The Mortar of Sadness

Toby Brookes is decidedly undecided about Tisha B’Av. The product of modern Orthodox day schools and summer camps, Mrs. Brookes has vivid childhood recollections of this traditional mourning day. As a girl at summer camp, she fasted. She read from Eicha, the graphic and terrifying Book of Lamentations, and even joined other campers in re-enacting the fall of the First and Second Beit HaMikdash, or Holy Temple, in Jerusalem.

But these days, as a longtime member of the Reconstructionist Columbia Jewish Congregation, Mrs. Brookes says she has let Tisha B’Av take a back seat in her spiritual life.

“I don’t fast, but I do eat minimally. I do sometimes sit and read Eicha with my husband,” she says. “I am aware of the day, but I would not necessarily say I observe it.”

Mrs. Brookes is not alone in her lukewarm embrace of what many consider a problematic day on the Jewish calendar.

Jews who strictly observe Halachah, or Jewish law, still mark the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av in the traditional way. They sit on low chairs or on the floor, visit cemeteries, and fast. Many attend community lectures on the subject of tragedies experienced by the Jewish people.

Others even visit Holocaust museums and memorials, rent movies such as “Schindler’s List” or reread “The Diary of Anne Frank.” But most ponder all of the past tragedies that tradition assigns to this date: the fall of the First and Second Temples, the defeat of Bar-Kochba, the expulsion from Spain, and other times of great sadness.

But for Jews on the left side of the aisle, the ritual day of fasting and mourning that falls this year July 29 presents a complex emotional and intellectual challenge.

“I think many of us are embarrassed about it,” says Judith Seid, leader of the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah, a group that practices Secular Humanistic Judaism.

“What are we mourning after all? We are mourning the loss of animal sacrifice and Temple Judaism—a provincial religious cult that is not what we are, that is not what we celebrate in Judaism today,” she says. “In fact, everything we love about our Judaism comes as a result of life in the Diaspora. It is a result of the destruction of the Temple.”

Nonetheless, Ms. Seid echoes a sentiment shared by many middle-of-the-road and liberal Jews—that Tisha B’Av still serves a useful and important function in rounding out the annual Jewish ritual cycle.

In principle, she says, it makes good sense to offset the joyous holidays with somber commemorations.

“I think it was really wise to set up this universal day of mourning,” Ms. Seid says. “It is really good to have one day to be the victims. Then, we don’t have to do that all the time. We can focus on other things except victimization. If we would use it for that purpose, it would be a really good idea.”

But for Ms. Seid, as for most non-Orthodox Jews, that’s all Tisha B’Av is: an idea, a concept. It is something to think about, rather than something to actually do.

“At the summer camp I went to, they really made a big thing about Tisha B’Av,” says Mrs. Brookes. “We actually re-enacted the whole thing, acting it out as if we were in Jerusalem. We would sit on the floor and read Lamentations, and we fasted. All that has stayed with me forever.

“But living here in Columbia and having joined a congregation that for years was unaffiliated, I don’t really remember ever having shared that with my congregation.”

That situation is beginning to change, however. Liberal Judaism in recent years has become more open to traditional influences, and some have begun to re-examine Tisha B’Av in this light.

For example, as Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton completes her inaugural year as spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Tikvah, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Roland Park, she plans to bring a taste of Tisha B’Av to this 100-member group.

“We will have an evening of prayer, study and reflection, exploring texts that are rooted in the traditional historical origins of the observance of Tisha B’Av, along with some modern and contemporary reflections on issues of communal loss,” she says.

Rabbi Bolton says she also will introduce her congregants to the traditional melodies used to chant Eicha.

“For me, the sound of a holiday is very important, so liturgically I will want the congregation to hear the sound of the troppe [cantillation], to hear the sound of ‘Eli Tzion,’ and to associate a particular sound with Tisha B’Av just as clearly as they may associate a particular sound with [the evening preceding] Rosh Hashanah,” she says. “More than the text of some of our liturgy, it is the music that reaches our kishkes [guts].”

Like many Jews, Rabbi Bolton says she experienced her most vivid Tisha B’Av experiences at summer camp. At age 10, for example, she bunked with a girl from a Chasidic home, and the pair tried on their own to mark the somber day.

“The two of us stayed in our nightgowns and stayed in our bunks, and tried to fast and pray,” she recalls. “By 2 o’clock, we gave up and ran across the field to the dining room, where all the cook could find for us were some canned peaches, which we promptly inhaled.”

Despite their capitulation, the rabbi says she and her friend wanted to feel a “connection”—to the Jewish people, to history, to something larger than themselves.

That sense of connection is just what Raffi Pristoop hopes to instill in his young charges. As an assistant director at the progressive labor Zionist summer camp called Habonim Dror Camp Moshava near Bel Air, he has an elaborate Tisha B’Av experience planned this year.

“After dinner, everyone will go to their tents and change into dark clothes,” he says. “A chain led by counselors will go around to every cabin, and the kids will grab onto the end until there is a chain of people that goes through the whole camp.”

Counselors will lead the chain to the edge of camp, where various large displays will depict the persecution of Jews through the ages. They will set ablaze a kerosene-soaked word—nizkor, we will remember—and then lead the campers in a series of readings and songs.

For Mr. Pristoop, this elaborate exercise in mourning is more than just an occasion for communal self-pity. It’s a wake-up call.

“It gives you perspective on your own life,” he says. “When you read these things, or when you fast, it helps you realize how lucky we are in this day and age. In learning about the past tragedies that have happened to Jews, it helps you appreciate how safe we are here in America, and maybe not take those things for granted.”

Mr. Pristoop also views the day as a celebration of the vigorous spirit that has allowed the Jewish people to transcend so many centuries of suffering and persecution.

“I want to express to the kids the idea that as Jews, although we have been oppressed in the past, we are nonetheless a very rich and thriving culture now,” he says. “We should learn from our history and yet still look forward to the future where we will hopefully help make the world a better place.”

On this last point, progressive thinking and traditional interpretations coincide.

As Rabbi Dr. Gavriel Newman of the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Upper Park Heights explains, Jews mourn the fall of the Temple partly to preserve the hope of its eventual return ? to preserve, in short, the dream of redemption.

“We have rabbinic teachings that tell us the person who cries over the destruction of Jerusalem will merit to be able to celebrate in its rebuilding,” he says. “Only if we keep alive the memory … can we hope to one day rebuild and regain the beauty of Jerusalem as it used to be.”

According to Jewish tradition, the ancient Jews lost the Temple as punishment for their sins. Thus, Tisha B’Av presents an opportunity to contemplate improving oneself.

“It is a time to come to terms with ourselves and our own failings,” Rabbi Newman says. “The way to rebuild the Temple is through improving our behavior, through doing repentance.”

This philosophy resonates with Toby Brookes, who takes those ancient lessons very much to heart.

“This year, I am thinking about it more politically,” she says. “If you read the traditional writing, there is a part that says that all this happened to the Israelites because of unfounded hatred, hatred amongst the Jews for one another. I really feel that a lot of that is going on today.”

Mrs. Brookes says she speaks frequently with friends in Israel, “and they are going through a lot of hard times looking through Israeli society because, basically, everyone hates everyone else. The secular hate the Orthodox, the Sephardim hate the Russians, you name it. And it makes me fearful when I connect that to the traditions of Tisha B’Av. That is what is in my thoughts this year.”

On the other hand, Tisha B’Av has more personal than political significance for Charles Village resident Judith Geller, a member of the non-denominational East Bank Chavurah.

“I think of it as a time to remember the fragility of life,” says Ms. Geller, 35, a psychotherapist, Hillel of Greater Baltimore employee and lead singer for Charm City Klezmer.

“Here we are in the middle of summer—the days are long and we are having fun—and all of a sudden there’s Tisha B’Av right smack in the middle of all that,” she says. “I think it grounds us a bit at this time of year. It reminds us to take care of each other and to value life, at a time when we might be taking things for granted.”

Fellow East Bank member Dan Richman has a similar take on the day. A longtime participant in progressive Jewish living, Mr. Richman, a Rodgers Forge resident, finds in Tisha B’Av an important opportunity for pause and reflection.

“I don’t want to just skim off the top of Judaism, to just have the high points. There is a certain wholeness to it,” he says. “In order to experience the joyous holidays as joyous events, you need to have this as your background. It’s all part of the tradition, and for myself, I take the low points with the high points.”

That’s as it should be, according to Rabbi Newman, who points out that observance of Tisha B’Av is, in fact, not a custom but a law. The talmudic rabbis codified the observance first in a text known as Taanit, and later in the body of laws called the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, section 549).

Still, Rabbi Newman says he understands why Tisha B’Av tends to get overlooked by many Jews.

“It’s a very difficult day to observe, it’s very painful, and we naturally tend to shy away from painful things,” he says.

But Rabbi Bolton doesn’t feel that can be the whole explanation for neglect of Tisha B’Av. “Yom Kippur is a downer, too, and that doesn’t seem to scare off the masses of Jews from participating,” she says.

Some people feel with Tisha B’Av, it’s partly a question of timing: as a summer holiday, it is almost inevitable that Tisha B’Av will get short shrift.

But there’s something deeper, too. Many people just don’t feel an emotional connection to this Temple that they never knew. Its loss is dim and ancient, far overshadowed by the more recent cataclysm of the Holocaust.

In talking to some Hillel college students with whom she works, Judith Geller has come to believe that a personal element is needed to make Tisha B’Av come alive.

Among those students who find meaning in the holiday, “they tell me it is one of the ways where Judaism gives them a place to experience all of their emotions, including anger and sadness,” she says. “Young adults struggle with choices and decisions and pressure, and it is nice from their perspective to have a holiday where the community supports those other emotions. It says that you don’t have to always be in a happy mood to be accepted in this community.”

Ms. Geller takes away from this an interesting notion: that in order to win equal time among contemporary American Jews, Tisha B’Av commemorations must address the here-and-now.

“People need to have it presented to them in a way that says, ‘Hey, this is something that is also about me.’ They need to see that it is not just a day that looks at things that have happened in the past, but also mourns and remembers any kind of loss,” she says. “If people saw it that way, I think it would have greater personal relevance in their lives.”

Adam Katz-Stone is an Annapolis-based free-lance writer.

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