Jewish tradition teaches that we are commanded to write a Torah in our lifetime, but not a kinah, or dirge. For ages, our prophets and rabbis have done this for us, filtering and distancing, putting our most painful group memories into acrostic, poetic form.
Beginning with Eicha (Lamentations) and continuing with additional kinot, our forebears have turned the darkest days in our history into a ready-to-use alef-bet of tragedy.
Now as we approach Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the fast day on which we remember the destruction of the First and Second Temples and other disasters that occurred on this date by chanting these kinot, I am encouraging you in this age of immersion and Googley do-it-yourself to pick up pencil or pen and write your own dirge.
Tisha B’Av, which starts this year on the night of Aug. 9, literally cries out for our involvement. Writing your own kinah can create a powerful connection to a summer day that might otherwise pass you by.
Historically, not all kinot were in Hebrew—Italian Jews wrote them in their own language, so you can, too.
Through the kinot, Tisha B’Av lives as a construct of memory. The day takes on new meaning as we place our own memories, in our own words, into the construct.
The writing of personal kinot is an activity that I have led several times in Los Angeles with a lay-led Jewish community called the Movable Minyan. Participants have found that writing their own kinot helps them forge an intimate connection to Tisha B’Av—a fast day many Jews find difficult to encounter—especially if they are read or even chanted.
In these kinot workshops, participants have written about personal loss during the Holocaust, onset and recovery from serious illness, how Jewish generational links have been broken and re-forged, earthquakes and riots.
Over the centuries the focus of these poems—which began with the destruction of the ancient Jewish Temples—has evolved to include other calamities as well. There is a kinah for the York massacre in 1190 and one for the French Crown’s order in 1242 that all copies of the Talmud be burned.
The Ten Martyrs—you will recall them from Yom Kippur’s Martyrology Service—also have a kinah dedicated to their sacrifice. Several kinot have been written about the Holocaust and are now in use around the world. Sephardim have written them about the Expulsion from Spain.
No one is expecting you to be an elegiac master. With a few good moments of focus and intent, the form of the acrostic kinah can be yours to appreciate and use. Don’t be thrown by the acrostic part. It is based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, with the acrostic being created by the initial letter of each verse. Two common explanations for choosing this literary form are that the use of the entire alphabet represents the totality of the destruction, and that even in destruction there is a beginning and an end.
In Hebrew, the lines of a typical kinah gain strength from alternating long and short lines. Rhythmically, the lines play off each other, adding nuance and meaning. In English translation, you can reach some of the same rhythm.
Take, for example, this section from the beginning of Eicha, the book read on the night of Tisha B’Av (it helps to read aloud):
Lonely sits the city
Once great with people!
She that was great among nations
Is become like a widow;
The princess among states
Is become a thrall.
(JPS Translation © 2000)
And here, listen carefully to each line’s rhythm:
Her enemies are now the masters,
Her foes are at ease,
Because the Lord has afflicted her
For her many transgressions;
Her infants have gone into captivity
Before the enemy.
For your kinah, writing 10 lines will give you a good feel for the form. Alas, the wellspring for poetic inspiration about loss and tragedy in Jewish life often seems endless. Yet try to focus on one theme. Your source might be Jewish-related news, an e-mail or a late-night call.
Once you have a theme, simply begin your first line with an “A” word and work your way line by line to “J.”
There is no need to rhyme, only to recall and feel. Think of the kinah as a soulful mnemonic in which each line’s beginning helps you to remember.
As you prepare to write, get into the mood of the approaching day. Many congregations chant Eicha while seated on low stools or even on the floor. Lights are dimmed. For as the commentary Eicha Rabbah teaches, “What does a mortal king do when he is in mourning, he extinguishes the lanterns.”
Use a simple pen or pencil. Find an “un-easy” chair. Go basic, light a candle. If you can, let some hope in, as Eicha’s closing line is: “Renew our days as of old.”
On Tisha B’Av, sitting together, we chant the kinot. It’s a communal experience where the memories and pain are mourning shared.
Prepare and help others to prepare for Tisha B’Av by sharing your creation.
To awaken your inner poet, just listen a little, sift a bit, think and write yourself into this Jewish way of remembering.
Edmon J. Rodman is a writer and designer of children’s media and toys.