ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 236

Micha Biton (Dafna Talmon)
Photos: Dafna Talmon

'You feel like an uprooted plant. You try to plant yourself somewhere you don't know to feed the basic need for water and air. It's like putting a plant that needs earth into concrete'

The singer and storyteller and married father of four was evacuated to a hotel in Tel Aviv ● This is his story

Photos: Dafna Talmon

This is part of a series, “Uprooted.” Each column is a curated monologue from an individual among the tens of thousands of internally displaced Israelis during the war with Hamas who were evacuated from the country’s northern border and the Gaza envelope.

I was born in Sderot into a family of 10 siblings. My father passed away when I was 9, and I moved to a foster home in Jerusalem, with the family of Israeli author Galila Ron Feder. Naama, my wife, is from Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, which was uprooted in 1982 from Sinai and reestablished in Zikim.

I arrived in Netiv Ha’asara in April of 1990. I think I was one of the first renters there, if not the first. I had to knock on doors asking people to let me rent a house. At the time, I was a pub singer, and luckily for me, my neighbor’s daughter was Naama’s best friend. That’s how we met.

The Tanara band, of which I was one of the founders, was started when I was living in Netiv Ha’asara, but most of my activity was in Sderot. In 1995, our first album came out which was a big achievement because all the bands from Sderot moved to Tel Aviv and we stayed behind. That was a source of pride for me. I felt I was doing the right thing.

Over the years, I began to understand what it means to be an artist and live in the periphery. I saw it as a mission. I founded the stage arts center in Sderot (which has since closed), and I opened a social pub in Netiv Ha’asara to bring us culture and arts.

In our garden, I set up Micha’s Tent, in the spirit of Moroccan hosting, in which I sing and tell my story as a foster child in Ron Feder’s family. (Her “To Myself” book series was inspired by it.)

Saturday, October 7

On Friday, Simchat Torah eve, our whole family — kids, partners, granddaughters, and Naama’s parents — celebrated together. There were 13 of us. Naama’s parents, who live in the neighborhood, went back home at the end of the evening. Everyone else stayed with us.

Collage of photos from Micha’s Tent. (Courtesy Micha Biton)

On Saturday, at 6:30 a.m., an abnormal and unexpected attack started all at once. We went into our bomb shelter, which is also 13-year-old Johnnie’s bedroom. Usually, we don’t close the door, but this time, the attack didn’t stop. In the kibbutz’s WhatsApp group for young people, they started reporting gunshots, and then we got a message from the kibbutz’s head of security telling us to get into our bomb shelters and lock the doors.

At 8:30, my 17-year-old daughter Libbi got a message from a friend who said that her father and uncle, Amit and Igal Wax, two close friends of mine, were murdered. Suddenly, my world went dark. I understood the severity of the situation. Anyone with me in the shelter could be next. I had a feeling that this was the end and that “only God could help us.”

Shortly after, we got another message that my good friend Oren Stern was murdered with Danny Vovk. The two were killed when they went out to save moshav resident Hevik Segel after she went to an outside bomb shelter and didn’t know there were terrorists outside. All this happened in the first hour of the attack.

Ayelet Molcho, who was murdered with her husband Shlomi, wrote “I hear them, I hear gunshots, come save us, who can help us?” And then she went silent. Naama’s mother called to tell us she had seen terrorists crossing the border with parachutes.

And then we heard gunshots close by and it turned out they had entered the Akunis’ house next door and murdered Ruti, Arieh, and their daughter, Or. Twenty members of Netiv Ha’asara were murdered on October 7. I knew them all and the loss didn’t end there.

Four hours later, when we ran out of air in the bomb shelter, and Naama felt like she couldn’t breathe, we had to decide if we would suffocate to death or open the door to let some air in. I went out of the shelter, took a hammer, stood in the living room, and waited.

‘Road to peace’ is written on a concrete wall in the Israeli moshav of Netiv Ha’asara, May 15, 2023. (Nati Shohat/ Flash90/ File)

I planned strategies. I hoped that if something were to happen, I could save my family. I was on full alert and prepared to sacrifice myself.

I only understood how on edge I was when we got to Naama’s sister in Ein HaShofet. I understood how thin the string was between others’ misfortune and my luck. How was I not murdered and they were? And what if they had managed to get into our house? Who am I without my family?

The evacuation

We evacuated with the rest of the moshav for the first time on October 7. In previous Gaza operations, we stayed home because we couldn’t get accommodations for my dog, Miley, and because we were idealists. We don’t run away from home. We trust the army, the state, the bomb shelter, and the Iron Dome. We felt like we were in a safe place even if there were some unpleasant times.

We did get previous warnings of terrorist infiltrations and there were real attempts here and there. At the beginning of Protective Edge in 2014, we got an alert that a terrorist cell had infiltrated and we were given instructions not to go outside and to darken our homes. This was when they discovered Hamas’s tunnels and that two of them had become operational for attacks. There was an awakening among the residents of the Gaza Envelope, and we evacuated for a few days.

This time, we left the house without taking clothes. I only took my guitar. This was the first time we really felt that we were saving ourselves and couldn’t stay. For the first week, we stayed with Naama’s sister in Ein HaShofet, and from there we moved to a hotel in Tel Aviv that most of the moshav’s residents were evacuated to.

Sderot residents protest against the government’s plan to return them to their homes, Jerusalem, January 22, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

A week after the disaster, we were supposed to celebrate Johnnie’s bar mitzvah in the moshav. For three months, we had gone together to Kibbutz Dorot, where he learned how to read the parsha (a section of the Torah recited in synagogue on Shabbat) of Noah, and it was a very special experience.

Four days after the disaster, I wrote a Facebook post about my dreams of being a father standing by his son on his bar mitzvah, which was something I didn’t have the privilege of as a child. My whole family from Sderot was evacuated to Eilat, our friends were going from funeral to funeral, and some of them had become bereaved families. I didn’t know what to do.

The post made it to singer Hanan Ben Ari, who picked up the gauntlet and announced that he would arrange everything, and he did. On the fourth of Heshvan (the second month in the Hebrew calendar), Johnnie’s birthday, we went to a synagogue in Pardes Hanna where a big and emotional reception awaited us. Everyone who was called up to bless the Torah carried the joy for us. People we had never met came to celebrate with us and then even thanked us for giving them the privilege to take part.

Life in the hotel

A week after the disaster, we arrived at the hotel in Tel Aviv with great anticipation. We were excited as a collection of survivors. You meet friends from the moshav and cry with them, and people tell you what they went through, and the puzzle begins to put itself together from the personal stories.

We decided to stay with the community in the hotel. We wanted Johnnie to be with his friends and Libbi to be with her friends, and my daughter Maya was also with us. Some 200 families evacuated to the hotel in Tel Aviv and another 70 families evacuated to a hotel in Ma’ale Hahamisha. The bereaved families were in separate apartments so that they could have a private and quiet place to grieve.

It was an indescribable month filled with funerals and shivas (a week of ritual mourning after the funeral). In one day, we attended three funerals of people we knew. My friend decided to bury his mother, Hevik Segel, in Genigar. Some people had funerals in one place and then went to Netiv Ha’asara for the burial.

The ruins of Sderot Police Station building that was attacked on October 7 by Hamas terrorists, October 21, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Friends of mine from Sderot were also killed. Police officers I had grown up with and Ofir Libstein, the council head from Kfar Aza, who was a good friend of mine. The paradise I grew up in turned into hell in a single moment. I attended funeral after funeral, and my heart broke but there was no time to gather my strength as I needed to strengthen others.

There are also pleasures in the hotel. The food is solace, but you say to yourself, “Hello, this is messing up my life. I had a clear order, including in my diet, but now everything is abnormal in our lives. Our diet, our days, and our habits.”

You feel like a plant that has been uprooted and evaporated. You try to plant yourself in a place you don’t know to feed your basic need for water and air. It’s like trying to put a plant that needs earth into concrete. That’s how I feel.

Somehow, we manage our lives here in the hotel. The kids go to school, and we’re busy finding strength and a routine to recreate things we had before.

We come from the countryside where we don’t have trouble with fresh air, parking, a lack of space, and income. Here in the hotel, Naama and I live in one room with Johnnie. Libbi and Maya are in another room. We schedule meetings in the morning and the afternoon in the hotel dining room, and it doesn’t always work out. At home, everyone is in one place (except my daughter Shay who lives with her family in Arad) and there’s a daily agenda.

Next month, we’ll begin our return home, slowly and carefully. We will continue to live in Tel Aviv until Johnnie and Libbi finish the school year, and sometimes we’ll go to the tent and host groups. I will perform, sing, and tell my personal story which is quite dynamic because life is dynamic and my story changes with it.

Micha Biton in Tel Aviv, February, 2024. (Dafna Talmon)

What will happen with the performance?

When people call to book a performance, they ask me whether I talk about October 7 and I ask them if they want to hear about it.

I have learned to tell my story from a place of light and faith. How? Because we survived. Because our prayers and God saved us. Because we made it out of the inferno and met a people who are embracing and lifting us up. There is a lot of light and power in that despite the pain for all those who luck passed over. There is no doubt that if your life was saved, there is light.

Is faith the anchor?

