A Tisha B’Av Zionist Elegy

Published on Haaretz

When personal devastation overlaps with ancient Jewish devastation, the author finds himself mediating about loss.

Exactly ten years ago, I was flying to the United States from Israel with my 8-year old twin boys on an evening flight to visit my father, who was terminally ill. I preferred the red-eye with my kids because the boys would sleep for most of the trip, but there were none available, and we had to get to New York. To make matters worse, I knew our trip would spill over into Tisha B’Av, so I would miss the reading of Eicha and for once spare myself my annual “to fast or not to fast” dilemma. But I was dealing with my father’s devastation and I had no energy to make my usual gestures toward ancient Jewish devastation.

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My wife had flown ahead of me when she finished teaching for the semester, taking our 2-year-old daughter. My wife has infinite patience and never panics, so she is the perfect person to have on hand as the world starts to disintegrate.

I was drained before I got on the plane, trying to finish too much at work before my departure, exhausted from the worrying and guilt, the long-distance attempts to contribute, the fear that I would arrive too late. My father’s demise had been going on for six years, but as we ascended over the Mediterranean Sea, I knew this was his final decline.

For now, I was occupied with getting through the 12-hour flight. Our plane was equipped with personal screens. If I could manage liftoff and keep my sons busy through the dinner service, the entertainment system would kick in and save us for the long stretch until sleep arrived. For once I did not care that they hardly touched their kids meals, that they would be starving later on, and I was grateful and excessively relieved to see them fall into television stupor, far from my jittery visions.

Ninety minutes into the flight, the captain’s voice blasted into our headsets, both insanely loud and utterly unclear, as the screen froze into a violent wobble.

But the message came through: Out of respect for the start of Tisha B’Av hundreds of miles behind us in Israel, the airline was now suspending the entertainment in favor of a special program for Israel’s national day of mourning. Our shows vanished. El Al was subjecting us to 11 hours of Holocaust films. Even the children’s channels had been commandeered.

My boys wanted to know what had happened to their cartoons. I looked at them, helpless, and furious.

No, I told them, there was no entertainment for us, no distractions, not today.

I was running on empty. I cursed El Al for its cowardly genuflection to the Orthodox, but seeking a target for a wrathful stare, I found few outwardly religious passengers on this flight. So the fault lay probably with El Al’s Minister of In-Flight Entertainment, who had taken away the choice we would have had over our own entertainment at home in Israel, instead mashing up Tisha B’Av – which has yet to be discovered by Hollywood – with Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was another example of the stupefying ignorance of secular Israelis about anything remotely related to Judaism.

My rage at everything wrong with Israel and its carrier held me rigid, but the boys’ hunger was suddenly as voracious as their restlessness. There was no dilemma. We thrashed our way through our snack bag, intended for middle of the night cravings, then explored the right aisle of the plane, the left aisle, the portholes, the bathrooms, the galley, the curtain hiding business travelers from our curses, the staircase pronounced leading up to heaven.

Back in our seats, the keening for Sponge Bob resumed. Why? Why?

Why? We’re 30,000 feet over Europe, but instead of raining terror down upon our historical tormentors, we are torturing ourselves with Holocaust movies.

This was not an appropriate answer. Tisha B’Av and El Al had deep-sixed my distraction plan. I had only my beautiful boys. I had to tell them how bad things were, but I was not sure.

We’re going to say good-bye to Sabba Saul.

Good-bye?

I mean hello, but it might be good-bye. You know he’s very sick.

He is?

He is.

We know.

BUT what did I know? How often we had parachuted in with our traveling party of giggling children, dirty diapers, runs to First Med, excursions to Shea Stadium with my recently invalided father in tow, wheelchair and children teetering always on the edge of hysteria and disaster. Was this enough, when each aggressively joyous reunion was balanced by the painful departure, leaving my parents to their suddenly silent house and their increasingly slow-motion routine?

As we exhausted our word games and drawing pads, sleep crept up. I sat between the boys to be their pillows, their mattress, as when they were babies, and thought how terrible it would be for me if they lived as far away as I did from my parents, feeling the distinctive, composite guilt for those of us who have made aliya but left our aging parents behind, the infinitely complex parent-child arc complicated further by the strange amalgam of pride, rage, distance, disappointment, loneliness and love.

We are not the halutzim – when saying goodbye meant forever, or, for that matter, when any long journey threatened extinction. We can reappear, and in theory, revoke our decision, reinsert our pink and blue plastic pins into our tiny cars and resume the original track around the Life game board. Or at least, as it turned out, come for one more visit before returning for the funeral.

I abandoned my parents for the very Zionist dream they had slow-dripped into my being, and for all the naches, this left them behind and bereft. Zionist dreamers have been leaving a trail of damaged parental hearts for more than 100 years. And who knows? Perhaps since Avraham left Terah.

Perspective on the pain we endure and the pain we cause does not offer much solace when we are in the middle of it, but once a year on Tisha B’Av, we focus on our collective loss over the long term, both to feel the pain and to overcome it.

Here’s what I did not tell my boys, my future, as they slept scrunched against me: We are flying on the Jewish day of loss because my father is dying. My mother is taking care of him back where I grew up in Queens, while I live far away with you in Israel.

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