I did not want to be on the plane I boarded in mid-July. I’ve been through a lot of wars, but this is the first one I was leaving the country for. How could I? I had two children in active service—a son who’s a special forces officer and a daughter in a combat infantry unit. The wonderful woman that my son was scheduled to marry in just weeks, herself an intelligence officer, had been called up as a reservist. Twice in the previous week sirens had gone off in Jerusalem as Hamas launched long-rage rockets in our direction.
But tickets for the trip, for a visit to Dad and Mom in Denver and a literary conference in New York, had long since been purchased, and Ilana insisted that I not change my plans. “It’s not as if by being here you could change anything,” she pointed out.
Ilana’s admonishment was more pregnant than she realized. For Israelis like me, loyal Zionists who have for decades spoken out for Israeli democracy, tolerance, and accommodation with the Palestinians, the Gaza War was triply depressing. We, our family, our friends, and our country are under attack and our soldiers and civilians are being killed. Israeli bombs have killed hundreds of people in the Gaza Strip, embittering a Palestinian population with whom we must find a way to live. But, no less worse, death and destruction are turning the people on both sides ever farther away from accommodation and mutual understanding. Should we give up? Are we really impotent when it comes to peace?
The power to change, the refusal to accept the world as it is and the impulse to make it better, is fundamental to Judaism. The concept of free will is built into the Jewish Bible and into the wisdom of rabbinic literature, the building block of the ethical systems of nearly all Jewish theologians and philosophers throughout the ages. Not only can we change ourselves and determine our own actions, we believe, but we can also, through our actions and words, cause other people to change the way they act and think.
The picture I see each morning when I turn on my computer is of my younger son, Niot, in a graveyard. His hands are on his hips, his head is cocked, his eyes look straight at me, and his lips are pressed into a half-smile that says, “What, you again?” He’s wearing a gray coat, striped on the shoulders with the straps of a red backpack. Under the coat is a blue Adidas sweatshirt and on his head is an indescribable hat, which perhaps has something to do with a defunct Polish yeshiva. The cemetery is in Poland, and the photograph was taken during his high school class trip to the concentration camps. Now he’s in another cemetery.
I didn’t miss him then. It was a time when I never missed any of my children. That is, I missed them in the sense that I enjoyed when they were home and wondered how they were doing when they were not, but I never felt that they were out of reach, that I desperately needed to talk to or touch them; I never feared that they would not come back. No longer, because Niot went away and didn’t.
When a child dies, he becomes incessantly present. Niot is always in my thoughts, all the time, and not in the back as he was when he was off at school or in the army. He’s always looking at me and asking, “What, you again?”
He’s close up in my mind, and right there on my computer screen, but so distant. As of the Shabbat in the middle of Pesach it’s three years now, and he grips my heart but recedes; I hold him tight but he is ever more distant.
Niot connected with friends and basketballs, not with poetry, but I often think of poetry when I think of him. Right now it’s a poem by one of my favorite living American poets, Sharon Dolin, and it’s called “The Problem of Desertion.” That’s the title, but it’s also the first line, because after it the poem goes like this:
occurs when time feels like space
and the dead are stuck
It’s spring here in Jerusalem. Fields, yards, and the few vacant lots that remain in this increasingly overbuilt city are burgeoning with blood-red anemones. Two weeks ago, Ilana and I visited a hill not too far away that is carpeted with purple lupines, growing over the ruins of an ancient city. The flowers perfume the air and after each of the rainy season’s final drizzles the soil itself smells alive.
Perhaps spring came late in Leipzig in 1727. How else to explain the sorrow of that opening chord in the organ and strings, the melody that rises, then falls as if it can go on no longer, only to rise again? Why, if your Redeemer died for your sins, did you sigh rather than celebrate? Why, if the equinox had passed and the day was already longer than the night, did you have the choir, entering just as the instrumental melody comes to rest, stun me with a wail of helplessness, of hopelessness, “Come ye daughters, share my lament—see him!”
The stranger wore a threadbare black sports jacket that looked like it might have come from a second-hand shop and a dusty black kipah. He stroked his short beard as he walked up and down the rows of graves as the ox plows, stopping for a few beats at each to read the headstone. In the row in front of me he had to detour around t-shirt and shorts-clad twenty-somethings from a Birthright group, listening to a guide I couldn’t hear. Finally he arrived at the last full row, the one where I sat, with the lawn in front of it waiting for new tragedies.
He nodded at me, hugging himself. I nodded back. After a moment of hesitation he spoke.
“It’s cold here in Jerusalem,” he said
I shrugged. “Here we’re used to the seasons starting to change the week before Rosh Hashannah. You must be from someplace warmer. Tel Aviv?”
“This night is no different from other nights,” says Pharaoh, “True, on previous nights I have had a son, and on this night I do not. But this is not relevant to what I must do now.”
“This time sounds different from other times,” says Mozart, “for in previous times I did not have a son, and now I do.”
What time is it? I write this two days before the Seder night. It will reach its readers a few days before Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers.
It is not a good time, I tell the friend who sits down next to me on the row of chairs outside the sanctuary. I have a glossed Haggadah open on my lap. I am trying to prepare for this year’s Seder, to think of how to retell, once more, the Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the sea. Pesach is next week and my son Niot, who was a soldier, will have been dead for a year. The earth has circled the sun a single time since the last Seder, which was the last night he was with us. We are cleaning and preparing once more to eat matzah and bitter herbs and tell again the story of how we came out of Egypt. Two and a half weeks later we will again remember the fallen soldiers. But this year is different, for there is a newly fallen soldier to remember, and he is my son. Continue reading Other Nights — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report→
I’m a Jew provincial enough to have only the vaguest notion about what gentiles do when a loved one dies. Non-Jews, and assimilated Jews, may be surprised, intrigued, or revolted by Shiv‘a, an award-winning Israeli/French film by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz. The film chronicles the traditional week of mourning observed by the large Moroccan-French-Israeli Ohaion family when a brother, Maurice, dies unexpectedly. A silent, stern-faced family matriarch and nine brothers and sisters, with their spouses, spend the week of mourning in the well-appointed Haifa apartment of the dead man’s widow and two young sons—sitting and eating on the floor, sleeping all together on mattresses in the living room, and churning their loves and hatreds, loves and rivalries, grudges and financial complications.
Shiv‘a—The Seven Days in English, a title that fails to convey the weight of the prescribed week-long mourning ritual—presents itself as a slice-of-life film. We viewers are eavesdroppers on the family’s week of alternately comforting and oppressive togetherness. We move from room to room, listening in on multilingual conversations not meant for our ears, hearing about secret affairs and about the failure of brother Haim’s successful factory, where he has employed several of his brothers. Continue reading Intimate Mourning–“Shiv’a”→