Jewish Journal

The Place of Remembrance: Tisha B’av in Contemporary Times

by Dr. Michael Berenbaum

July 18, 2010 | 9:44 pm

By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat,
sat and wept,
as we thought of Zion

Psalms 137:1
With these words, the Psalmist reminds us that the place from which we remember an event shapes how the event is remembered. Place, even more than time.

We weep for different reasons. There are tears of sorrow, tears of joy, tears of exultation, and tears of frustration.

So permit me to grapple with Tisha b’Av and its contemporary meanings by recalling place and remembering the different tears that I shed as I remembered Zion, on what had been traditionally regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.

Tisha b’Av 5718 (1958), Connecticut
Like many American Jews of my generation, my first serious encounter with Tisha b’Av came at summer camp, in my case Camp Ramah. Because of the peculiarities of the Jewish calendar, the only holiday that occurs in the camping season is Tisha b’Av, and thus it becomes a centerpiece of the summer. There were many hours of preparation during the three weeks of mourning between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. We were taught the laws of the holiday; and when we reached the nine days just before Tisha b’Av, our sense of enjoyment was diminished ever so slightly. Our classes and the new melodies we learned shaped our consciousness of the anguished moments in Jewish history. And then the evening itself arrived. Shoes were removed for sneakers; the lighting was dimmed and replaced by candles. From the choir came songs of sadness, Ma’ariv (the daily, evening prayer service) was recited, followed by chanting of the Book of Lamentations (Eikhah) with its haunting melody and the special trope for the 66 short, crisp verses of Chapter 3. Silence was present, rather than chatter; softness rather than the loud voices of children at play. The entire atmosphere in the camp was transformed; and there was little reality from the outside world to intervene, to shatter the mood.

We experienced the rhythms of Tisha b’Av: heavy mourning in the evening; mourning of less intensity in the morning, but with benches still overturned and mourners not wearing tallit and tefillin; and a gradual lifting of the mourning as the day progressed. We were taught to think historically and to see that past, present, and future were related. We were taught to understand that the Jewish people have repeatedly faced defeat, lived in its aftermath (albeit in a diminished and weakened state), and been blessed with enough energy to endure and, ultimately, to be creative again. We were taught the rebukes of Jeremiah in the first part of Isaiah and the consolation of Jeremiah in the second part. We were taught to think about Jerusalem, the city so seemingly distant and not-of-this-earth, and about the Holocasut, 13 years in the past, but still fresh.

Since camp, Tisha b’Av has always loomed large on my calendar. Since camp (which coincided with my bar mitzvah), I have fasted and observed it seriously, although perhaps not with the intensity I experienced in camp. For in camp, the outside world did not interrupt; such was the power of camp and a prime reason for its effectiveness.

Tisha b’Av 5727 (1967), Jerusalem

I belong to the generation that went to Israel for the 1967 war, the one that lasted only six days. In fact, I left for Jerusalem instead of going to my college graduation. The mood in the United States was bleak and the sense of looming catastrophe overwhelming. We left right before the war began, and we arrived on its second day. On June 7, the third day of the war, I was on a bus headed toward Jerusalem when the driver turned up the volume om the bus’s radio. A spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces announced: “The Old City is ours.” My friends and I had departed from the United States in sadness; in Israel, we experienced a historical exultation unlike any I have ever experienced before or since. On Shavuot, the Kotel (Western Wall) was made accessible to Jews for the first time since December 1947 when the Arab Legion gained control of the Old City.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews—from caftan-clad Hasidim to miniskirted women—arrived as pilgrims and rejoiced to see the site of the destroyed Temple. We exulted in the unfamiliar glow of Jewish triumph, in what we sensed was the reversal of Jewish anguish. We had gone from Auschwitz to Jerusalem in one generation, from defeat to victory—so we thought, so we felt. The sixth day of the Six-Day War was Shabbat. Zalman Shazar, the president of Israel, spoke poetically and masterfully at student services: Livshi bigdei tifartekh Yerushalayim (“Wear the clothes of your majesty, Jerusalem”).

