I found it very hard to get in the mood for Tisha B’Av this year. I did try – I stopped eating meat after the beginning of Av, and I read a modern Israeli novel that imagined what the prophecies of Jeremiah would be like were he to live in a time resembling our own ( Muck by Dror Burstein, highly recommended as well as Rabbi Rena Blumenthal’s The Book of Israela, another fascinating fictional examination of what would happen to a prophet in modern Israel). I even created an assignment for myself to write a piece about books to read during this time to put us in the Tisha B’Av mood. But, I couldn’t complete it. I just wasn’t able to motivate myself.
Usually, the mourning period of the Three Weeks before Tisha B’Av is something to be planned around – we think about when to take a vacation so we can enjoy outdoor music, plays or other entertainment that are prohibited during this time, to lessen our joy and put us in the mood to be mournful. But that was the problem this year: there was no entertainment even to be had. With the days being so unvaried, except Shabbat and holidays, it was hard to feel the difference. And the world is so gloomy anyway, that it was hard to feel that this day of mourning would be different. Even reading things to put me in the mood, like Muck, didn’t really change anything for me.
At our meal before the fast, my husband was quiet. I asked him what he was thinking about. He told me he was thinking of our past experiences of Tisha B’Av. We’ve been in various places – Jerusalem, Glasgow, New York – over the years. One year we spent Tisha B’Av in Venice, Italy, in one of the synagogues which was part of the original ghetto for the Jews (Venice is the place the term ghetto originated in 1516). I recalled the gloom of the women’s balcony of the five-hundred-year-old synagogue lit only by candlelight, as is customary for this night. The darkness created a mood and also felt historically accurate. The curtain over the ark with the Torah was changed to be black, as is customary in many places; it fit my awareness of the bleakness in this place.
Jews had been deported from Italy in the Shoah, ending the vibrancy of Italian Jewry which had been one of the oldest continuous Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Legend has it that Jews first came to Italy when they left Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE.
Most of us at the synagogue were tourists who were not indigenous to the community, yet we were all still connected to the fate of our people. That feeling of connection added a layer of meaning to my holiday that night almost 30 years ago.
The need to gather on Tisha B’Av stems from the Talmud in Taanit 30b, Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit and see her future joy, and whoever does not mourn for Jerusalem will not see her future joy.”
Tisha B’Av is meant to be a time to gather and express sadness for the past as well as longing for a better future with other Jews.
But, this year, on the evening of Tisha B’Av, there were no meaningful vacations. Instead, we were at home, and not even as a family. One of our children was in charge of the screen sharing for her college’s communal reading of Lamentations, and the other was attending one programmed by her camp. We were proud that they had their own programs to go to, but it felt weird to be fragmented in our own home, participating in the same activity in different rooms, on different screens.
We cleared the table and turned on the computer. I dimmed the lights and lit candles, though the screen itself was bright enough. I wanted to feel that I was with the others, in a large room, lit only by candles, hearing the echoes of our voices sing the haunting melody.
Reading the words from chapter 4, “hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children”(verse 10) I imagined the desperation and horror, especially when I learned more about how this metaphor was used in kinah 17, from my daughter’s teacher Nechama Goldman Barash in a class about it on Zoom on Tisha B’Av day. The word “compassionate” in Hebrew, stems from the word “womb,” so a woman eating that which she has labored to bring forth, that which she labors to sustain and feed and give life to, is the most horrible thing possible.
In Lamentations Rabba, there is a story of a woman who appears righteous, as she weighs her child each year and donates his weight in gold to the Temple. Yet, when the time of starvation comes, she measures the child in order to eat him. The horror was made real when I watched this video of Margot Schlesinger, the late grandmother of Rabbi Daniel Yolkut who posted it, telling of the difficulty of life during the Holocaust. She only breaks down and cries when she talks of children being taken from the camp and says that if she had children at that time, she would have committed suicide. To imagine someone at a time of desperation who had that level of compassion, and then imagine someone who might not… awful.
After we read the mournful words of the book of Lamentations, we watched and hummed along with a Zoom where someone posted recordings of a group humming mournful niggunim (wordless tunes). The program with the wordless tunes was after the main Tisha B’Av program, but because they were on the same Zoom link from the synagogue, at 10 PM, the main link cut off in the middle of the Aleinu concluding prayer and before the mourner’s Kaddish.
We were discussing what to do about the Kaddish, when two friends of mine who had lost their fathers in the past few months came on to the Zoom. They asked if we could say Kaddish first, and, of course, we agreed. Feeling that, even though we were in different spaces, we were still able to join together as a community to remember and honor those from the past, made me feel part of something larger than myself.
I recently signed up for an online class about resilience and mental health and was asked to take a survey ahead of time. There were several questions about change: “Do you feel you can cope with changes? Are you able to adapt to new circumstances?” I answered all of them as “strongly affirmative.” I find strength in the idea that even though Jewish holidays this year are not what they have been in the past, we can still find meaning in them.
For all we think Tisha B’Av is about the destruction of the Temple, it is also about the survival of the Jewish people. For it is on this day that God decided in the words of Kinah 19 that “we would continue to exist.”
While we should mourn about the destruction of the Temple, we should also take satisfaction in knowing that as the Jewish people continue to exist, we can get up from our mourning and turn our sorrow into hope. In the words of Kinah 19, “Yours, my Lord, is the righteousness because although the Destruction of the two Temples were caused by our corruption, we ourselves were spared.”
Later that day I watched part of Rabbi J.J. Schacter‘s talk on Tisha B’Av, and he made the point that because the Jewish people have not been destroyed, because God enabled us to continue, moving from Tisha B’Av to the High Holidays, “the onus is on us to bridge the gap to God.”
His point is that once we understand that we have been spared the destruction of our people, culture, and civilization (if not our Temples), we are in the position, in this aftermath, to reach out to the Divine. He said emphatically, “You need to make the move.”
Even where we are, quarantined in our homes, separated from each other and our families and communities, we are still able to reach out, even in unfamiliar ways like across the screen of Zoom. This realization was brought home to me by the opening words of the Haftarah for the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, Isaiah 55:6, ” Seek the LORD while He can be found, call to Him while He is near.”
Wherever we are, and whatever situation we find ourselves in, we the Jewish people have found the capacity for hope and meaning. Our lives now are different than they have been in the past, of our own lifetimes or that of any other time in history. Yet, we still have the capacity to make the move, towards God and other people, even if a computer screen is now the medium for our study and prayer and lifecycle rituals.
Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of the anthology Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, author of the novel Questioning Return and the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Tablet, the Forward, 929English and Haaretz, among others. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.