On Burning

One day not long ago, the local firefighters publicly declared they would not go into houses in a certain town in the county I grew up in. I was not shocked as I read about it in the newspaper, just surprised that it happened the way it did, just like that. New Square, or Skver Town in Yiddish, is even more religious than most in Rockland County, New York, and it is entirely Chassidic, as opposed to partly Chassidic or mostly Chassidic like other local towns. Have as many children as you like, the firefighters seemed to be saying, violate code, build and overbuild, but don’t expect us to come in and save you. We will not burn because you illegally built cheaper housing that does not meet government standards.

I can easily walk to New Square from the red house I grew up in. I am aware of how crowded housing has become, how many cars are crammed into the streets, how many garbage bags are set out for collection, how a semi-rural area of single-family homes is looking more and more like Brooklyn, and soon, New Delhi. I can understand the firefighters’ worry for their lives. And as I read the firefighters’ announcement, I held my breath in fear of the next fire.

But before I could exhale, a terrible incident crawled across the newspapers. It came from the same Chassidic sect that controlled the neighborhood the firefighters had warned. A rabbi’s butler—who even knew rabbis had butlers?—had been accused of burning the home of a man who dared to disobey the grand rabbi. The house burned, and inside it, the family suffered burns on their bodies. I thought of books burning in the 1930s; I thought of all the martyrs who had been burned alive in the Spanish Inquisition, of the kind-faced rabbi in Madrid, an older man who climbed up and down seven flights to his apartment each day, who told me I could not walk through the Plaza de Mayor because the Talmud had been burned there. I thought of how religious zealotry of all kinds makes people wild, wild-eyed, burning. It sends them to match and fuel, to hot temper and flame. Once only dominant religions had the power to burn, to crusade, conquer, enslave, exterminate; now fire—the most ancient of weapons, except perhaps human hands—is an equalizer.

And now here I am in Tel Aviv, trying to escape myself, trying to let go of a book on the Bible I have spent a decade writing. I wanted to spend a summer doing secular things, like reading novels, translating poetry, going to the theater and buying high-heeled sandals I could actually walk in. Maybe just sipping iced coffee. But there is no peace, no end to the burning. I arrived days after three Israeli teenage boys had been kidnapped; the car they had hitchhiked into, or been thrown into, had been burned. Its carcass snaked across the evening news, along with accusations that Hamas was behind the disaster. And then one night I walked along Rothschild Boulevard, perhaps my favorite main road in all the world, and on the outdoor screens I saw something blaring, some words burning: the bodies had been found. In a cave. The population burned with sadness. Candles were lit in public squares, and grown men sat, stunned, for over an hour as the newscasters repeated the terrible facts.

I hated that I recognized the facial expressions. I remembered those stunned expressions; when I had lived in Jerusalem and worked as a reporter during the second intifada, when a 10-year-old American-born boy named Kobi Mandel had been stoned to death in a cave. It was Biblical punishment, come to life. It was an ancient form of cruelty, something that seemed a fable, like Shirley Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery.” Only it was not a fable, not a lottery, but life. But that was not the end to the fire. Tonight I sit with the terrible news that six extremist Jews are accused of burning a Palestinian boy alive. And somehow all the fires are melting together, and I am beyond ashamed to be attached to that kind of flame, just as I was humiliated with the butler, with the fire department. But this is not what religion is, not what Judaism is; the only fires I grew up with were the Shabbat candles, the Havdalah candles, and the ner tamid, the eternal flame in synagogue. All of these were meant to consecrate time, to make the days of life holy, not short and scorched by human hands.

But fire can move faster than time. Fire is easy to start and hard to fight. We see this every year with the forest fires that often rage against and across the American West, another landscape that has often attracted loners and extremists, men who believed in fire over speech. But what stops it is creating a fire wall, making a path for the fire to go. Together, we must create some sort of path for these fires to run out of flame. We must treat the enflaming of a human being as an enflaming of our own soul—because we are the ones who are burning.

AVIYA KUSHNER grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home in New York. She is the author of Wolf Lamb Bomb (Orison Books, 2021), winner of The Chicago Review of Books Award in Poetry, a New York Times New & Noteworthy selection, and Forward INDIES Finalist; and The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau 2015), a National Jewish Book Award Finalist and Sami Rohr Prize Finalist. She is The Forward’s language columnist and a 2022 National Endowment for the Arts fellow in translation. She is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing.