By Harriet P. Gross
Today is Tisha B’Av. Last evening began our intense, annual daylong period of fasting, remembrance and mourning.
Most of us know that both of the Jerusalem Temples were destroyed on the same date (in different years, of course) — the ninth of the Hebrew month Av. But when I was growing up in a Conservatively-oriented home, Tisha B’Av belonged to the fervently Orthodox. We gave it a nod in Sunday school, and that was about all. As recently as the year 2000, Herman Wouk, a traditionalist himself, still pronounced it “a neglected observance.”
“There are some who even say that it is out of date,” he continued. “For those who do keep it up, this holy day is hard going. Services are protracted, the liturgy is loaded with difficult medieval poetry, and more punishing even than Yom Kippur is the twenty-four-hour thirst of a midsummer fast…”
Yet long before Wouk wrote those words in “The Will to Live On,” his book of personal reflections on Jewish survival, I had joined a handful of others who gathered each year on the eve of Tisha B’Av to sit on the floor in front of our synagogue’s bimah, reading the Book of Lamentations by candlelight.
Now, those holy hours belong to more of us than ever, no matter the Jewish streams in which we swim. Historian Jonathan Sarna, a leading modern Reform movement voice, awards Tisha B’Av a full chapter in his book “A Time to Every Purpose”; he titles it “Antisemitism.”
No wonder! Here’s some of the distress our tradition says occurred on that fateful date over many years and centuries: God decreed that none of the Israelites who left Egypt would live to enter the Promised Land; Bar Kochba’s brave revolt against the Romans ended in defeat; Jews were expelled first from England, then later from Spain; and the first Holocaust death camp murders took place at Treblinka.
(Not to omit those ancient Temple destructions — the First by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the Second by the Romans in 70 CE.)
A couple of local commemorative events show how Tisha B’Av is being claimed, and reclaimed, by all Jews today. First: Instead of lamenting together in their individual synagogues, the area’s Conservative Jews joined together last night for some communal moments of prayer, learning and understanding.
And second: This morning, Rabbi Howard Wolk takes all interested men, women and teens on “A Walk Through Jewish History” at Chabad of Dallas. Here, everyone across our religious spectrum can access an authoritative but understandable analysis of the day’s Kinnot — not just Biblical Lamentations, but those elegies and dirges so cavalierly dismissed by Wouk as “difficult medieval poetry.”
Perhaps most interesting and forward-looking: Today, some 30 synagogues across the country are screening a new documentary, “The Third Jihad,” from the Clarion Fund, a nonprofit that aims to educate all Americans on national security issues, with major focus on the threat of radical Islam. Here’s a very different way to honor the memories of our people’s past tragedies: by lifting up our sad and downcast eyes to face similar possibilities in the present, so that perhaps we can avert them in the future. It’s a film that encourages commemoration through a forward focus.
“This year, while American Jews participate in Tisha B’Av programming, wars rage in Iraq and Afghanistan, and two serious nuclear threats hang in the balance,” says Raphael Shore, Clarion Fund’s managing director. “Here is a wakeup call to the American public that radical Islam does not discriminate — the same radicals who wish to harm the Jewish people also wish to destroy Western freedoms and American society as we know it. Only educated Americans can insure that history does not repeat itself….”
A devout Muslim, Dr.M. Zuhdi Jasser, narrates the tale of how the FBI discovered a manifesto calling for a cultural undermining of the United States from within. In the film, experts on both Islam and security are interviewed, including Professor Bernard Lewis, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator Joseph Lieberman and CIA Director R. James Woolsey. All agree that no American can afford to ignore the spread of this radical fundamentalism in our shared country.
Judaism is at least as much about education as it is about community and memory. No synagogue in our area is showing “The Third Jihad” today. But we don’t have to wait until next Tisha B’Av to see it and learn from it. When these holy hours are over, why not take a look at www.clarionfund.org?
By Harriet P. Gross