Lament in the Season of Lament

A father carries his youngest child, an infant daughter. Her elder sister walks just steps behind him, her hair caught up in a ponytail. My dad, me, and my older sister, Suzie.

It is a season of private loss for me, one inescapably colored by the season of my people’s lament. This weekend marks the start of the three weeks of mourning that lead up to Tisha B’Av, a date which records repeated planned assaults on Jews. The destruction of the First Temple and the destruction of the Second Temple, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto — all these happened on Tisha B’Av. I could add to that short and devastating list. Those who wanted to hurt us sometimes purposefully chose that day to harm us again.

We remember Tisha B’Av, our past, in order to build our future. We remember so that we can know ourselves.

During this season, my father died. My beloved mother-in-law, Evelyn Thiede, died a few years later in a shocking mishap on the surgery table — just days after my dad’s yahrzeit. Ruth Kingberg, once matriarch of my spiritual community, died in a different year, but also during the same week.

Mourning them, inevitably, calls up my greatest loss — the death of my elder sister, Suzie. Suzie died from breast cancer that had metastasized to liver, brain and lung. She died at 42 — the mother of five children. Her youngest was just three.

Suzie at 13, me at 8.

I was sewing, this past week, listening to Chicago’s Saturday in the Park. I grew up knowing Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, and the beaches that border them. The picture of my dad holding me, with Suzie walking alongside shows Lake Michigan in the near distance; we were at my grandparent’s apartment and my dad was taking me and my sister down to the beach.

Hearing the song, I was suddenly living my childhood. My dad was playing drums while the music played. “Listen to that brass section!” he’d call out. My dad was fully alive in the moment he picked up his drumsticks.

For weeks Suzie had been appearing every time I looked in the mirror.

A month ago I decided to stop coloring my hair. As I watched a thin white line emerge on my head I remembered how my sister, back in the 1980’s, stopped coloring hers. She was in her early thirties at the time. We had both seen our first gray hairs appear in young adulthood. Our mother handed us the dye that would hide them. In those days, going gray early was kept secret — no one found out your actual hair color until you were a grandparent.

I kept seeing Suzie lying on her hospital bed just days before she died. Her hair was just growing in from the waves and waves of chemo she’d been subject to. It was sparkly silver and sat short and close to her beautiful skull. I imagined it long and thick — a crazy, silvery, curly cascade that would be the right replacement for the mane of red-brown hair she’d never tried to tame in our youth.

I looked in the mirror at my own hair and wanted, badly, to have her back. We could be white and silver together, sisters grown old in each other’s company. In my mind, I told her: “Had you lived, maybe I would have had the courage to do this thing so much earlier, to become myself.”

Suzie in her early-thirties; me in my late twenties.

Had she lived, I would have seen that silvery, sparkly hair grow out, be all curly and wild again, rest on her shoulders, get loose from her braids.

My dad and my sister walk to the beach, with me in my dad’s arms. My own hair in that picture is that of an infant, but it was, even then, as blue-black as my father’s. When I was a child, people stopped my parents on the street to tell them how amazing my hair was. I remember the embarrassment and the pleasure — my hair was my only beauty, I thought then.

During my lifetime, I will have had my dad’s hair and, in a way, my sister’s. I will travel a path my sister never had the chance to complete herself.  Remembering them, do I become more myself?

Lament opens up grief and loss and sorrow. And truth, too. So we learn, all of us, who we are.

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Which Temple Should I Mourn? Reflections on Tisha B’Av, 5780

I knew Tisha B’Av first as a date that stood for repeated griefs for European Jews. I taught it as such in my courses on the history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Jews were expelled from England and from Spain on that date, the Warsaw Ghetto was liquidated… the list I offered my students was painful and exhausting.

I was factually aware that Tisha B’Av was sourced in far more ancient pain – the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE. In later years, reading, studying, and teaching the Book of Lamentations became a way to understand the desperation of a people trapped and doomed. God’s absence and silence in this text is shattering, no matter how often you read it.

The destruction of the Second Temple is often depicted as a fundamental crisis for Jews of the first century. Surely, the Temple was a symbol of power and might for Jews already long since living in diaspora. It was a memory of a long-lost sovereignty and power. It was imposing for those who saw it.

