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 boy.
I am a Jew. I mourn.
In New York City, where I was raised in the 1970s, 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, in 2013, my perspective has 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, the 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 millenia, not decades, old.
I am a Jew. I mourn.
For the first time I have actual — not mythical — enemies. 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. From sands to Cedars, from the river to the sea, the Holy Land is a burial ground. Biblical, talmudic and contemporary bones rest together, stuffing ancient acreage with sorrow. Zion is a museum of disappointment. There is hope but little solace.
Under existential threat liturgy has new meaning. Prayers seem both timeless and cliched. It can be difficult to identify where devotion ends and desperation begins — or if there is any difference. I cannot be satisfied or at ease. Like previous generations, I worry, worship, wonder. My grief does not debilitate, does not overwhelm. Compared to that of others my sadness pales. But who compares? Psalms contain me. Job is my Whitman, Jeremiah my Frost.
Joy, indulgence, fulfillment exist in measure. I mourn what was and what was not, what cannot, what will not ever be. My grief is not heroic, my melancholy not profound. I mourn because I cannot help not to. 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 dismay, I nurse a cocktail of contradictions: two parts laughter, one part tears, with a healthy splash of guilt.