When the Music Stopped and the Grief Began

An exhibition in New York City of objects and testimonies collected from the Nova Festival massacre on Oct. 7 is heartbreaking, for reasons both intended and unintended

When the Music Stopped and the Grief Began
Nova survivor Natalie Sanandaji and Reef Peretz, Chair of the Nova Foundation, look at the names and faces of people killed during the Nova festival on Oct. 7, 2023. (Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images for The Nova Music Festival Exhibition)

The first room of the exhibition called “October 7th | 06:29am — The Moment Music Stood Still: The Nova Music Festival Exhibition,” at 35 Wall Street in New York’s financial district, smelled strongly of Sai Baba incense. It’s a distinctive scent that evokes yoga classes and meditation events at places like the Osho ashram in Pune, India. Pune is a familiar destination for Israeli backpackers, who often choose to spend several months wandering around India after their military service in a kind of rumspringa before they return home to get on with the business of adulthood. When I traveled from New Delhi to Tel Aviv in 2000, I met a young Israeli man who had packed an entire duffel bag with Sai Baba products — incense, soap and massage oil. He hoped, he said, that it would remind him of the “shanti” time he had spent in India. His apartment smelled of it for years, long after he went to work at his father’s garage, married and had his first child.

In Israel, the influence of those trips to India is seen in the popularity of meditation events, yoga classes, trance parties and the incorporation of Sanskrit words like “shanti” to mean “chill” or “relaxing” in the contemporary vernacular.

The Nova exhibition is composed of objects, photographs, video clips, voice messages and oral testimonies from the trance party near Kibbutz Reim that Hamas militants from Gaza attacked at 6:29 a.m. on Oct. 7. Armed militants killed an estimated 364 people, while hundreds of others managed to escape in their cars or hide in a grove of trees for hours, until the army finally arrived. About 40 partygoers were abducted to Gaza.

A sign at the beginning of the exhibition warns visitors that it includes depictions of violence they might find disturbing. Text projected onto a large screen asks visitors “to walk together with us along the winding path from the depths of pain and loss to the threshold of the action, healing and hope of community.” On screens mounted in various places, survivors of the Nova music festival describe the trance parties in language that evokes spirituality and community. They talk about Nova festival attendees as a “tribe” of wonderful people for whom dancing until dawn was an act of meditation. The word “peace” is said many times. Now the survivors gather for workshops designed to help the process of healing from the trauma of Oct. 7.

Objects collected from Reim after the massacre and displayed at the exhibition include tents and sleeping bags arranged as though the people sleeping in them had just stepped away a moment ago. There are several carcasses of burned-out cars, reminiscent of the Freedom Rider bus that white nationalists firebombed in 1961, and which activists then displayed around the United States to raise awareness of the struggle for Black civil rights in the Southern states.

Several tables are piled with clothing, knapsacks and, most significantly, shoes. On a video screen next to the table of shoes, a woman who headed the volunteer unit for restoring objects collected from the site of the Nova festival makes an explicit comparison between the shoes on the table and the displays of shoes one sees piled behind glass at the Auschwitz museum or at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The visual at those museums of uncountable shoes — especially the shoes that belonged to children — is a gut punch. Here the massacre of 364 people at a music festival is presented on a continuum with industrial genocide at Nazi extermination camps where millions were gassed, starved or shot.

Many of the screens show video clips recorded during the massacre. Some were recorded by Hamas attackers and uploaded to their own social media channels. Others were recorded by terrified festival attendees as they hid in trees and dumpsters, or as they raced toward their cars and drove away in a frantic and often doomed attempt to escape. I was slightly discomfited by the realization that I had seen all of the videos several times and had heard almost in real time the recorded voice notes terrified partygoers sent to their parents — and that I had, as a result of my previous (over)exposure, become a bit desensitized. How much time must I have spent online, poring over those images and voices? But I do remember the deep shock of viewing those videos for the first time, which some of the people at the exhibition seemed to be experiencing.

An acquaintance who is also Jewish visited the exhibition and posted a photo on their social media channel of the shoe display, which is bathed in a brownish light that makes the dusty sneakers, sandals and boots look old and sepia-colored, like those old brown shoes in the glass display cases at Yad Vashem. She did not post a caption, but dozens of her friends understood and responded immediately. “Very hard not to think of those other piles of shoes in those other museums,” commented one person, with a broken heart emoji, while others said they couldn’t bear to visit the exhibition. Too painful, they said.

There were quite a few Modern Orthodox Jews at the exhibition, identifiable by their head coverings. I saw one woman wearing a headscarf tied in the distinctive style of religious Jewish women weeping as she stood in front of a display, while a man wearing a crocheted yarmulke pinched the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger and covered his eyes with his hand as he swayed in the traditional posture of a person at prayer.

The presence of religious Jews at this place was interesting, I felt, because it spoke not only to the Modern Orthodox community’s strong religious-ideological identification with Israel, but also to the confused messaging around the Nova festival memorial. The massacre took place on Simchat Torah, a Jewish holy day that comes at the end of Sukkot and that Orthodox Jews mark with prayer and ritual. Attending a trance party on that day is anathema to Jewish religious practices, but somehow the massacre has become incorporated into the historical narrative of mass violence against Jews that I remember reciting at Jewish summer camp on Tisha be-Av — the day Jews mourn the destruction of the ancient temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent exile — which usually falls in August. We were taught that it was the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. While sitting in the traditional manner on the floor and chanting Lamentations, we also name-checked post-Biblical tragedies like the 1190 massacre in York, or the Cossack pogroms led by Bogdan Chmielnicki in late 17th-century Ukraine, or the pogroms in late 19th- and early 20th-century Tsarist Russia, or the Holocaust. The message, both implicit and explicit, was a particularist one about the continual persecution of the Jews going back to ancient times. It is repeated in a liturgical poem read at the Passover seder that calls for the end of Jewish exile; the poem includes the line “in every generation they rise up to destroy us.”

In one room of the exhibition, photos are hung on three long walls, four rows high, with the images, names and brief bio blurbs of the people killed. Memorial candles are placed on the floor. Notepaper with the Nova logo and the postmassacre slogan “We will dance again” is available to people who want to write a memorial message and place it under the photos. A note signed by Toby, with a heart drawn next to their name, read: “You did not die in vain. We will destroy Hamas.” In Hebrew, Toby had added: “The people of Israel live.” This call for destruction seemed to conflict with the messaging of the exhibition, which presents it as a place for people to heal from grief and work for peace. And then there was the sudden, jarring sound of Hatikvah playing from a video screen showing the Israeli flag. There was dissonance in hearing the Israeli national anthem at an exhibition about the universal message of peace, love and healing after a massacre at a trance music festival.

My feeling was that the people who had created this exhibition were not clear about their motives. This is understandable: They are traumatized and grieving. My worry is that the strong feeling of grievance and victimization that has taken hold of Israeli society since the Second Intifada is driving the narrative, which is in turn weaponized for cynical political reasons. Over 24 years of reporting about Israel-Palestine, I have seen how dangerous and insidious grievance culture can be.

Was the Oct. 7 massacre at the Nova Festival an act of brutal violence visited upon a group of peace-loving universalist humanists of all backgrounds who had gathered to dance to trance music until dawn, or was it a massacre perpetrated upon Jews by people who were modern-day pogromists — who hated them only because they were Jews? The interpretation that the massacre was an act of antisemitic violence, that it marked a continuum of the violent persecution Jews have suffered since ancient times, requires glossing over factors like the presence of non-Jews who were killed at Reim. One of them was Awad Darawshe, a 23-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel who was a paramedic assigned to the festival. Darawshe refused to leave when Hamas attacked, according to a cousin quoted in an Associated Press report, because he was committed to helping the wounded and believed that as a Palestinian and an Arabic speaker he would be safe. The Hamas attackers killed him anyway.

