Last week, a Jewish fast day, 17th of Tammuz, coincided with a day of Ramadan. Several groups got it in mind to take advantage of this and make the day one of mutual consideration and solidarity between Jews and Muslims in light of the cascade of horrors going on in Israel. Some of the groups called it simply a fast day, and others called it a hunger strike. Reading about it, I got hung up on this difference as I considered joining a friend for the event. If a fast day, then its purpose would be more inward looking, meditative. If a hunger strike, then a public performance designed to draw attention. It was muddy from the start. My Muslim friends and colleagues were fasting anyway, but none of my Jewish friends normally observe this particular day. And as for me, a secular humanist of Christian cultural heritage and a non-believer all around, what was I doing here? If I fasted for a day, what would I accomplish? Was this self-deprivation as self-indulgence? Finally, I decided, why not try it? I wouldn’t die, and I might learn something. Besides, although my readership is small, I think of myself as a writer, and this is an experience I might approach with journalistic interest. So here we are.
On the day itself, I had failed to utilize the strategy of waking up before dawn for a meal, so when I woke up on July 15th, I already hadn’t eaten in ten hours. It doesn’t take long for the brain to get clouded. On the way to the boys’ swim lessons, Simon asked if he could go to the playground. “Yes,” I told him, “You can play for a couple…” what? what kind of units is it? Days? Hours? No, minutes. Minutes is right.
Once you are hungry, it doesn’t so much progress throughout the day. The stomach goes through its usual cyclical processes, churning on nothing, informing the brain of this, and then comes a combined wave of nausea and longing for food. You chew your thumb and notice your eyeballs are sluggish in their sockets and having trouble tracking people’s movements. Then it passes and the sensation of hunger abates, and you feel almost as if you’ve mastered it. When it rushes back, you realize, you’re not the one in control.
As I passed through these repetitive phases, it became clear to me how like grief hunger is. At full force, it makes me distracted, panicky. I can’t focus on anything. I want very badly to eat, decide that I will, and remember all over again that I can’t. The times when the hunger comes as a persistent knocking, nausea, a flood of saliva. Trying to speak to normal people who have eaten lunch and a snack feels like a performance. I am not quite following what this woman is saying to me. I lost the thread and now am trying to guess the right reaction. Am I raising my eyebrows the right amount? Is this the right thing to do with my face? When I speak, my fluency is degraded, and I cast around for words.
While my husband and sons ate supper, I stayed upstairs, distracted by even the clink of a fork against a bowl. I tried to read, went online, made the profound error of looking at a food blog. After I read to the boys and put them to bed, I still had half an hour or so before sundown. Watching TV and knitting were not sufficient to the purpose. Several times a minute I looked at the clock. I got up, and went to watch night fall. A storm had been through and the street was still steaming. The maples were bowed in dripping canopies. When the wood thrushes and veerys had begun singing forty minutes before, it had been a torment, knowing how close I was, but not quite there yet. At this time of year, in these latitudes, it does not get dark until long after sunset, but the light does shift in the long gloaming. I watched things grow granular and the light diffuse. By now, I could eat again.
A few days after the fast, I was packing for a family camping trip. On my computer, I had up several tabs. Between “Pillsbury State Park” and “Recipes: Kale Chips” was the tab reading “Through Lens, 4 Boys Dead by Gaza Shore.” I left the tab up all day, opening it from time to time and looking at the picture of a dead boy on the sand, ashen skin, legs twisted up under him, the soles of his bare feet visible at grotesque angles. What had the fasting day done for these boys? Nothing. And for me? Over the course of that day, how many times had I thought of the mothers putting their children in the ground, and far worse, the aftermath? How many times would I have thought of them otherwise, had the hunger not been coming and going in its fierce waves?
In the end, I fasted for the same reason people travel, or walk the length of the Appalachian Trail, or read. To be out of one’s own head for a time. To learn something about a culture that isn’t yours. To find out what you find out. I realized I’d been being quiet about what happens in Gaza because I’d believed what people had said to me–“You can’t understand. You’re not a Jew. You can’t understand, you don’t live there. You have no idea. You don’t understand.” I admit to not fully understanding all the nuances of what is happening there. But there is not a lot of nuance to dead children. If there are severely disabled adults dead under a pile of rubble that used to be their home, if there are four boys lying dead on a beach in t-shirts and swim trunks, something is terribly wrong. I am not naive and I understand about Hamas, and terrorism, but this is too great a price. I am not a Jew and I am not a Muslim, but I am a mother, and that is my proper tribe. If anyone tries to pat me on the head and tell me I don’t understand about Israel again, I will not quiet down and concede the point. I am learning the history, learning the nuances, learning the names of the players and the geography. It’s not an easy task, but it is far easier than learning how to reclassify enemies as fellow humans. Unless that is done, I fear for Israel, for Gaza, and for all those living with their anxious guts clenched every day as they do what I am doing–plan a summer holiday, make snacks for the trip, look again at the crumpled bodies.