Book Review: What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? A Memoir, by David Harris-Gershon
What do you buy the children of the terrorist who tried to kill your wife?
This is not a question that many of us have ever asked, or even thought about thinking about figuring out how to ask. Or why, or whether, or how such a question could even exist. But this is what David Harris-Gershon found himself asking in a Toys-R-Us in Jerusalem one Friday afternoon, as it was preparing to close. This is the question that encapsulates the absurdity, desperation, and emotional daring in his mission to meet the jailed terrorist who planted the bomb at Hebrew University that killed nine people, including his friends Marla and Ben, and injured 100, including his wife, Jamie, who was eating lunch with them when the bomb detonated.
Harris-Gershon, a schoolteacher, dad, columnist for Tikkun and the Daily Kos, Moth Grandslam Storytelling champion, first-time author, and lover of words and dictionaries, learns a few things along the way, starting with language:
*”Lightly injured” can mean burned to the point of being unrecognizable to one’s spouse and requiring emergency surgery.
*”Pesto” can mean blood.
“Cafeteria” can mean detached limbs, a head face down.
“Capri pants” can mean third-degree burns, percentages of the body covered, skin grafts, recoveries.
“Friend” can mean people you chit-chatted with one afternoon about parenthood, grief, and why their son tried to kill your wife. But it can’t really mean the guy who tried to kill your wife himself, even though he says he regrets it. Unless you’re talking to little children. Then it can mean him, too.
*”Victim” can mean me, even if I was eating pasta and watching tv, while my wife was being ripped open by a bomb.
*Any word said by a government or military spokesperson…well, that could mean just about anything.
Disclosure: David and Jamie Harris-Gershon are good friends of mine. Eleven years later, I remember the day of the attack vividly, though I was half a world away, in Wisconsin. I’m one of the “yarmulke-wearing yeshiva students”, who infused their wedding with a “blur of Hebrew chanting” to aid and abet their “act of cultural rebellion” which led them to Israel to study Talmud. And I hosted David for Shabbat lunch on the trip that brought him back to Israel to try to meet the terrorist. I say all of this because it seems only fair when I tell you that I couldn’t put the book down, including canceling Saturday night concert plans to read the last 50 pages. But I hope you’ll believe me when I tell you that what I found so gripping about this memoir was not that I had some skin in its game because I’m friends with the author. It was so gripping because I had skin in the game on account of being human.
Harris-Gershon achieves some remarkable things in this work:
He tells a reconciliation story that not only holds on to the judgment of the criminal, but is, in fact, rooted in it. He depicts national, political clarity and hostility as the stuff of naivete, of suppression, of eyes wide shut, and complexity and empathy as the stuff of sober, critical, emotionally honest awareness. He walks through Israeli and Palestinian political versions of the three weeks leading up to the attack history, of broader history, of competitive victimization, and tries to look beyond them, without ever belittling their true force, deep roots, or vulnerability to exploitation. Turns out, the violence was more brutal and terrorizing when right and wrong were a “zero-sum game”; moving to face the bogeyman and see that “they are not monsters”, makes violence less comprehensible, and no less awful, but more contained in its brutal reverberations. He exposes us to his own pain as the emotionally suppressed, survivor’s-guilt-ridden, hyperventilating insomniac breaking down just as his wife gets a grip on her life and moves on, and lets us in on his journey to health that doesn’t tie up all loose ends, that doesn’t lock all doors, but at least exposes them and faces them, and sometimes that’s enough. This story even points suggestively that if there’s a way out of the echoing Abrahamic filicide that has traumatized the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael throughout Jerusalem’s generations, it might be through many personal journeys of naming our pain and violation with words, that our personal stories are embedded in collective ones.
Spoiler alert: the memoir lacks a dramatic resolution. There is nothing Messianic here. That is one of its strengths, its suggestion that maybe it’s the process of letting the commonplace into the most unwelcoming places that might start to break down our cycle of violence. What makes the pain and anger manageable isn’t a resolution, but the banality of sitting on a couch, playing with colored pencils, a rubber ball, and a Rubik’s cube, looking at a photo album, and moving from pleasantries into calm statements of wishing to understand. He doesn’t get clarity, he doesn’t come to understand, but the process of asking makes that ok. It doesn’t negate the feeling he had when leaving Israel after the attack that “The terrorists won. They f***ing won”, but it makes it possible to change the terms and to be at personal peace, enough to say, when leaving the second time, “Time to live the life we’d been granted by chance.”
I strongly recommend David Harris-Gershon’s What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? A Memoir (OneWorld Publications). If you’re in New York, you can hear David read from the book and talk about it TONIGHT, Thursday, Oct. 24, at Congregation Beth Elohim, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Find out about other appearances of his book tour around the U.S. in the coming weeks here.