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Hunger Games

How a current best-seller gets Yom Kippur shockingly right

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(Tablet Magazine, based on cover art from Scholastic)

A couple of weeks ago, I griped about Eat Pray Love, a book I felt offered a facile (and goyish) portrait of spiritual awakening. Thankfully, a current bestseller, Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, is giving readers a more nuanced, challenging, and thought-provoking view of what it means to live a moral life. What’s more, the issues explored in this book resonate deeply at Yom Kippur. And guess what! It’s a young adult novel.

Mockingjay is the final book in a trilogy. The first two books, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, introduced readers to a dystopian society in which children are selected as contestants in a terrible reality show, thrown into a giant arena, and forced to battle to the death before zillions of hidden and not-so-hidden cameras. Those cameras are controlled by the Capitol, a dictatorship that rules what once was North America. The series’ heroine, Katniss, volunteers for the Hunger Games to save her little sister, whose name has been drawn as one of the two “tributes” from their district. Katniss is groomed, costumed, given a backstory for the audience to follow, and then set loose to kill or be killed. It’s 1984-meets-Survivor-meets-Project Runway-meets-Spartacus.

While Eat Pray Love was the story of one person’s entirely inward-looking quest for happiness, The Hunger Games trilogy is about how one person, under the grimmest circumstances imaginable, can help others. Throughout the trilogy, but especially in Mockingjay, Katniss has to face the fact that people have died because of her, both directly—killed in the arena—and indirectly—killed because she slowly becomes a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol’s tyranny. Her knowledge of her own culpability and responsibility weighs heavily on her. You don’t have to be a revolutionary teen symbol in a flame-covered suit holding a bow and arrow to understand those feelings, especially at this time of year. This time of year is here to remind us that we’re all connected (kol yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh—all of us are responsible for one another) and that we’re all guilty of something.

And we couldn’t have asked for a better heroine than Katniss to help us realize that. She is a flawed heroine, clearly damaged after her experiences in the Games. To the dismay of some readers, in Mockingjay she isn’t a butt-kicking superhero. She’s a person—sometimes passive, sometimes fearful, sometimes full of self-doubt—like all of us. She opts to face the most unsavory aspects of herself. She accepts the introspection, responsibility, and regret we ourselves try to face on Yom Kippur. She takes off her costume, as we, too, must strip away the layers of defensiveness and guardedness that keep us from being the people we should be.

Another constant theme in all three books is how hard it is to retain our humanity in challenging situations. What sins are permissible for the greater good? In Katniss’ world, as in our own, there’s no bright line between good and evil. People do good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons. We’ve all sinned; the question is what we do thereafter.

The answer both Judaism and Mockingjay offer is introspection. No one is as hard on Katniss as she is on herself. Unlike Liz in Eat Pray Love, who’s all too eager to forgive herself, Katniss doesn’t let herself off easily. But being too self-flagellating can also be paralyzing. We need to be people of action, not just reflection. Self-loathing can keep us from the important work of tikkun olam. Katniss needs to come to terms with her own sins and take responsibility for them without letting them consume her. (As I pointed out last week, the Hebrew word for sin is literally “a missing of the mark”—how ironic that Katniss is an archer.)

But being forgiving, of oneself and of others, doesn’t mean having no standards. Like Katniss, we need to listen for a still, small voice amid the din. That tiny voice could be our own courage, or it could be the awareness of someone else’s humanity. We need to have the presence of mind to forgive and the strength of character to trust again.

And, like Katniss, we need to learn how to be at peace with the past. As parents, we fall down a lot, we miss the mark, we lose our tempers, we lie to our children, we aren’t fully present when they tell us their stories. None of us is perfect. But we try to do better, and to do better we must first overcome the burdens of our past failings.

Thank God we have a heroine like Katniss, then, who, like parents everywhere, walks a path that is often lonely, a path that acknowledges nuance and realizes that what’s right doesn’t always bring applause and congratulations. But that’s what true heroism is: doing something just because it’s right. Let us keep that in mind as we sit in services this year.

Gmar chatima tova—may you be sealed in the book of life.

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This was really well thought out and written. Thanks

I’m printing it now so I can give it to my 8th grader and my husband to read later today. All three of us read the trilogy. This interesting take on the books should lead to a terrific discussion at dinner. Thank you!

Mike Wallin says:

I know some noisy kids from my Shul I want to enter into the next contest :)

Thanks for ruining the Hunger Games with a Jewish message. It’s really about the war in Iraq and how we send poor soldiers there while the rich — the rest of us — watch for our amusement.

addy, in Judaism, we have a saying: two Jews, three opinions. It can be about the war in Iraq *and* about what being a hero really does to a person *and* about a whole bunch of other things, without any one meaning harming or denigrating any other meanings. I haven’t read this series yet, but Suzanne Collins’ previous series, _Gregor the Overlander_, also had some wonderful historical allegories and touched on similar themes of what it means to be caught up in a prophecy and what war really does to a person.

I think it’s sad that someone would think that a “Jewish” message could ruin this or any book. One of the amazing things about Jewish morals and values is that they translate into everyday life so effortlessly and are often basic ideas that people try to live by everyday, Jewish or not. The concept of reflecting on your faults and mistakes to accept them and then try and better yourself is something that many people try to do throughout their whole lives… people, not necessarily Jews. In addition, the idea that a book can only have one message is a little ignorant. In school we’re taught that literature can have multiple messages or meanings on various allegorical planes. Good literature is meaningful to many people in different ways, allowing them to connect to the story in a personal way. Aside from that, I really enjoyed this article.

For what it’s worth, I had some other thoughts on Mockingjay and remembering and storytelling that I couldn’t share without spoilers. I talked specifically about the ending of the book, and why I think it’s very YK-discussion-worthy, on my personal site (http://marjorieingall.com/why-mockingjay-is-perfect-yom-kippur-reading/).

And Aimee, if you’re still reading this — my daughter’s on book 3 of the Gregor series now. I’m worried that the ending will be really devastating (not that I can stop her from taking the remaining 2 books out of the library, unless I chain her to the sofa leg or something). Selfishly I’m worried that she’ll be so scared she’ll have trouble sleeping, which means I will not sleep, and it’s all about me. Does the series end on a note of hope? And how terrifying is it?

I’ve just finished the first book and agree that Katniss’ awareness of morality and how her actions affect others is an important part of the story. Yet it’s not preachy, and the story is so compelling I could hardly wait to finish it. That’s what makes it so meaningful, that it’s not facile. I can’t wait to finish the series.

This is why I love reading the Tablet and Haaretz. I live in the US, in Atlanta (native) and often view the world through a rather limited one-eyed, Western perspective (although not rose-colored). But your online magazine with it’s well-written essays and articles give me another eye to see and understand different views and perspectives. Thank-you very much. Now I’m going purchase and read Mockingjay because of YOUR very interesting…perspective.

Marjorie, Thank you for this thoughtful commentary. I agreed with you that the books were very Jewish. I am grateful for your take on Katniss, with which I very much agree. I found the trilogy fascinating and inspiring. I am going to your personal blog right now!

How funny.
I though Katniss would be a Palestinian young girl who provocates a tremendous and destructive wave of  flounce of the Palestinians. While Israel hijacks their land little by litte and tries to keep Gaza in the austerity and fear by killing and throwing white phosphorus on Palestinian children each… days. The Palestinian rebels who are caught are tortured and killed. What is legal in Israel.I can also interpret HG as I want, see.

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Hunger Games

How a current best-seller gets Yom Kippur shockingly right

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