It’s obvious to me that God exists. He exists in me. He exists in conscience, feelings, morality, and in being considerate. I also feel Him when I ask for strength to make it through or for healing for someone else.

Every morning, I put on my phylacteries and I feel like that ritual protects me. That is the action that propels me into the day. I have regular prayers in the language of my soul, not the siddur (prayer book). I don’t approach prayer with requests but with gratitude. I don’t beg for the future, I say thank you for what I already have.

Micha Biton in Tel Aviv, February 2024. (Dafna Talmon)

I don’t make promises and don’t negotiate with God that I will do such and such a thing if he gives me what I want. I feel that gratitude creates an inner reality that also affects the outside.

What else helps you?

Music, of course. In the first month, I didn’t touch the guitar. I allowed myself to be in total mourning for my friends and the idea that we survived. After that, I had to remind myself that music is actually my life and that it is also the thing that raises me back to the path of light.

Since the war broke out, I’ve put out two songs. One is a new version of my song “Sheyavo” (“May He Come”) with Shlomi and Leah Shabbat and Ehud Banai. I dedicated it to the memory of my four close friends who were murdered on October 7.

The second song, “For Immediate Release,” which was written by Shulamit Orbach, really spoke to me after I saw it in a post by Tamar Ish-Shalom. I composed it, recorded it, and dedicated it to Barak Ben Valid, my friend from Sderot Avi’s son, who was killed in Gaza.

Suddenly, you hear “For Immediate Release” every day, and these kids, these soldiers, are like your own children, and they’re giving their lives for your security and state. In the First Lebanon War, I was like them. I knew that I was fighting there for a holy cause, to protect the North. I know that they also understand what they are fighting for now.

Even though this war is the product of an ongoing insane failure?

The feeling of having been neglected was the only thing I focused on in the early days and it was awful for me. After that, I realized that I had to get up and pull myself together internally and externally for the people around me. There will be time to focus on who to blame, and there are people to blame.

This was 23 years of failure and a disaster that we knew would happen but didn’t imagine would be so like a Holocaust. It cannot be that everything we warned of was nothing. We said, “This is the sun,” and they told us, “No it isn’t, it’s the moon. It’s nighttime now, go to bed.” They put us to sleep.

But as long as our soldiers are fighting and being killed, it’s not the right time. The leadership is to blame and we need to settle the score with it, and we will when this is all over. All the people in the leadership, both civilian and military, will have to give answers, and more than that, I hope we change from the roots and that the conceptions that collapsed one after the other will change and we’ll finally understand what murderers we’re sharing the border with.

This isn’t the utopian period when we dreamed of peace and thought we had a partner who, like us, wanted the next generation not to live by its sword. They give their kids weapons and educate them to murder and hate.

IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip in a photo cleared for publication on March 10, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Those who worked in Netiv Ha’asara gave Hamas information on the moshav. The terrorists knew exactly where to go, where the armory was, where the head of security lived, and where the members of the emergency response team lived.

Have you changed?

I don’t know yet. It’s like asking an open wound when it will stop bleeding and scab over. There’s a healing period, and it needs a lot of respect. The wound may be open forever. It’s hard to know when you’re still uprooted, there’s still a war, you’re far from home, and the reality is stronger than imagination. I’m the same person, but with a different perspective. What was clear to me before is no longer clear.

Art as spiritual sustenance

When you live in the periphery, you occasionally go to see an exhibit in a museum, a concert, the theater, or the cinema. Here in Tel Aviv, you can feed yourself on spiritual sustenance almost every day at walking distance. We love that sustenance so much, and in Tel Aviv, it’s accessible.

The city, the streets, the heartbeat of life. All these things become your medicine. We have here the things we always loved and we get it now in high doses. I always look for the bright side (like the name of one of my albums) and in all this chaos, there is a bright side, even if it’s sometimes difficult to see.

Man walks past mural paintings in Florentine, Tel Aviv, calling for the release of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. November 28, 2023. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

In the early days, there was darkness. You don’t see well, you can only pray. And then you once again meet faith in a shred of light. In its heart of hearts, your soul knows that everything happens for a reason, and even if you don’t understand it now, maybe you will later, in another year, or in another life. So I continue to allow the light to lead.

What do you miss?

Morning in Netiv Ha’asara. Waking up and going into the garden, seeing Naama’s ceramics studio and the recording studio, taking a deep breath, and thanking God. Every morning, I would thank Him for the house, my family, my friends. Now, when I go to Netiv Ha’asara, which was defiled, I miss that feeling.

Bit by bit we’ll go back and nurture Netiv Ha’asara. It will go back to blooming. But that feeling of home? That’s the thing I miss most.

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