An epiphany of Jewish strength and weakness on Tisha B’Av

Published in Haaretz

It was at Camp Ramah that I first felt Tisha B’Av’s telescoping of the Jewish people’s history of tragedies into a single day that recalls our historical vulnerability.

When I was 17, James Michener’s The Source took over my dream life and set me up for a Tisha B’Av epiphany. Tisha B’Av had always been a hard sell. The notion that American Jewish teenagers would become sorrowfully contemplative over the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem 2600 years ago, or the exile 1900 years ago at the hands of the Romans, or that we would believe for one minute that every tragedy in the rinse cycle of suffering called Jewish history happened on the same day of the year, that was a stretch.

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The Source is a massive novel which surveys 10,000 years in a single Galilee town, named, Makor – Source. Michener’s method is to zoom in on one personality and family, and to set off a novella-length domestic drama against the collision of historical forces. Each chapter is peopled by new characters and can be consumed independently, grappling hooks along the epic sweep of grand vistas

The Source begins with cave people ten thousand years ago, jumps to the early “Habiru” and works its way up to 1964, when the book was completed, synthesizing mountains of the most current research at that time and strung on a frame tale of contemporary archaeologists excavating the different levels of a Tel.

Michener is a master storyteller. His characters are archetypal, storybook figures, each of whose dominate character trait – long suffering, brilliant tactician, simple but honest – serves as his or her epitaph. The hero’s greatest strength is usually his outstanding flaw, and given the vicissitudes of Jewish history, this quality usually dooms them.

There is Gomer, a destitute a semi-outcast widow, addressed by God in an underground water tunnel leading to the deep, hidden well that sustains the walled city. At God’s command she takes her son to Jerusalem to burn its image into his memory, and only later discovers that her son’s role to keep the memory of Jerusalem alive among the Israelites once they are taken to Babylon as slaves.

And why must the Jews be sentenced to this first exile later commemorated on Tisha B’Av? Because we have to be cleansed of our attachment to Baal and Astarte, cured of our tolerance for other gods beside our one true God.

And there is the simple, fearless olive grove worker Yigal who stands down the Roman general Petronius, but cannot overcome the brilliant but self-serving and ultimately traitorous general Josephus, our eyewitness to the Jewish War and Masada. The few survivors of Makor are carted off in cages to be sold as slaves and concubines.

Michener deftly details the European disenfranchisement of Jews through the back stories of three immigrants to Sefad, the mountaintop refuge of Jewish mystics. These tales are harrowing in a way that the ancient stories are not because the Jews were no longer pawns in larger military conflicts, but the objects of Christian hatred and power, and we knew where these conflagrations would lead. God had ceased communicating with poor Jewish widows or wise old men, dropping any pretense of protecting our destiny.

It was July. I was at a round-the-clock language intensive at Camp Ramah in Nyack, alternating Hebrew verb conjugations with the last 500 pages of The Source. I finished the novel just in time for the fast. The campers had long since gone home, leaving behind the staff and the resident students.

The peak of Tisha B’Av comes at the start, with the evening reading of Eicha, in English Lamentations, but in Hebrew, the simpler and more eloquent; “How?” How, indeed.

It was night. The lights were off. We huddled near lit candles on the wooden floor of the Beit Am, a giant barn with sky-high rafters meant to house 400 children with ease. We were staring at small dancing candle flames. The wood smell, the echo, dozens of tiny flickering fires in that vast and empty space, accompanied by otherworldly chanting.

Usually this would induce the drowsies. But as the reader sang out, Eicha? There was a crack of thunder so loud I jumped and could feel the building vibrate. I was suddenly alert, but disoriented. The reader paused to gain his composure, and then continued, “Yashva Badad HaIr – the city sat alone…”

The rain beat down like bullets, a continuous tattoo. The reading was punctuated by the lightning fractures at the corners of our consciousness followed seconds later by each ferocious thunder clap. I began to day-dream in high definition.

I could see Yigal’s crucifixion and the murder of his family, the Jews being carted off in cages, like the slaves in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, never to see their loved ones again. I was running alongside the fat rabbi of an Italian town, forced to compete in the church-sponsored Easter race between Jews and prostitutes, in which the rabbis were dressed in revealing robes so the crowd could gawk at their circumcisions, and made to pay the sponsors for this degradation. The rabbi feared correctly that the derision would turn to murder.

There was the secret Jew in Spain, decades after the Jews had already been expelled in 1492, watching as the Inquisition tortured a Catholic colleague and suspected Jew for three years with increasingly intricate devices designed to drive him mad before being burned alive.

The German Jews of Jew Street were next to me, crowded into a narrow alley a few yards wide, packed into small rooms, forced to kiss a statue of a pig covered with feces to demonstrate Christian superiority.

And the Jewish moneylenders, engaging in the only trade allowed them, and then massacred when their debtors couldn’t pay the bills. And Jewish girls molested and raped with no recourse, because Christian courts saw nothing immoral in such treatment of Jews.

The movie in my head rolled with the mournful chant, the heavens shaking the House of the People.

And then we reached the end. And the storm stopped exactly on the last word of Eicha.

Silence, which gave way to the white noise of the rain cascading down then trickling off the roof. The percussion and the bright flashes and the mournful chanting were gone.

The quiet was startling.

We dragged ourselves to our feet to finish the service, to mutter Alenu. I wiped the dream-sleep from my eyes, and I stepped outside. The night air was clear and cool, and refreshing, as it is in the mountains after a summer rain. But I was reluctant to speak to anyone, lest they interrupt the private film festival in my head.

What did my generation know of devastation or upheaval? Nothing seemed more interminably solid than our suburban existence.

I pictured Michener’s archeologists as heroes, patiently digging through the past. And I imagined Israel – where I would soon be heading for a year – as a summer camp in upstate New York.

Like other Zionist refugees from the American middle class. I would know the dusty disappointments of dry riverbeds miss the thunderstorms in July and track more immediate tragedies.

I would discover that Tisha B’Av goes unacknowledged by most non-Orthodox Israelis. But the day reminds me every year of the change in our vulnerability that Israel has brought, and I often break my fast halfway through in celebration. Tisha B’Av could act as a medium by which Israelis could embrace the history and present of the Diaspora, not only the self-confidence of the present; it is a way to recognize that when we were at our weakest, we insisted on remembering, on discarding our illusions, while persisting, somehow, in living.

I would figure out later the wisdom of telescoping all these tragedies into a single day – that it didn’t matter whether from a historical point of view all these nightmares were launched on the 9th of Av or not, because to mark each step of these preludes to the Shoah separately would be unbearable, paralyzing.

When I came back from The Source-induced reverie, I saw the mountains and the shimmering night sky. My walkabout through our past was over. And the world was new.

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