Tuesday, July 24, 2007


How does the city sit desolate
That was full of people?
How has she become as a widow
She who was great among the nations?

The lights were low at Eitz Chaim, the congregants seated on the carpeted floor, individual copies of the Book of Lamentation illuminated by flickering candlelight.

Every year, a familiar gathering at this low-key Conservative synagogue in Monroe, led by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, whom I first met when he was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

More than a decade later, he still has the youthful aura of a recent graduate tempered with the gravitas of being a religious leader in increasingly perilous times.

To my left, Little Babe sat cross-legged, wrapped in polar fleece, black Crocs on his feet. He looked chilled and tired. It had rained all day in New York and by evening, we were water-logged and weary.

Another year, another Tisha B'Av.

I have written elsewhere of my great love for this day of observance, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem -- first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. In my writing, I have often detailed the somber and magical observances at the legendary and now-defunct Camp Massad, which have stayed with me my entire life.

Possibly because of my camp experiences, the mourning for the devastation of the Temple in Jerusalem -- which signalled the beginning of the Jewish diaspora -- is immediate and accessible to me, winding through the centuries, becoming enmeshed with other tragic historical moments deserving of commemoration.

Tisha B'Av is about pure sadness, grief, regret, remembrance. It doesn't require fancy preparation or complicated observance, mostly abstinence from food, drink, washing, sex and other pleasurable activities, the shunning of leather shoes, reciting special prayers and the reading of the Book of Lamentations.

Tisha B'Av is a day when Jews, hard-wired for survival and overachievement, have a chance to cry about everything horrible that has been done to us as a people.

While the rabbis would have us believe that the Temple was destroyed for sinat hinam -- senseless hatred -- between Jew and Jew, I am pretty convinced that the senseless hatred was directed AGAINST the Jews for refusing to accede to Rome, for stubbornly insisting upon being Jewish.

Last night, the ground at the Love Shack was wet beneath our feet as Little Babe and I trudged to the minivan to drive to Eitz Chaim. We had just eaten our seudah mafseket, finishing meal, and were ready to greet the fast.

Prior to our meal, Little Babe had been at Tae Kwon Do. During his lesson, I met an Israeli woman I had never seen before and we spoke compulsively while watching our sons spar in padded uniforms, bonding avidly as Jews meeting one another in an unexpected outpost. She invited me to a reading of Eicha (the Book of Lamentations) at the local Chabad and I told her about our tradition of attending Eitz Chaim.

Now Little Babe and I were heading to the synagogue through the dark, raindrop-bejeweled night. Five minutes before we arrived, he surprised me with a question: Why do so many bad things happen to the Jews? Why do so many people hate us?

Reading Eicha is difficult, as it is filled with self-flaggelation. Jeremiah, widely considered to be its author, depicts a ravaged city and a hopeless people. The desolate Temple mount is overrun by foxes; women cook their own children. A verse tacked onto the end -- Return us O Lord to you, renew our days as of old -- provides only the slightest relief from the sheer and utter devastation.

This bleak scenario could not be farther from the world that Little Babe inhabits on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a world in which being a Jew, even an observant Jew, constitutes being a member of a social and cultural elite. Moreover, the Jerusalem of Eicha is utterly alien to Little Babe, who has visited and lived in a sparkling, overpopulated, Jewishly-dominated Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem of Jeremiah is not even close to the creepy experience of living in Oxford, England three years ago, where Little Babe was regularly called a variety of names that involved his Jewishness and Middle Babe was attacked verbally by her elite private school classmates for the alleged sins of the State of Israel... the chief one being its very existence.

Once a year, on Tisha B'Av, I cast off my comfort as a contemporary American Jew and dwell in the sadness of being part of a persecuted people, exiled, longing to be returned to my beloved Zion.

Once a year, on Tisha B'Av, Jewish parents -- especially those living on Manhattan's Upper West Side, spending their summers in a glorious paradise at the foothill of the Catskill Mountains -- begin the process of explaining to their children the difficult truth about being Jewish.

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