Jay Michaelson
Three Jewish Books on Sadness, p. 2

Mandell’s lesson is actually very simple: you can’t go on, but you do go on, and pain opens you up. It’s a message that is at once surprisingly stoic and hopeful. It also defied my expectations: the cover of the book, which features a cheesy image of a woman reaching toward a bird in the sky (or perhaps letting it fly), as well as the book’s title (“The Blessing of a Broken Heart”) portended much worse. I hesitated picking the book up at all, fearful that it was going to contain the sort of pap that ‘inspirational’ titles often do. I thought we might hear about how Mandell now sees every moment of life as precious, or how the death of her son brought her to a place of spiritual openness, or something on that order. But the book is much better than that. Mandell is crushed by her son’s murder; devastated. She doubts, she cries, she fears, and she is told by many wise teachers, as well as parents who have lost children, that the pain will never end. Nor does it end, by the time the book is over. She is still hurting.

The seventy short chapters of The Blessing of a Broken Heart are meditations, a few on aspects of Jewish theology, many more on the faces of Mandell’s own grief. Mandell has experiences she interprets as signs from God, but she doubts herself every step of the way B she’s not even the sort of person who believes in “signs from God.” And yet here she is. Wisely, she leaves her intimations of God’s “greater plan” vague and undefined. Mandell is one of the rare, wise spiritual writers who doesn’t pretend to know what’s going on.

What are the blessings of a broken heart? Here is one of Mandell’s characteristically subtle, angry, wise answers:

And now I am the woman whom people don’t know how to address. I fill people with the dread of death. I remind them that death is around us. But by being the person nobody wants to be, I can console others because I am not separate from anybody’s pain. I can’t distance myself. I don’t have that luxury. I can be there for others because my suffering includes so many of the permutations of pain.

Notice how Mandell is not under any illusions here. She knows that she makes her friends and neighbors uncomfortable, and knows that she cannot un-see the “permutations of pain” which she has experienced firsthand. She is not about to transform her pain into something other than pain. But in her brokenness -- not by repairing it, not by sublimating it -- she is wide open to the pain of others.

“Grieving is also the place of God,” Mandell writes a bit later on, “a sacred space that connects heaven and earth.” This is so because, like Sisera’s mother, whose anguished cry inspires the sound of the shofar, Mandell’s grief is self-shattering. She doesn’t need a meditation retreat to annihilate her ego; it has been devastated by terror.

The politics of Mandell’s book are complicated. Her family lives (or lived, at the time of the attack) in Tekoa, a settlement in the West Bank; her son was murdered, with a friend, nearby. Throughout the book are scattered small asides which minimizie the reality of Israeli violence (violence which, it could be said, enables Tekoa to exist), or condemning Arab culture in general for the barbarism of her son’s murderers. The Blessing of a Broken Heart is not a political book, and not a call for revenge. And I am certain that the expressions of rage which do occasionally surface are, above all, honest. Having lost a not-terribly-close friend to a terrorist attack eight years ago, I know myself that it would be incomplete for Mandell not to include the rage that she feels not at God or the world in general, but to the Palestinians in particular. Political violence breeds political, particularized grief. That is part of its poison. Yet there is still an unease, in the book, that Mandell may be a victim of this cycle, rather than someone who has come to recognize it as evil. I don’t expect nobility of spirit, or sunny, Anne-Frank-style belief that all people are good at heart. But I had hoped for Mandell’s brilliantly ambivalent gaze might be turned here, too.

For her part, Mandell started a foundation, named after her son, which runs programs for families torn apart by terror. In this, and in the stories of connection which she tells, is perhaps a bit of redemption from the political. Ultimately, war causes pain, and creates widows and orphans. When Mandell sees the 9/11 attacks on television, she writes, her first feeling is pain: she knows what thousands of families are now about to go through. What she understands, and what so many politicians seem not to, is that this searing pain is what our current struggles are really all about. And why they should never be entered into lightly.

Only rarely does Mandell draw on religious sources for consolation and comfort. Although she took on an Orthodox lifestyle as an adult, one senses in her book that, while the rituals and Jewish observance give shape to her life, its teachings do not really penetrate her grieving soul. She’s not looking for a verse or a psalm to make her feel better -- really, she’s not looking to feel better at all. I cannot imagine what her grief is like, but I was moved by her refusal to paper it over.

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December 2004

Straight Eye for the Consumer Guy
Dan Friedman

I'll Say Goodbye and Let you Go
Abigail Pickus

Three Jewish Books on Sadness
Jay Michaelson

Rachel Barenblat

The Other Jews: Secularism, Kabbalah and Radical Poetics
Hila Ratzabi

A Jewish Masterpiece
David Zellnik

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From previous issues:

Zionism and Colonialism
Michael Shurkin

Josh Ring's Track Meet
Josh Ring

Are we all asleep?
Jay Michaelson