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When Strangers Mourn, a Nation Mourns : Israel: Acts of terrorism evoke tears of bereavement and a sense of personal loss, even when the victims are unknown.

October 30, 1994|SARAH SHAPIRO | American-born writer Sarah Shapiro has lived in Israel since 1976

JERUSALEM — Every family has its own style of mourning, and its times and reasons. So does each nation. My thoughts can wander around the cities of the world--Sarajevo, Port-au-Prince, Seoul, to the American parents in Italy whose child was killed in a drive-by shooting and try to imagine how various groups of people are feeling today.

In spite of cultural variations, however, there's a certain kind of crying which is common to all mourners: The person in question cries not because he knows it's wise to express his feelings, nor in the hope of getting over his feelings, nor because he has learned that weeping elicits sympathy and understanding. The mourner cries without ulterior motive. He knows, perhaps for the first time in his life, that no human being can help him, can restore what has been lost. What the death of a loved one does is turn the living person's eyes automatically to the invisible, unknown realm into which the other one has vanished. You can see this brush of the infinite on the face of anyone in mourning.

In Israel, as stipulated by Jewish law, people "sit shiva" the first week after a family member's death. They aren't expected to make conversation with condolence callers. They don't listen to music, permit themselves the pleasure of parties, of bathing, of meat or alcohol. Freed from the normal social conventions, they sit on lowered chairs, such as couches with the cushions removed, and just let the grief express itself. These customs are designed to unburden the mourner of any sense of responsibility to wear a stiff upper lip, to carry on bravely, to try to be happy in spite of the loss.

I paid a condolence visit to the Waxman family. I cannot claim them as friends, though they did once live in our neighborhood. But when, amid all the silent people streaming in and out of their living room, I finally caught sight of Esther Waxman, feet curled beneath her on their cushion-less sofa, her face was startlingly familiar from the newspaper photographs.

We all knew her. She was the one who had said of the Hamas kidnapers: "They talk about the God of us all."

Her husband's face was equally familiar. It was he who had asked that people not condemn Yitzhak Rabin for the unsuccessful rescue attempt, and who had said: "A father doesn't always say yes to his children. This time God said no, and to human beings, God's reasons are usually not apparent. But we still have faith in the God of mercy and justice."

When I went out into the day again, it was a sweet, magnificent autumn afternoon. A brush with death can make life itself seem exquisitely precious, and this morning was no exception. The sky was so blue, and on the bus ride home, the breeze through the window was like a mother's cool hand on my face.

Opposite me sat a blond, Slavic-looking woman, chin uplifted slightly with self-contained dignity, about 50. Though her hands were folded placidly in her lap, lips set stoically and face unmoving, after some minutes I noticed tears filling her blue eyes. It occurred to me that perhaps she had just come from the Waxman home, too, and I leaned forward. "Excuse me," I said, "were you just at the . . . "

"Sixteen," she replied.

I looked around me and suddenly realized that everyone on the bus was utterly silent. They were listening to a news bulletin blaring out over the bus radio, the Hebrew too fast for my comprehension.

"Sixteen?" I asked. "Sixteen what?"

"Sixteen died," she said impassively, as more tears brimmed up in her eyes, then trickled down along her cheeks. "In Tel Aviv, Dizengoff Street. There has been a bomb."

It turned out to be more than 16, of course, and the dying more horrible than any of us on the bus in Jerusalem then knew. At that moment all I wanted was to get home as fast as possible, and have my children safe inside our walls. For all families, like nations, have their own style of fear, hope and self-protection.

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