But by the time of the Second Temple’s destruction, Jews were living all over the known world and had been doing so for many, many centuries. There were a dozen functioning synagogues in Rome. There were Jews in Africa, Asia Minor, living their communal lives without sacrifice and temple services. Was the destruction of the Second Temple a massive dislocation of Jewish life, a cataclysm for (say) the Jews of Ostia, Italy or Priene, Turkey? We have no evidence that it was. In fact, of all the literature produced by Jews in the time of the Second Temple available to us, almost none of it actually refers to the Temple itself. Jews had other things on their minds.

Every year, as I step into this day of mourning, I ask myself: What am I really mourning? Is there a land, a space, a place more holy than any other on this earth? Is there any structure humans have built that I should value more than any other – even in memory?

What grief needs to be recognized, understood? What am I mourning?

It is the earth itself that cries out to me now. In the maelstrom of a pandemic, understandably worried about our human survival, we seem to have forgotten that we have unleashed disease and death on her, on Gaia.

The teshuva the last chapter of Lamentations begs for? This is a teshuva Gaia cries out for in every day of melting polar ice caps and deforestation and collapsing insect populations. We are burning our planet.

Every day I go to my gardens. I check my compost piles. I watch for the tomatoes growing on the vines, the peppers, the eggplants. I turn the earth and I touch it, I tend and I harvest and we eat what we have grown as often as we can. I look to see if the hummingbirds and bees and butterflies and birds have the right blossoms, the right colors, the right sense of home. Can I sustain them through what I plant, what I farm?

My mashpiah (spiritual director) recently suggested that I ask, each day: Mi bara eyleh? Who made this? Doing so, I bring the Holy One into my home and I thank her. And then I ask for forgiveness and recognition: I am mourning, I tell her, for what we are destroying – Your home, Your Temple.

On this Tisha B’Av, may we think of the Temple that truly needs saving and rebuilding. It is the Temple we stand upon. It is God’s own Temple, this earth.

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Tisha B’Av: Ask the Laity

Jewish religious leaders I know struggle for three weeks every summer. These are the three weeks that span the time between the day the walls of Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzar on the 17th of Tammuz, 586 BCE and the 9th of Av, when the First Temple was destroyed.

Most of those leaders are in some process of mourning for the pain of our past. In the meantime, the laity, temple affiliated or not, are spending these weeks squeezing in their last vacation time. They are going for a swim at a nearby pool, generally relaxing in the steam of a summer’s day.

Most American Jews I have met have never heard of Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) and do not know that this day marks not only the destruction of the First Temple, but the destruction of the Second Temple as well by Roman forces in 70 CE. They are unaware that the second destruction destroyed any semblance of Jewish sovereignty (not that there was so very much of that under the Romans) and that the crisis ushered in two thousand years of oppression and homelessness for Europe’s Jews. They do not know the litany of miseries many Jews experienced that occurred on this self-same day – expulsions, massacres, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.

One method of handling the fact that American Jews don’t “relate” to Tisha B’Av, its accompanying reading (the Book of Lamentations), or its rituals (a day long fast, among other things) has begun to drive me crazy.


It goes like this: Look for the light around the edges of the shadow.
  Find the blessings in the pain.

This approach mostly relies on making the case that if it weren’t for the destruction of the Second Temple, there would be no such thing as rabbinic Judaism, and that without the rabbis, Judaism would have died on the vine.

The argument goes that classical Judaism emerged from the life-saving work of rabbis who wrote down the Oral Tradition, made law into yet more literature in the Mishnah, composed the Tosefta, the Midrash, and the Talmuds that would function as the basis of a reconstituted Judaism, instituted the synagogue worship, and democratized the study of Torah.

But scholars like Seth Schwartz and Daniel Boyarin have long since demonstrated that the rabbis of the first three or four centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple were marginal to Jewish existence. Coinage demonstrates that a number of Jewish communities worshipped Greek gods. Burial sites feature pagan symbols and are nearly bereft of Jewish ones. Documents from the period demonstrate that rabbinical law is not governing marriage or trade agreements. It is not a subject for everyday life. Neither is Torah mentioned.

Archeological remains from synagogues of the first centuries after the destruction demonstrate that rabbis were widely ignored. Synagogues do not face the “correct” direction, entrances are in the wrong location, and the mosaics on the floors and walls demonstrate a remarkable love for pagan motifs. There is little to no evidence of a structured liturgy led by rabbis. Synagogues are used primarily for fundraising and festive meals (efforts mostly led by non-rabbinical village officials). The rabbis themselves don’t seem to be all that sympathetic to synagogal life, in any case, preferring, in the Mishnah, to write about and record a Temple cult that no longer existed.

Historians have known for decades that the rabbis had little to no power to make Jewish communities do much of anything. The rabbis were given their first real power by an institutionalized Christianity of the fourth and fifth centuries. Priests and bishops, now the representatives of the state religion, chose the rabbis as their complimentary functionaries. In significant measure, the rabbis owe their position in Jewish communities to Christian clergy.

So why is the actual material culture of our post-destruction ancestors relevant to our understanding of Tisha B’Av?


The Jews of Late Antiquity are proof that the am ha’aretz can be trusted. We have them to thank for the work of renewal.  Somehow, despite giving their children Greek and Roman names, somehow despite their happy recital of incantations that evoked not only Adonai Tzvaot but other area deities, they held on to their ancestral identity.


We have to believe that American Jews at the pool and on vacation will do the same thing.  They are, in fact, doing just that. What can Tisha B’Av mean? Let’s ask them. They will have answers. 
They always do.

We have already met with the worst that can be done to us short of a wholly successful act of genocide. Judaism will survive, no matter how our am ha’aretz morphs and changes and renews what it means to be Jewish and to practice Judaism.  Jewish renewal is actually an ancient thing.


It doesn’t depend on rabbis.

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Lamentations

Last week, Jews marked our annual commemoration of the day the Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem set afire, and Israel’s leaders exiled.  The text of Lamentations is our assigned reading on Tisha B’Av. 

It is a text of anguish.  Each of its five poems shatter equanimity; they refuse to offer easy answers.  In its opening chapters, Daughter Zion, who represents God’s abused people,   accuses God of murderous abandonment.

Years ago, I wrote a lament in honor of women who have been cruelly and brutally mistreated.  I dedicated it to a woman who had told me her story, who had crawled out from under the weight of eighteen years of domestic violence.

In the day just before Tisha B’Av, a woman told me of a friend who had been sexually abused by her father.  The day of Tisha B’Av, in a small congregational study group, women spoke of suffering they had known.  I knew the backstory in each case.

I have grown into my middle aged life hearing laments from too many women, laments that have their source in the emotional and physical and sexual mistreatment they have known from men. 

There is much to lament in our world.  There is too much to lament in our world.

Yet we must lament, to honor our sorrow and our pain.  We must lament in order to have a prayer at healing.

Yet, I longed last week, as I do again and again and again, for a world in which no child is harmed, in which every woman is safe, in which each man is at peace.  I want humanity to be simply good.  I refuse to lose my childish confusion; I insist that kindness cannot be so very hard. Generosity should be as easy as smiling.

The rabbis say that one good deed so gladdens our souls and spirits that after the doing of a mitzvah, we will want to do another right away.

I pray for the doing of mitzvahs.

Lamentations 1: 1-5

Cheryl’s Lament, by Barbara Thiede

How lonely is she now,

  the once crowded city!

Widowed is she

   who was mistress over nations;

The princess among the provinces

   has been made a toiling slave.

Bitterly she weeps at night,

   tears upon her cheeks,

With not one to console her

   of all her dear ones;

Her friends have all betrayed her

   and become her enemies.

Judah has fled into exile

   from oppression and cruel slavery;

Yet where she lives among the nations

   she finds no place to rest:

All her persecutors come upon her

   where she is narrowly confined

The roads to Zion mourn

   for lack of pilgrims going to her feasts;

All her gateways are deserted,

   her priests groan,

Her virgins sigh;

   she is in bitter grief.

Her foes are uppermost,

   her enemies are at ease;

God has punished her

   for her rebellions.

Her little ones have gone away,

   captive before the foe.

How alone I am!

  Once I believed you my love.

You called me bitch

  the night we married;

Just hours after I fairly danced

  to meet you under the chuppah.

I weep when you sleep;

  you will not have another reason to

  deride me.

Who would believe me

  if I said it aloud?

(I whisper to myself:

  He wants to kill me.)

I was confined behind four walls,

  shut down, shut in.

My mother told me,

  I must lie in the bed I made.

I stayed for eighteen years;

  they were death, not life.

You made it clear:

  No family, friends, or guests allowed.

Our house was filled

  with threats and fear instead.

The children and I crouched in corners;

  we tried to be quiet.

I left when they were grown,

  but you still control me.

Look: my son does not see

  how he lives my life!

And my daughter, too, is caught

  in the terror of your devising.

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