That year Tisha b’Av felt different. The Book of Lamentations sounded joyous, defiant. Even as we heeded the Jewish laws about mourning, we glowed inwardly. We had experienced the majesty and mysterious attraction of Jerusalem. I paused at one verse (18) in Chapter 5:

“Because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate;
Jackals prowl over it.”

I remembered the Talmudic tale [iii] of Rabbi Akiva and his friends walking by the site of the destroyed Temple. The other rabbis wept while Akiva remained merry. His reasoning? Because the first words of prophecy—the prophecy of rebuke—had been fulfilled, so, too, would the second promise be fulfilled, that of return: “There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, …” (Zech. 8:4).

I laughed as I read that verse. For here were a hundred thousand of the children of Zion, walking amidst a thriving city that was no longer desolate, no longer forlorn. How does one speak of the destroyed Jerusalem when in the hills of Judah and the courtyards of Jerusalem the voices of joy and gladness, the voices of the bridegroom and the bride are being heard—when the Jewish people have returned? I fasted half a day; after Mincha there was a seudah, a meal not of famine but of joy.

Tisha b’Av 5736 (1976), Kiev

In the summer of 1976, I visited the Soviet Union for the first time. Like many Jewish activists of my generation, I was in the Soviet Union to meet with Refuseniks and, for an even more specific purpose, to continue arrangements for a conference on the topic of “Jewish studies” scheduled (clandestinely) for December. The trip was intense. In what may have been an amateurish (or perhaps actually effective) guise, we behaved as tourists during the day—seeing museums and monuments, visiting the sites of Kiev, Leningrad, Moscow, and Tallinn. In the evening we broke away from our group (travel to the Soviet Union in those days was always in groups) to go to phone booths to telephone our contacts. Then we traveled by cab or by subway to meet them, to deliver material and to offer contact and support. We talked, sang songs together, worked on learning texts, and became friends, family. On Shabbat, we went to synagogue; but we spoke to the Refuseniks outside, not inside, where there were informers. We were in Kiev for Tisha b’Av. We associated Kiev with the slaughter at Babi Yar. [iv] A visit to the site on Tisha b’Av was imperative; and there we met Russian Jews who were observing the solemn day by visiting the killing fields. In the words that were spoken that morning, the Jewishness of the victims was unmentioned; the Jewishness of the visitors was also unmentioned, but so apparent. My group had earlier gone to synagogue to recite the kinot (lengthy poems of sorrow) during the morning service. I came as any other Jew; and I sat unnoticed, unwelcomed—or so I thought. About three quarters of the way through the reading of kinot, I was asked to lead the congregation. Only once I started to read the lamentation did I realize why I had been invited to recite this particular one. It begins, Tzion halo tishali l’shalom asirayikh, “Zion, will you not ask of the fate of your captives.” For the Russian Jews, the words of the poem’s author, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi, were an admonition; for me, they were a personal imperative. In my chanting those words, we all understood each other well.

That afternoon, we flew to St. Petersburg, then under its Communist name of Leningrad where, because of the long summer days, daylight still prevailed at 10:30 or 11:00


On Tisha b’Av, the parameters of the length of the fast is based on actual location; and I learned not only to consider whether I had traveled into a different time zone, but also the latitude of the city I was visiting. After meeting with Refuseniks, I went to synagogue and donned my tefillin for the afternoon and evening services of Mincha and Ma’ariv. The old Jews who were present asked if I would speak to them. The only language we had in common was Yiddish, a language that I understood but did not speak. But I did speak. For 30 minutes I managed to say everything that I wanted to say using my extremely limited vocabulary. Proud of my performance I said with a tinge of apology, “You know, I have never spoken in Yiddish before.”

A man in the back of the synagogue nodded his head and said sadly: “We know, we know.” Although he was merely expressing his awareness that Yiddish was rapidly disappearing among Jewishly educated and observant American Jews, I was somewhat intimidated by his remarks. I have not spoken Yiddish since.

