The lights were out; all that remained were small spotlights where the readers sat. It was a day of sorrow and mourning, so we spurned comfort and, as tradition dictates, sat on the floor. In front of the Sanctuary, the readings began: Eichah - Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah's horrifying account of an ancent time of soul-shattering misery. Reading it aloud is part of the holiday** but, since I was newly observant, it was previously unknown to me, as was the enormous impact of the dimly lit room and haunting content and trope of the reading. That first time, just three years ago, I didn't have a clue what was coming -- that night or the next morning, when the readings continued.
Accompanied by a 25 hour fast, this all takes place on the holiday of Tisha B'Av - the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, to commemorate the multiple horrors believed to have taken place on that day.*
This is a lot of sadness (and foreboding of more to come) to have taken place on the same date. So it's fair to observe a period of mourning and remembrance. What happened to me, though, was that the language of mourning is so fierce, so hideous, and in some ways, so applicable to what we see happening around us now, that it is almost unbearable to listen to. And so, the first time I heard it, I fled in the middle and went across the hall into the childcare room. My sweet, ridiculously smart friend Aliza, with her infant daughter and unable to join the prayers, was off to the side praying on her own. In tears, so troubled that I was trembling, I interrupted her prayers, something I would never do otherwise, and demanded to know why it was necessary for us to listen to this. And to know we'd be doomed to do so every summer. In her quiet way, she replied that perhaps once a year isn't too often to recall these fearsome times in our history.
At the time, I wasn't sure how I felt about that, but now, I'm, shocked to discover that I look forward to this annual observance, which comes this weekend. Why? I guess after three years some of the shock has worn off. Of course there's more: as usual when I listen to Aliza, I've had to think harder. One thing I've realized is that this day, ignored by most Jews, is a kind of anchor -- keeping us in place, connecting us, those who came before, and those who will follow.
I can't trace my family past my grandparents on either side; all my grandparents and their siblings came here years before the Holocaust and any records of their ancestors were lost or destroyed as the Nazis decimated Europe. That they were Jewish, though, is irrefutable. Now I find that, although I can't share their stories and traditions, we do share a history. I realize as I am writing this that moments which commemorate that common history are not just religious, but also family connections. Our mourning on the 9th of Av honors not just God's anger, which led Him to allow the destruction of the Temples, and not just the martyrdom of so many, but also each individual, unknown person whose DNA is mixed with mine.
I had often protested that we need to honor that which we value as the positive attributes of the Jewish experience, not just the martyrdoms that remind us of our history of suffering, but also the joy and pride our tradition offers. What I've realized is that we can't forget.. There's much to be learned by what's come before and by acknowledging our connection to it. And this deeply moving, haunting and humbling tradition is connected to each of us right now, this minute.
* With thanks to the OU Tisha B'Av website :
- In the time of Moses, the "sin of the spies" whom he sent out to evaluate the situation in the soon-to-be conquered Canaan and who returned with horror stories that questioned God's power to protect the Jews and caused Him to decree that none from the generation who went out of Egypt would be permitted to go into Israel.
- The destruction of the first Temple under Nebuchadnezzar. (587 BCE - 3338 in the Hebrew calendar)
- The destruction of the second Temple under Titus. (70 CE - 3895 in the Hebrew calendar)
- The Romans conquered Betar, the last fortress of the Bar Kochba rebellion and Hadrian turned Jerusalem into a Roman city. (135 CE - 3895 in the Hebrew calendar)
- King Edward I signed the edict that expelled all Jews from England (1290 CE - 5050 in the Hebrew calendar)
- Jews expelled from Spain because of King Ferdinand's decree (1492 CE -- 5252 in the Hebrew calendar)
- The last Jews left Vienna under expulsion orders there. (1670)
- World War I began (1914 CE -- 5674 in the Hebrew calendar)
- Himmler presented the plan for the "Final Solution" to the "Jewish problem" to the Nazi party. (1940 -- 5700 in the Hebrew calendar)
- Nazis began deporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. (1942 CE -- 5702 in the Hebrew calendar)
** Also, interestingly, quoted in Christian prayers for Zimbabwe,