7, 2023. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

When Habron finally ventured outside around 2 p.m., he saw a neighbor, an emergency squad member with an M16 strapped across his back, and he filled Habron in on what had been happening. The neighbor had sent his wife and kids out of the kibbutz, to family in the country’s center.

Habron and his wife threw themselves into the car and drove on Road 232, the Negev highway that connects the kibbutzim of the western Negev and had been used by the terrorists farther south as a road of death that day.

“We’re all in alternative lives right now,” said Habron, currently living with his family in Tel Aviv after about a month in Herzliya with his wife’s family. The rest of the kibbutz is housed in a Jerusalem hotel after first being evacuated to Tiberias.

“We’ll be back in Or HaNer, but only if the reality changes and there are no more rockets and siren runs to the safe room,” said Habron, who grew up in Rehovot and attended Sapir College in Sderot, presumably laying the groundwork for his attachment to the Negev region. “Rockets became the minor threat.”

Rockets are only minor if you have a safe room to run to, commented Hadas Neuman, artistic director for the Sderot Cinematheque who lives in Kibbutz Bror Hayil near Sderot.

Her home is one of the community’s older houses without a sealed room, permitted because the kibbutz is located 7.2 kilometers (4.4 miles) from the border, rather than seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from Gaza.

“That 200 meters makes a big difference, I guess,” said Neuman.

She did leave that day, heading in her car by herself along Route 232, told by those standing guard at the entrance what route to take. She was on the phone with other kibbutz friends who were in India at the time.

“As the rockets were going off, I was discussing with them whether to stay in the car or get out,” said Neuman, shaking her head at the absurdity of the situation.

“So what did you do?” asked Tzror.

“I got out for some, and stayed in the car for others,” she said.

The reading room of the new National Library of Israel opened on a limited basis to readers and scholars on October 29, 2023, as its formal opening was postponed (Courtesy, Iwan Baan)

Neuman is involved in the Gaza Envelope Theater, which was supposed to start its fall season on October 8, the day after the October 7 massacres.

“We have captives and dead among our group,” said Neuman. “The theater itself is in what’s considered the battle zone.”

When Tzror asked Neuman why she chose this location and life, she said, “I ask myself sometimes. I went to Sapir, and it was one of the best periods of my life, I guess I have a strong connection to the place.”

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