Tisha b’Av 5739 (1979), Krakow
Three years later, traveling with the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, I made my first visit to Auschwitz on the 8th of Av. We had wanted to visit the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Tisha b’Av, but the planes between Warsaw and Kiev would not cooperate. We simply could not visit Auschwitz on Tisha b’Av, then make a flight to Kiev for a visit we had planned, and manage to be in Moscow, our next stop, for Shabbat. So we decided on a different plan. We would visit Auschwitz on the 8th instead of the 9th of Av. Then we would go from Auschwitz to the city of Krakow, to the Remuh Synagogue, named after Rabbi Moses Isserles (buried in the adjacent cemetery), in time to join the Jews of Krakow for Tisha b’Av services that would begin that night.

Anyone who has been to Auschwitz more than once knows that the first time is the most painful, the most difficult. Walking in Birkenau (the extermination camp within the Auschwitz complex), one is enveloped by the evil that befell the Jewish people.  The presence of the killers can be felt—and the magnitude of their crime.

We arrived in synagogue shattered.

Meeting the remaining Jews of Krakow was perhaps even more shattering.

One Jew was blind and one was lame. One was without legs and the other without arms. One seemed mentally disturbed; and another, who was not disturbed, was disturbing to us by the very appearance of normality in the midst of everything. The synagogue smelled, and the books were tattered and not cataloged. It felt like we were arriving after the Hurban (literally, “the Destruction”), the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. The scene was all too appropriate for Tisha b’Av.

That particular evening resonates with me now in a 1979 fable written by Yaffa Eliach, [vi]  which she included in her 1988 book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. In it, the character [vii] Miles Lerman challenges God to a din Torah (literally, “judgment of Torah”) to bring God to justice. Lerman, a partisan fighter during the Shoah, lost much of his family in Poland. His mother and sister and her children were murdered at Belzec, and his wife, who he met after the war, had been imprisoned at Auchwitz-Birkenau. This is his first journey back Poland and he was profoundly shaken. He poured out his heart, but the final commentary on his memorable speech was given by an old Jew. “A din Torah with God? Here there is no God. God doesn’t live here anymore.”

For me, the paradox of the evening came in the fifth chapter of Lamentations:

Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
Behold, and see our disgrace!
Our heritage has passed to aliens,
Our homes to strangers.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
Our mothers are like widows. …

Gone is the joy of our hearts;
Our dancing is turned into mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head; …

Because of this our hearts are sick,
Because of these our eyes are dimmed:
Because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate;
Jackals prowl over it. (vv. 1–3.15–18)

I wondered as the author of Lamentations had:

Why have your forgotten us utterly,
Forsaken us for all time? …

For truly, You have rejected us,
Bitterly raged against us.

The tradition requires that one not end with despair but with hope. It mandates that the Book of Lamentations end with a repetition of verse 21:

Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself,
And let us come back;
Renew our days as of old!

That evening there could be no renewal, merely abandonment. I simply could not recite the words of return aloud.

Tisha b’Av in the Here and Now

From the place where we are today, how should we approach Tisha b’Av?

First of all, we must mark the day, embrace the day, and find a means to engage the past and to encounter the present and the future. We can read the Book of Lamentations from a new perspective and see that because of the unfolding of events, the ancient text has the capacity to speak to contemporary Jews in ways that the tradition may never have contemplated. Sometimes, by contrasting the pain described in the book with the many blessings Jews enjoy today—especially in Israel and in the United States—we become acutely conscious of and grateful for what has been accomplished. At other times, we think about the days of old, categorized by defeat and catastrophe, exile and anguish; and we see the link to today—to our current fears, suffering, and losses. But always after the 9th of Av comes the 10th; and we struggle to live, to endure, and to overcome our pain in the aftermath of tragedy.


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A blog by Dr. Michael Berenbaum.

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