This article is dedicated to Max Steinberg who did not just admire a hero but became one himself.
The other night, over frozen-peanut-butter-pie, I spoke to my children about Auschwitz. A Sabbath guest had mentioned his father’s unfortunate childhood and I seized the opportunity to discuss tattoos. My teenage children knew of the terrible numbering technique but my eight-year-old was baffled. Genocide makes for awkward dessert conversation. “On their arms?” wondered my innocent child. I rolled up my sleeve to demonstrate.
I am a Jew. I mourn.
In New York City, where I was raised in the 1970’s, we cried for Eastern Europe first, Judea second. Survivors were everywhere, ubiquitous in synagogues, bakeries, and delicatessens. Yiddish was second to English, Hebrew a faraway third. A decade before Schindler’s List, my grade-school yearbook was Holocaust themed. I heard Simon Wiesenthal speak of hatred, grandparents speak of childhoods slain. I prayed for Zion but mourned Berlin, lamented temples but wept for Lublin. Romans were abhorrent but Germans were far worse.
In Israel, 2014, my perspective is changed.
Reminders of my people’s fabled defeats are inescapable. On weathered walkways and satin-smooth stones, in the pastoral names of cities and streams, evidence of storied atrocities is everywhere. Here, English is second to Hebrew, Yiddish a distant third. With my grandparents long gone Eastern Europe seems out of the way, the ruin of Jerusalem closer to my heart. In my Western Wall reveries, the enemy shouts Latin not German, Hadrian threatens more than Hitler. Tears are millennia, not decades, old.
I am a Jew. I mourn.
For the first time I have actual not mythical enemies. Here Jewish warriors dangle numbers from their necks, extrinsic symbols of strength born from intrinsic suffering. On buses and roadways, in marketplaces and cafes, haters plot to kill me. Death is now called for in Arabic, another language I do not understand. On all sides Ishmael plots my dying.
From tunnels they ambush my being. With cynicism they intimidate my resolve. From safety they menace my humanity. With rockets they terrorize my home. I am thousands of years old and depleted.
From sands to Cedars, from the river to the sea, the Holy Land is a graveyard. Biblical, Talmudic, and contemporary bones rest together, stuffing ancient acreage with gloom. Zion is a museum of anguish. There is hope but little solace.
Under existential threat liturgy has new meaning. Prayers seem both timeless and cliché. It can be difficult to identify where devotion ends and desperation begins. Or if there is any difference. I solicit the potency of books while heroes known only in death forfeit for me their bodies. I beg as cousins bleed, plead as brothers die. I cannot be satisfied or at ease. Like generations before I worry, worship, wonder.
In the UN and on the web I am libeled. Diplomatically, I am abandoned or worse. In my own country and in others I am besieged. Not surprisingly, I am hated, and again, alone. Rationality is a casualty of living. Slowly, I am being driven mad.
Dread renders me on edge. Grief renders me helpless, broken. I am preoccupied by mayhem and dying. I observe valor but remain anxious, witness bravery but feel neither confident nor strong. Ceasefires do nothing to calm me. Iron Dome protects but marginally inspires. I raise my phone each time with fright.
The adversary is devilish, wicked. The opponents are suspiciously naive. I find comfort in unity but not enough. I muster courage through others but it does not suffice. Compared to other mourners my desolation pales. But who compares? Psalms barely contain me. Job is my Whitman, Jeremiah my Frost.
I am a Jew. I mourn.
Joy, indulgence, fulfillment exist in measure. Solidarity is a salve for my heart that stays wounded. I mourn what was and what was not, what cannot, what will not ever be. My misery in not heroic, my melancholy not profound. I mourn because I cannot help not to. I grieve for the Golani of Shuja’iya, weep for the schoolboys of Gush Etzion. This summer the killing hurts.
It is not only death I lament, not only exile I bemoan. I sigh for opportunities not taken, options unfulfilled. I mourn the triumph of iniquity, the defeat of possibilities. Heartache is a habit born from history. I can be happy but not without misgiving, can look forward but not without regret.
Down by the river my ancestors wept when recalling Zion. And lest my right hand wither, the honor of my tradition forbids me to forget. Millennia of exile have made jubilation impossible, elation always undermined by pangs of discontent. Sadness alone is not depression, though. My tradition also mandates festivals, longing, living. With a calendar marked by occasions of glee and instances of terror, I nurse a cocktail of contradictions. Two parts song, one part tears, with a healthy splash of conscience.
My mourning feels sometimes like theatre, a lingering tragedy that drags on and on and on. Cross-legged on the floor, by the glimmer of melting candles, poetic Lamentations soak the midnight air with woe. I have come to the ancient wall with throngs of wailing others on the ninth of the month of Av, the Super Bowl of mourning. Orphans in a widowed city, we are destitute, afflicted. Each year we beat our own record, extending this predictable eulogy far beyond imagination. After obsessing of sacrifice and guilt, the 25-hour midsummer fast will conclude with steaming coffee and cinnamon buns. Life can be that way.
Tonight I am in Jerusalem together with my sympathetic children, who are prepared by a summer of sirens for the occasion. No shelter exists for worried hearts. As on Passover we celebrate freedom on the ninth of Av we honor sorrow. Life has always been that way and seemingly always will. My children are aware of their bloodlines - of calamities and horrors, accomplishments and dreams. To be a Jew is to preserve each opposite because we cannot afford not to. With Auschwitz in mind we move forward. With the future in mind we look back. Shuja’iya is but kilometers away.
I am a Jew. I hope someday to just be.
A version of his article originally appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward.