Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Jerusalem, Viewed from the 9th of Av

On Sunday afternoon, I sat by the waters of Walton Lake and explained Tisha B'Av to my friend Sam, an interfaith minister whose real name is Joanna and who was raised Catholic.

Tisha B'Av is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, I said. Unlike Yom Kippur -- which is not supposed to be a somber day -- Tisha B'Av is a day of mourning, commemorating many Jewish calamities, including the destruction of the first (586 BCE) and second (70 CE) Temples in Jerusalem, the murder of over 100,000 Jews in the city of Betar by the Romans in 132 CE, which signaled the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, I explained.

According to Jewish history, Tisha B'Av -- literally the 9th day of the month of Av -- has bad karma. As anyone who has attended a Jewish summer camp can attest, the commemoration of the day often includes a litany of other tragic national events as well as readings or study about the contemporary uber-calamity for the Jews -- the Shoah.

A 25-hour fast day, Tisha B'Av is synonymous with exile, dispersion, wandering, homelessness, the longing for Zion.

Fasting aside, I was telling Sam how much I love Tisha B'Av, love to sink deep into sorrow, love to read the haunting poetry of the Book of Lamentations -- Eicha -- written by the prophet Jeremiah.

I told her how having lived in Jerusalem as a child, the stories of the Jewish people, even those contained in the Five Books of Moses and the books of the Prophets were immediate to me, that the characters therein were my kin.

And then last night, for the first time in my life, I realized something else about my connection to Tisha B'Av.

We were sitting in the Beit Knesset, the prayer house, at Camp Ramah in Nyack, visitors at their Tisha B'Av program. We had already heard a moving reading of Eicha in a candle-lit room, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Afterwards, we walked wordlessly outside with the staff of the camp to hear kinnot (dirges) sung by a choir of counselors while the word Yizkhor (remember) was lit aflame on a metal scaffold. When the fire burned out, we walked back to the Beit Knesset as young people formed a path, brandishing Israeli flags.

Inside the Beit Knesset there was more singing of mournful, beautiful melodies. An essay was read, a man with a distinctive Israeli accent began singing Naomi Shemer's classic "Jerusalem of Gold." A screen showed a 3-D depiction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And then, suddenly, there was footage from the Six Day War, film of Israeli soldiers fighting in the streets of Jerusalem.

My eyes filled with tears. On the screen was my Jerusalem, first encountered in that magical moment after the unlikely victory in 1967, the year before I arrived, the 7-year-old daughter of an American rabbi on sabbatical. The city that had been twice destroyed, and now, miraculously reclaimed was the one I first encountered. Watching the black and white film, I dwelled in recollection of that moment in history; it preceded the poisonous political pronouncements about the State of Israel or the rights of the Jews to the land or a state of their own or the misappropriation of the word "Nazi" to refer to the very people who were Nazism's primary target. It was a moment of pure celebration, of global goodwill towards the tiny country that successfully fended off an attack from its neighbors. That moment, that year in Israel following the '67 victory was one of unambiguous joy for the Jewish people. I interpreted it as a second significant sign that the world had emerged from darkness into light and what happened to Jews in the past would not happen anymore. The first was the establishment of Israel after the Shoah; it seemed to me akin to the rainbow after Noah's flood -- a sign of God's covenant and protection.

On Sunday afternoon, Sam listened to me speak about Tisha B'Av then pressed me to explain what the day meant to me. At first I was baffled, then frustrated, then annoyed. I had never sought to analyze my love of Tisha B'Av; indeed, it seemed pretty straightforward to me. Moreover, I was uncomfortable trying to extract a personal message from Tisha B'Av; it is a communal commemoration, as relevant to me as to any Jew in any place throughout time. Tisha B'Av is a link to the Jewish past. It is a moment to mourn without the complexity attached to consideration of Israel; it exists apart from discussions and debates and recognition of policies gone wrong or injustice or social problems in the Jewish state.

Isn't that enough?

Yet last night at Camp Ramah, I gained an insight, which is perhaps the explanation Sam was looking for all along. The lamentation over a Jerusalem Temple destroyed centuries ago evokes tangible grief in me not only because of my early encounter with the land of Israel but because of the particular moment our histories collided. Tisha B'Av is a living day of commemoration for me for I am an American Jew who first met Jerusalem in the heady aftermath of the Six Day War. Even with my feet planted in the soil of the 21st Century, the prophet Jeremiah's poetry surges through my veins, the destroyed Jerusalem Temple is my recent tragedy, the dispersed people are my family, I recall the bitter taste of recent exile. I access the sorrow of the day because I experienced its antithesis. Wondrous, I visited the newly-returned Western Wall, climbed Jerusalem's olive trees and and breathed in the dust of the Old City, walked her streets and walls and prayed in her holy tongue, understanding, for the first time, the meaning of the words. I am the child whose heart was pierced by the joyous present, but also the tragic past, who could never forget Jerusalem, who will forever see herself as a true daughter of Zion.

1 comment:

authorWendy said...

And now, through your beautiful words, Tisha B'Av has new meaning for me as well.