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Like the title character in Franz Kafka’s story “A Hunger Artist,” I invite Heaven to look down upon me. That artist’s muse was professional fasting, retreating into himself inside a small cage. As townsfolk marveled at his endurance, the artist would deny himself the smallest morsel, for “the honor of his profession forbade it.” He was a popular performer, everybody wanting to see him at least once each day. Sometimes, after forty days, the artist would oppose eating, wondering why he should lose out on “beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination.”
My mourning too feels sometimes like theater, 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. Orphans in a widowed city, we are destitute, afflicted. Each year we extend this predictable eulogy far beyond imagination. After obsessive sacrifice and guilt, the 25-hour midsummer fast will conclude with steaming coffee and cinnamon buns. Life can be that way.
Toward the end of his life, the hunger artist was observed by a nostalgic father and his children. In the twilight of his career, the artist alleged he could “astound the world by establishing a record never yet achieved,” in his zeal forgetting the evolution of public opinion. When the father prompted his children they were “rather uncomprehending, since neither inside or outside school had they been sufficiently prepared for this lesson.” Times had changed. The thrill of hunger artistry was gone. Those children no longer cared.
Tonight I am in Jerusalem with my caring children, who are prepared at home and school for the occasion. 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.
I no more enjoy grief than did Kafka’s artist relish hunger. When asked by an overseer why his fasting should not be admired, the hunger artist admitted that he has to fast, that he “can’t help it.” “And why can’t you help it?” asked the overseer. “Because I couldn’t find the food I liked,” said the hungry performer, “If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.”
I surely deserve no admiration. If I knew how not to grieve I would choose not to. If I knew how not to remember I would forget. I mourn out of practice and necessity, cry only for the uncertainty to end. Were there an alternative I would choose not to be hated, choose not to be hurt. Were it possible I would choose for my children to be naive, to not be frightened. I would prefer they not inherit this fuss.
I am a Jew. Someday I will not mourn.
Mendel Horowitz is a therapist and educator living in Israel.