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What We Have Lost: Poetry and Mourning

Published on 
May 23, 2021

On December 4, 2020, Ali Ayman Abu Alayya, a Palestinian teenager who was turning fifteen that day, was shot in the stomach by an Israel Defense Forces sniper during a protest near his home village in the West Bank. He later died of his wounds. His death was quickly condemned by the United Nations, the European Union, and the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, among others, who noted both that children are afforded extra protections from state violence under international law and that the Israeli military was using lethal force—live ammunition (which the IDF claimed it had not)—against protestors who were armed only with rocks. A few days later, the Israeli poet Eran Tzelgov published a poem in Yediʻot aḥaronot titled “Mot ha-qippod” (Death of the hedgehog), which he dedicated to the memory of Abu Alayya.

I read this poem on a computer screen in my living room, which has been my de facto office since March 2020, the place from which I comfortably teach, research, and write, safe from exposure to COVID-19. On the day Abu Alayya was shot, the United States reported 2,637 deaths from COVID. To that date more than 275,000 people in the United States had died of the virus. Since then, that number has doubled.


“The Spirit of Lindbergh”: A Critique of State Power

“Death of the Hedgehog” can be divided into two parts: the first, offering a Jewish ethics of mourning rooted in care for the other (in this case the animal other) and acknowledgment of suffering; the second, a critique of state power and its indifference to human death and suffering in the service of self-preservation. The move between these two sections is marked by the verb hitḥalef, the reflexive form for “change,” which almost literally announces this shift. Just after this word is used to describe the changing of the stoplight (although we don’t know if it is going from green to red or red to green, stop or go), the moon rises, another point of inflection, between day and night. These temporal shifts mark the passage between the world of the children and their natural shock and respect for the enormity of loss that death represents and the world of adults, who may not even flinch at the report of a boy’s killing at the hands of the army.

When I first read Tzelgov’s poem in the days after it was published, it immediately reminded me of Gerald Stern’s “Behaving Like a Jew,” originally published in his 1977 collection Lucky Life. Stern’s poem details an encounter of the narrator with a dead opossum by the side of the road, shot for sport and left for dead. At the center of the poem is a lament that links the cruel and careless treatment of the opossum to a broader American culture of insensitivity to, even pleasure in, suffering:


 I am sick of the country, the bloodstained

bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of the grilles,

the slimy highways, the heavy birds

refusing to move;

I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything

that joy in death, that philosophical

understanding of carnage.


Like the dead hedgehog in Tzelgov’s poem, the dead opossum in “Behaving Like a Jew” becomes the foil for a society that ignores human suffering and injustice in “the spirit of Lindbergh” or, worse, perpetrates suffering and injustice on certain people, those “others” unworthy of the state’s protection. The day I read “Death of the Hedgehog,” sitting at home in the ninth month of isolation, I could see all around me what Stern calls “that joy in death”: government inaction that has led to Black, Latinx, and Native populations in the United States dying of COVID at rates more than twice that of white people. As I write, the police officer who killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly ten minutes has just been convicted of murder; on the same day, police in Columbus, Ohio, shot to death a sixteen-year-old Black girl named Ma’Khia Bryant. Even before the pandemic, Adam Serwer, in The Atlantic, described this deliberate state policy of exacerbating the suffering of Black and Brown people by declaring, “the cruelty is the point.”[1]

Like the narrator in Stern’s poem railing against “that concentration on the species,” the genocidal impulse that underlies this cruelty toward the other, “Death of the Hedgehog” quietly rages against the systems and circumstances that have led to the boy’s slaying in the last line. The news report of the boy’s deliberate killing contrasted with the accidental death of the hedgehog exposes the irony of care for the suffering of animals in the face of indifference to the violence perpetrated by the military on human beings. The last words of the poem are ḥayalei tsahal, IDF soldiers, representatives of state power and a crucial pillar of Israeli society. The military is still a primary rite of acculturation through which most Jewish Israelis pass. This stands in contrast to the first words of the poem, kvutsat yeladim, a group of children, a symbol of innocence, powerlessness, still unacculturated into the social world of violence and the political world of citizenship, not yet accustomed to cruelty. The possibility represented by their ethics of care for the other, their horror at the animal’s death, offers a critique of the objective report of the killing on the news, itself emerging not from a human being but from an inanimate object, muffled, only half-heard.


“Behaving Like a Jew”: A Jewish Ethics of Mourning

The possibility represented by those children, those not-yet-soldiers, is a hint at what we might lose through the consolidation of our social and communal energies in the organs of a state that selectively cares for only some of its citizens. What is lost is the ethics of care, which in Stern’s poem is characterized as “behaving like a Jew.” This describes a particularly Jewish ethics developed in the poem, one that stands in opposition to the Lindberghian-American cult of death and that honors the loss of life through a process of tactile grieving. To behave like a Jew is to pull the dead animal from the road, to touch it and look into its eyes and acknowledge the loss inherent in death not just philosophically but through the embodied rituals of mourning. These are the actions that humanize us and also counter the cruelty of state and society: the recognition of the individual human value of the other, prescribed by Judaism through the laws of burial and mourning. These are also the activities that are forbidden us in a time of contagion, when bodies are toxic and travel impossible, when we cannot hold the hands of our dying or hug the survivors.

The quality of “behaving like a Jew” is evident in the natural humanity of the children in Tzelgov’s poem, who do not look away from the dead hedgehog but acknowledge it, open mouthed, the shocked reaction of their own bodies a kind of mourning ritual. The poem’s form, too, calls attention to a death that might otherwise be overlooked through the rhyming couplet ending in me’od/qippod, which interrupts the free verse of the poem. However, just like the cars whizzing by Stern on the road next to him as he attempts to honor the opossum’s death, the lone adult listening to his radio reporting on human tragedy represents the broader social context in which the death of a boy is simply another item in the nightly news report.

These reports are now familiar to us all, a daily recitation of statistics and numbers that mask the individual souls, with their own personalities, preferences, and idiosyncrasies, behind them. Nearly every day, there is another mass shooting in the United States. Many days, our nightly news reports tell us the name of yet another Black person killed by police: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, and on and on and on. When the United States reached 100,000 COVID deaths, the New York Times published one thousand one-line obituaries beginning on its front page and extending far into the newspaper. I took a screen shot of one of these, which cut me with its sharp simplicity: “Fred Walker Gray, 75, Benton County, Wash., liked his bacon and hash browns crispy.”[2] I don’t know why that was the one that did it for me. Like the children staring at the hedgehog or the poet standing in a ditch with the opossum, it personalized all this death, brought its enormity into focus.



“Unappeased at the Opossum’s Death”: A Pandemic Reflection

Stern said that when the idea for his poem came to him, he was reading an article by Lindbergh that expressed “a kind of mystic love of death,” which he saw as “totally alien to Judaism.” Connecting an encounter of his own with the death of an animal on the road to Lindbergh’s antisemitism, in writing the poem Stern “thought of the opossum as a kind of Jew.”[3] Naomi Sokoloff has written about the ways that the representation of the nonhuman in Hebrew fiction has responded to antisemitic characterizations of Jews as subhuman or as animals. In analyzing the way that Israeli writers have used animals in texts about the Holocaust, she notes, “Engagement with the vantage point of the nonhuman animal helps the authors critique, abjure, or repudiate the atrocities of the human world, sound suppressed voices and counteract silence surrounding Holocaust victims and survivors, or enter into previously unspoken territory.”[4]

This is how the opossum in Stern’s poem becomes “a kind of Jew.” But Tzelgov turns this formula of Jewish literature, in which the animal is a mode of engaging with Jewish oppression or victimization, upside down. The hedgehog is instead a way to engage with Palestinian subjugation at the hands of the Israeli state. It calls on the Sternian notion of a Jewish ethics as an ethics of care for the dead and acknowledgment of loss as a critique of a Jewish nation-state whose army would shoot a teenage boy with live ammunition. Both of them read, in this year of death and mourning, of state indifference to or even active encouragement of suffering, as barely suppressed screams, a quiet channeling of human grief into the image of the death of the ultimate innocent—a small, unassuming creature.

Like the man standing near his car as the day turns to night, we listen to the news of mounting dead with an increasing inability to comprehend what it means, to commemorate or mourn. Individually, those of us who have lost loved ones, either to the pandemic or to other causes, have not been able to perform the rituals—the touch, the looking in the eyes of the opossum—that allow us to appreciate and honor our losses. Collectively, we are at the mercy of our governments, who have largely turned their heads away not only from disease and death but also from hunger, homelessness, unemployment, and misery. Meanwhile, the world churns on, and the forces of economy and society race by on the highway, expecting us to continue to work at our accustomed frantic paces, to send our children to school in front of computers in the living room, while isolating ourselves from all the things that usually make us human: friends, family, religious community, a shared meal, a kiss. The news, muffled, announces our losses: a hundred thousand, half a million, now more. The light changes again and again, night turns to day, the sun rises and the moon sets, while we stand in the street agog, pointing, unable to comprehend what we have lost.



[1] Adam Serwer, “The Cruelty Is the Point,” The Atlantic, October 3, 2018,

[2] “An Incalculable Loss,” New York Times, May 27, 2020,

[3] Gary Pacernick, “Gerald Stern: An Interview,” American Poetry Review 27, no. 4 (1998): 43.

[4] Naomi Sokoloff, “ʻThe Pigs Were My Best Friends’: Animals and the Holocaust in Alona Frankel’s Memoirs,” in Since 1948: Israeli Literature in the Making, ed. Nancy E. Berg and Naomi Sokoloff (Albany: SUNY Press, 2020), 165.