At the end of the exhibition there was a little gift shop, where visitors could purchase T-shirts or baseball caps with the slogan “We will dance again.” There were also “diskits,” the Hebrew word for rectangular metal ID tags that soldiers wear, engraved with the same slogan. A small sign next to the price list indicated that the profits would be donated to the Nova Festival. And there was an espresso bar, cafe chairs and tables — a rest area decorated with “We will dance again” in a large blue neon sign hung over a curtained wall.

Outside, in the humidity of an unseasonable heatwave, Wall Street was still blocked off with metal police barricades. A week earlier pro-Palestine protesters had staged a demonstration outside the exhibition, chanting slogans that ranged from “Free Palestine” to “Long live the Intifada” and “Israel go to hell.” Prominent Democratic politicians from New York City, including Mayor Eric Adams, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, condemned the protesters in strong language, with Ocasio-Cortez posting on X (formerly Twitter): “The callousness, dehumanization, and targeting of Jews on display at last night’s protest outside the Nova Festival exhibit was atrocious antisemitism – plain and simple. Antisemitism has no place in our city nor any broader movement that centers human dignity and liberation.”

One week later Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries visited the Nova exhibition for a guided tour that was covered by NY1, a widely watched local news station. The reporter implied that Jeffries took the tour for the sake of Bowman’s primary campaign, after Bowman became a lightning rod for controversy when he accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza and questioned the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s military campaign. But the press event did not help Bowman. The Democratic representative lost his seat to primary challenger George Latimer, who presented himself as a strong supporter of Israel opposed to negotiating with Hamas. According to the BBC and the New York Times, AIPAC spent nearly $15 million in the primary to unseat Bowman from New York’s 16th congressional district. Bowman had won the heavily Jewish district in 2020 by campaigning on progressive issues like the Green New Deal and Medicare for all, but it seems that Oct. 7 caused a shift in priorities among liberal Jewish voters.

Scooter Braun, the music manager whose clients include Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, brought the exhibition to New York. In a June 12 interview for The Hollywood Reporter, he said the project was not political. “It’s just about a massacre at a music festival that should never have happened,” he said. Braun added: “Unfortunately, people see religion as politics. But music is a universal language, and music has to remain a safe place.” Braun said that he traveled to Israel to see the massacre site for himself, “Not because I needed to believe it. With Holocaust-surviving grandparents … I know this kind of evil exists.”

The Nova exhibition is heartbreaking in so many ways — for the bereaved families, the wounded, the traumatized and the abducted, certainly. And also because of the ongoing war that Israel launched in Gaza the following day, which has killed and wounded tens of thousands of civilians while displacing hundreds of thousands. We cannot pretend, however, that the exhibition is apolitical. Intentionally or not, “The Moment Music Stood Still” illustrates how the Oct. 7 massacre at Reim has been commodified to further a communal narrative and weaponized for political purposes. Jews in Israel and the diaspora have presented it as an attack on Jews qua Jews, without reference to the non-Jews killed at Reim or to the tens of thousands of Palestinians the Israeli army killed and wounded in Gaza in retribution for the events of Oct. 7.

Meanwhile, the pro-Palestine demonstrators who protested the exhibition seem to have confused opposition to the war and support for the civilians of Gaza with a politically inchoate and dehumanizing demonstration against an exhibition about people who were massacred at a trance party. I gather that the protesters’ narrative rests partly on the belief that weaponizing the massacre at Reim for political purposes prolongs the war in Gaza. That may or may not be true, though I’m pretty sure there are much bigger geopolitical factors at play. But it seems to me that the place to protest the war is elsewhere, where those who are funding and waging it are located — like the White House, Congress, the Pentagon or Israel’s diplomatic missions.

What’s absent in all this emotion — all this anger and grief — is what we so badly need right now: just a bit of critical thought and compassion for the other. “The Moment Music Stood Still” is a place to be shocked and perhaps to grieve or feel anger. But it does not move us any closer to peace, love or understanding.

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