My Israel: Past and Present. An open wound that bleeds in all those who have lived there.

di Sheila Pierce Ortona

Four days after the October 7th’s Hamas attack and right before the 2023 war broke out in Israel, I wrote this reflective piece about our years posted in Tel Aviv (2010-2014). I wanted to get down on paper what my heart recalled about Israel before the aftermath of the horrific attacks might taint my memories. In turn, this piece, brought on difficult conversations with close friends of mine, and caused rifts in some friendships.


Shortly after I wrote it, a former Israeli elementary school teacher of my son praised me for my courage for posting my personal thoughts on social media. At first, I didn’t understand her comment. I felt helpless, and I wanted to offer my solidarity through words to my numerous Israeli friends. As a writer, I felt this was my deepest expression of compassion to a nation I had loved.


As time went by, and sides were taken. while freedom of speech polarized university campuses around the world, I understood what my son’s teacher had meant. However, two months into this horrible conflict in the Middle East, I do not regret what I wrote.


I take the side of a memoirist, one who wants to capture a privileged chapter in her personal life with her husband and family, and not forget that one country, in spite of its maddening, political situation, gave her a sense of peace and understanding of the Middle East while opening her mind to both sides of the story. Living there was understanding there. This piece is my side and my recollection, and it comes from my heart.

As of mid-December 2023, nine weeks of bloody and horrific war have passed, and, according to the BBC, nearly 20,000 people have died (1,200 killed in the Hamas massacre and nearly 19,000 killed in Gaza).

If only words were as powerful as weapons, we might be able to eclipse war with peace. May this essay I offer here inspire readers to write down their thoughts to preserve their own memories of the complicated yet poignant stories we have all lived around the world.

This is the peaceful Israel I know and want to remember. I cannot fathom what is currently happening now to the Israel I love. I will forever be grateful to Israel for the very happy four years I spent living in Tel Aviv with my husband and children. I cannot watch from afar the violent acts that are happening now without fear, horror and sadness. Through these photographs, allow me, please, to express my solidarity to a country that gave me the gift of family, friendship and freedom. Living there, I learned more about the world than anything I could have studied at school or read on my own. I felt the Israeli spirit of resilience in the Holy Land, and it has stayed with me and my children.

Over the past five days, since Israel was violently attacked by Hamas on October 7th, I recognize familiar backgrounds, sights, and sounds in the videos of the atrocious acts of violence whipping across social media. I know those cities that are being attacked. I know those teenagers running for their lives from the music festival. I know those grandmothers held hostage who had just spent hours preparing Shabbat dinner. I know those children who went to school with mine who were ripped from their beds. I know those military uniforms that teenagers of Israeli friends don when sent out into action. I know those parents who are worried sick about their children now fighting in their assigned military units. I know those war sirens. I know those bunkers everyone’s sheltering in that used to store our suitcases and bottles of water. I know the power of the Iron Dome from when it protected my husband’s office from missile attacks in Tel Aviv. And, because I know all this, watching the horror from afar makes me feel both ill (because it’s all familiar) and helpless (because I’m no longer there).

My husband and I visited Tel Aviv this past June 2023, for work and for pleasure. We hadn’t been back in ten years, and a flood of happy memories returned. Old Israeli friends — some from Tel Aviv, others from Jerusalem — greeted us with the warmth of the Shabbat dinners to which they used to invite us. In conversation, we were reminded of their resilience, determination, and curiosity which inspired us then (and now) to live our own lives with a similar passion. Upon seeing these old friends, it felt as if not a day had passed. When we gave them short notice to join us for a last-minute meal, their answer was always the same: “Of course.”

We recalled how much we had grown as a young couple and a young family thanks to the support that our Israeli friends gave us at a time when we lived far away from our own families. We recalled the time we returned to the Ben Gurion Airport and our son said, upon spotting the Israeli flag, “Oh, good, we’re home.” We recalled how our friends always inspired us to live life to the fullest today because they never knew what could happen tomorrow. And now tomorrow has come and their resilience persists.

Tel Aviv was our second posting in the Italian foreign service, when our children were very small. My daughter arrived shortly after her first birthday, and my son was three. Israel gave them a fairytale childhood. We lived near the beach, and they spent hours running barefoot along the shore while our dog frolicked in the dunes, and all of us grew indifferent to military jets occasionally flying overhead.

Our kids’ taste buds still crave couscous, cucumbers, pita, and hummus, all the ingredients of an Israeli breakfast served mid-morning at their school. Our kids assumed everyone grew up with palm trees, with kind families inviting them for Friday night dinners, with university-aged students clocking in their military service between graduation and real life, with security checks at the supermarket, with talk of high-tech start-ups that resembled Silicon Valley’s.

The entrepreneurial spirit of Israel was contagious in making me prolific as a writer and proactive as a parent. During my time in Israel, I started writing my blog, which would eventually morph into this newsletter. I wrote my first blog post from the Dead Sea. I had three fantastic Israeli creative writing teachers, one of whom I had lunch with just last week while he was visiting Rome. In Tel Aviv, I wanted to tell all, as it was there that my thoughts started forming of myself as a writer whose multi-cultural experiences made me feel at home in the blend of Israel’s mixed gene pool.

There, as a mother, I experienced raising my kids in a third culture in addition to the two we already had in our household. Together with a wonderful group of women, I also fought to keep my kids’ pre-school alive and move it to a more secure setting to guarantee its future. Their phenomenal Israeli-American teachers spent all year encouraging them to be “can-do” kids, giving them confidence from a young age in an ever-changing and diverse world.

There is a small playground in Rome off of Via Salaria dedicated to former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. This past Sunday, the day after the initial attacks, my husband and I walked past it. We were relieved to see it overflowing with children playing freely, yet reluctant to think about children in Israel who were no longer out on the swings or slipping down a slide.

Seeing its primary colors of ropes and ladders reminded me of the hours I spent with my children on the spectacular playgrounds sprinkled around Tel Aviv with jungle gyms, trampolines, and zip lines that made every playdate feel like a parcours workout. Oh, how we played freely in Israel, sauntering in the outdoors amidst its balmy weather.

It’s the innocent children I worry about most in these violent times — those kidnapped, those held hostage, those dying, those without their parents or siblings, on both sides. And those, of course, in the military reserve that are being called to duty, many of whom are only a year older than my son.

In 2010, three months after we had moved to Israel, we were robbed at home. No one was hurt, and, nothing of great value was stolen. We were all fine but felt shaken. However, something remarkable came out of the incident: a friendship that formed with the Israeli police officer to whom we reported the break-in. A week after the incident, he invited us to his family’s Shabbat dinner. Months later, we attended his son’s bar mitzfah. At the event, his niece took this photograph below of my children guiding each other as they walked up and down the steps of old Jaffa with their little legs and helping hands.

[Photo of small hands of Luca & Sofia in Jaffa]

This is a complicated and highly emotional war. May we all give a hand, however we can, to see it come to an end soon. I’m afraid all these photos may soon be archived as images of another era. But I will always preserve them as snapshots of the beautiful Israel I knew and loved in the four years of happiness it graced upon our lives.

Sheila Pierce Ortona

An American journalist temporarily based in Rome, fumbling through the Italian foreign service and motherhood, Sheila Pierce writes about Italy and Expat Life in her weekly Substack-newsletter “Missives from a Metropolis and on her blog (

Giornalista americana temporaneamente a Roma, cerca di destreggiarsi tra  le esperienze in sedi all’estero e gli impegni di madre alle prese con una città non sempre facile. Scrittrice e corrispondente, scrive di Italia e di “Expat Life” sul suo blog ( e in una newsletter settimanale, “Missives from a Metropolis”. Su Altrov’è animerà la nuova Rubrica “Greetings from Rome” indirizzata soprattutto ai lettori non italiani e disponibile, sul sito web, in italiano e inglese.  

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