This morning, we celebrated our twin daughters’ bat mitzvah (the ritual celebration of a girl’s 12th year and the alleged reaching of maturity) on the ancient ruins of Masada, in Israel’s Judean Desert.

We awoke at 4 am, sipped some coffee and filed on to a cable car that whisked us up the mountain in time to watch the sun emerge over the Moab mountains of Jordan, on the eastern shore of the salt-encrusted Dead Sea.

We took in the stunning scenery toured the ruins of King Herod’s palace and heard the famous story of the Jewish War, in 70 A.D., where 957 men, women and children defied the months’ long siege of the Roman Army under the blazing sun.

With cisterns full of enough water to last them for years, and massive storehouses of food, the zealots fleeing the Romans thought they had outsmarted the army until slaves were put to work building a ramp up the western side. It was clear to the hundreds of ancient Israelis that this last stronghold of Jewish territory was doomed.

And so on the last night before the Romans breached the walls, the zealots took a very controversial decision. Despite the clear Jewish prohibition against suicide, the people decided they would rather die as free people than be killed or enslaved by the invaders. They drew lots on shards on pottery with their names insribed (later found by archaeologists and showcased at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem). Men and women put their own children to death, then killed themselves by the sword or by leaping off a cliff. The 10 chosen with the lots helped the remaining few kill themselves and then finally committed suicide.

When the Romans entered the walls, they found the place empty, except for 2 women and 3 children who chose not to die, and told the story to the Roman historian Josephus Flavius, who documented the incredible tale.

After touring the ruins and hearing the story of the place, we moved to the ancient Beit Hamidrash, which served as both court and place of study, and held a short service where our older daughters, along with 4 other children spoke the words of the same Torah by these zealots lived and died.
Prayers were said. A hora was danced in 40 celsius (104 F). Mazel tovs (good luck) were shouted, moms got teary-eyed. It was beautiful and moving and memorable.

But like many Jews who know this story, I was also very unsettled. I was uncomfortable commemorating any kind of heroic suicides with my pre-teen daughters, knowing the disturbingly high rates of adolescent suicide in certain high-risk groups. I couldn’t help thinking about the suicide fantasies and glamourized, romanticized death narratives embedded in teen stories, music and film (of which the current vampire craze is but one example).

The notion of heroic suicides doesn’t sit too easily in Jewish tradition either. The laws of the Torah are unequivocally against it. Suicide victims may be barred from burial in religiously sanctified cemetaries.

It helps to understand the context in which the Masada story fit into the Israeli nation narrative. The archaeologists who excavated there in 1963 found the actual lots and skeleton fragments that confirmed the writings of Josephus Flavius. The story of Jews who chose courageously chose to die by their own hands instead of placing themselves at the mercy of their enemies resonated less than 20 years after the end of the Holocaust. Similarly, a tale of brave, defiant fighters defending the last Jewish stronghold for 2,000 years was a poetic complement to the emerging history of the brand new state of Israel, then only 15 years old.

But history has continued unfolding, and today’s historians are still uncomfortable glorifying the suicides, preferring instead to focus on bravery, defiance and resourcefulness. And of course, the fresh terror of the suicide bombers (especially before the security fence was built in 2004) has put a whole new spin on the very idea of suicide being heroic at all.

So while we celebrate, there is a spectre of sadness and ambivalence, a fitting complexity perhaps for a country and region so deeply and irrevocably marked by millenia of human civilization. Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone