Although we had been there for hours already, it was nearly 4:00AM when we were ushered in to a small room off to the side of the library. There, a police detective sat behind a desk filling in forms. He greeted us with a gravitas appropriate to the situation and told us that our son had died “like a hero.” I wasn’t sure what he meant then and I’ve wondered about it since. I think that usually one would say this about someone who had done something considered, well, heroic – fighting back, hitting out, sacrificing himself to save others. But my son, and four others, had been slowly hunted down in the library stacks – shot as they crouched between the holy books – listening to the shots that took the lives of those killed before them, and the cries of the dying and wounded. There was no escape for them, but others had somehow escaped. Through stealth or even frontal assault on the terrorist, others had made it out of the library that night alive. Five boys, my son included, had not. Instead, one was shot at his desk and the others where they huddled among the tomes of Jewish law—each in his turn, as the shooter meticulously made his way down the rows of books. Three others had already been shot at point-blank range even before the killer entered the library. This was their “hero’s death.” This was their end.
For me and my family, though, this was a beginning. We were suddenly thrust into new roles as part of a select group—“the bereaved families”. This is a uniquely Israeli sub-tribe of which everybody in this country is all too aware—a result of the nearly surreal Israeli existence under the dual clouds of war and terrorism. Like hundreds before us, we too had now lost a son in the ongoing battle over the Holy Land. Lights, cameras… interviews—suddenly our ordinary children were “holy martyrs” and we, somehow, perhaps by way of association, perhaps as part of some public defense mechanism unable to accept the utter horror of these cruel deaths, we became heroes ourselves.
I am not a hero. Nothing in my life has ever been epic. I have striven for and attained comfortable anonymity. And then—this. Murder, blood and pain beyond belief—all splattered across the evening news. Something that could literally bring tens of thousands out into the streets. With me (and the other families) at their center. To the terrible weight of loss was added the oddity of a nearly macabre notoriety. (People would soon be introducing me to strangers as one of the fathers from the Merkaz Harav massacre).
My personal experience has exposed me to the often difficult tension between the intimacy of loss and its public expression. Mourning Under Glass is intended as an exploration of this tension, an exploration of memory and memorial: The first intimately personal, the second always extrinsic. How does one hold on to that which is no longer? Does the “outing” of memory strengthen it, or like exposure to the sun, cause it to fade? Israel is a place where the tragic has become common. By common, I mean both usual and belonging to the public. While grieving takes place deep within, in my case, I mourned while thousands looked on from without.
Mourning Under Glass contains the recollections of a year of mourning after a terrorist attack still featured on YouTube, which still has people dedicating books and buildings in memory of its young victims—even planning monuments. In it I examine the accepted and (sometimes expected) interplay of the private and public sense of loss which follows tragedy. Why does an act of terror, violence directed at innocents and meant to capture public attention, succeed in its latter goal so well? What does this mean for those left to mourn its victims? Is there such a thing as public mourning, or is it mere sound and fury? Does the sanctity of a “martyr’s death” do anything to heal the profanity of vicious murder?
It is on this axis, tightly stretched between the private and public, that Mourning Under Glass hangs. In the time since the murder of my first-born son, Avraham David, I have felt myself pulled back and forth, inward and outward, between the two. I have asked myself time and again whether pain made public becomes something else: something more, something less, something better, something worse. The book explores the ways that the public—the media, the government, and hundreds of Jews world over—responded to this horrific event. How is such tragedy parsed into something of meaning? Or is it?
Mourning Under Glass is not an academic work; it contains few footnotes. But, as the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit has properly observed, no “seismograph can tell us what it is like to be in an earthquake. For that we need a moral witness.” Ultimately, that is how I would identify my book—it is a testament to the experience of terror’s wrath that no mere scholarly apparatus can provide. It is a primary-source document detailing the all too timely effects of terror’s murderous wake through Israeli life.