Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tisha b'Av: Why Does This Always Happen To Us?

I was in film school when I first read the extended joke explaining why bad stuff happens. The joke quotes several world religions' perspectives on evil. Hinduism: This stuff has happened before. Buddhism: If stuff happens, is it really stuff? The capper for me was, of course, Judaism: Why does this stuff happen to us? The joke seemed particularly appropriate at the moment I read it. Film making is the Sisyphisean exercise of constantly struggling to solve one problem after another.

Joking aside, Tisha b'Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av) is the day on the Jewish calendar selected to embrace all the terrible events that befell the Jewish people. The two central events it commemorates are the destructions of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Tradition holds that both temples were destroyed on the same day, hundreds of years apart.

Further tragedies befell the Jews on this day in whatever region of the world they found themselves. According to the Orthodox Union web site, the expulsion from Spain occurred in 1492. The Holocaust, of course has its own days of infamy tied to Tisha b'Av. And, the seed of the Holocaust, World War I, was planted on this day when Britain and Russia delcared war on Germany. Germany's economic privations resulting from the war and the Treaty of Versailles later became fertile soil for the rise of Hitler.

I grew up with no understanding of Tisha b'Av. Although I have since taken on significant aspects of formal religious observance, Tisha b'Av remained a blank spot. I had no model of how to observe it, and no voices of memory informing me why I should. The day approaches with a prologue of three weeks, in which observant Jews begin taking on certain practices of mourners, such as not attending live music performance. The last 9 days of those three weeks become a kind of home stretch. Mourning practices increase to include not eating meat except on Shabbat, showering only with cool water, and not shaving.

In past years, these prologue periods provoked me to discuss Tisha b'Av casually with friends. Those that had attended Jewish summer camp harked back to those experiences to guide their Tisha b'Av observance. Having so such references, I took a "pass" on any observance.

This year, subtle steps drew me towards a deeper understanding of the day. When I discovered Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust scheduled its summer fundraiser during the three weeks, I insisted we reschedule. Thus our comedy showcase at the Improv (seats are still available!) will be held Sunday night, August 16.

A more profound nudge came when I invited a religious couple, who had never been to the Hollywood Bowl, to join my wife and me for a Beethoven concert. My friend begged off. "Unfortunately we can't. It's during the Three Weeks." Rather than only feel sheepish about my faux pas, I resolved to think more deeply about Tisha b'Av. And then I decided to take baby steps towards my own observance. So I adopted some of the restrictions of the 9 days.

I made sure to attend schul on the evening of Tisha b'Av and to begin the fast included in the observance. The formal practice in synagogue includes the congregants sitting the floor, in imitation of the practice of Jewish mourning, and the chanting of Aicha, the Book of Lamentations. As I sat, subdued in the darkened sanctuary, several factors, like tumblers in a lock, combined to open a door to a deeper relationship with the day.

The minor actions I assumed during the 9 days probably laid some sort of foundation. As a result of reminding myself to keep the shower's hot water low, or that I needed a salad for lunch, I continued to raise questions of what exactly it means to be mournful. What am I mourning? Can I be commanded to do so, or am I just going through the motions? I tried not to grow frustrated as no answers came. I figured I could only evaluate the experiment's true results if I stuck to the protocol.

Then, last night in schul, the door cracked. First I felt a sense of belonging to a community. As I entered the sanctuary I heard the congregants' loud responses during the hetzi kaddish, a responsive prayer signifying a turning point in the service, before I saw the size of the group. In the immortal words of Slim Pickens (Blazing Saddles), "I didn't know there'd be so many!" And as I took my seat on the carpet, this sense only increased. No matter the depth of my personal experience of Tisha b'Av, I was not alone, and together we were paying respects to our losses in our history as a people. I was now a link in a chain that stretched behind me and before me in time. I didn't need to be intensely involved to become a link. I just had to be there.

As various readers chanted Aicha, the images from its numerous extended metaphors took form in my mind. And these were images from the Holocaust, images one might see in the exhibits in our Museum. I heard:

[Children] say to their mothers: 'Where is corn and wine?' when they swoon as the wounded in the broad places of the city, when their soul is poured out into their mothers' bosom. Aicha (Lamentations) 2:12

and I saw pictures of children starving on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto. At "Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles of the heaven (4:19)" I saw the Nazi eagles held high on flags in mass rallies. I don't have to explain what I imagined when I heard "From on high He hath sent fire into my bones (1:13)."

I looked around me and, for no explicable reason, noticed the styles of shirts worn by the men around me. Checked shirts, white dress shirts untucked, blue shirts. I recalled the voice of Museum founder Thomas Blatt, one of the few Sobibor inmates who survived the 1943 prisoner revolt. The day before, he told me he was able to make it in hiding after the revolt because he never wore a camp uniform. "We had the clothes of the Jews who were killed. If your shirt got dirty, you just went to the sorting barracks and chose a new shirt."

Mental echoes comprise an occupational hazard in running a Holocaust Museum. Usually I try to let them go rather than note them or hold on to them. They're not thoughts one can bring up in pleasant conversation, such as at the dinner table. "Dear, could you pass a slice of bread? Did you know people in the camps would ration just half a slice for an entire day?"

But in schul, on Tisha b'Av, I didn't have to evade. This was the time and the place to engage. Doing so didn't just propel me towards a sense of the sadness that is the appropriate mood for the day. It imbued me with the wisdom of having such a day. Bad stuff does happen. Really bad stuff. Not just to a group of people who seems to have more trauma than any other group. To anyone. It is the nature of being alive. And rather than ignore the existence of misery and suffering, it seems profoundly wise to not only set aside a period of time to embrace it, but to orchestrate a slow crescendo of ritualized practices helping us reach out for such an embrace.

Getting back to the Jewish propensity as a people to always have bad stuff happening to us, there is a silver lining. We are one of the few groups in modern society who can trace their history back through thousands of years. Live long enough, and lots of bad stuff is going to happen.

And good stuff, too. Tisha b'Av is, after all, only one day.

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