Let`s go HOME, Mrs. Rittenhouse


. . . Tisha B'av 2008 begins at sunset, Saturday, August 9 . . . Have a nice day! . . .
Season of Our Oy

Don't tell me to lighten up. It's Tisha B'av.

by David Holzel

Most Jews dread the arrival of Tisha B'av. Oh, they go gaga over Pesach and Chanukah. The occasional one will have a thing for Tu B'shevat.

But the anniversary of the destruction of the first and second Temples in ancient Jerusalem? And the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492? And the numerous other major and minor catastrophes that have accumulated around the 9th day of Av? "Feh," you say. "I can't stand this holiday." Am I right or am I right?

But I look forward to Tisha B'av like one anticipates the return of an old friend. On all those other festivals it's de rigueur to be festive. If you're not, you run the risk of somehow shortchanging the Almighty and the Jewish people both, and tying another stone around the waist of a drowning Jewish future. Tisha B'av is the only day of the Jewish year that I can feel rotten and still be faithful to my heritage.

There's no Jewish experience quite like sitting in the dark on the bimah of some synagogue with hot wax from the candle you're holding dripping on your hand. That candle is your only source of light to follow the chant of Eicha, the book of Lamentations, in which doleful old Jeremiah describes in painful detail post-destruction Jerusalem. The scene is uglier than a trailer park after a tornado, and it always makes me think, "What are my problems next to these people's?" And in the gloom, I feel better.

I can't say that about any other Jewish holy day. Every Shabbat eve I worry about what those two ministering angels are going to say about our celebration. "Bill," says one, "let's wish them another week of this." "Amen, Bob," says the other. And we're sentenced to another seven days of struggle.

On Pesach, we're supposed to feel like we just left Egypt. One year we really did, and the results were disastrous. It was during my first marriage and my wife had endeavored to cook the entire meal herself. But she underestimated the preparation time and had worked two days without sleep, it seemed, when the guests arrived. They seemed to be in the middle of a grueling week as well and were in no humor for the good-natured play that is the seder. When we reached the first cup of wine, my wife took full advantage of the libation, with the result that she spent the next quarter hour giggling, which soon gave way to stupor.

And so the life force behind the celebration became my taciturn and asocial brother-in-law, who seemed positively boisterous in contrast to we tablemates as he sang "Dayeinu."

Years later, Sheri and I, in that all-too-symbolic first year as a couple, found ourselves sick and exhausted on Purim. Nevertheless, we were determined to have a festive meal at my apartment and then join Jewish people in the wacky hijinks of the festival. It wasn't long before we decided we were too worn out, so we jettisoned the festive meal. I went to the kitchen and heated up a can of soup as my beloved choked on her phlegm.

I ladled the steaming liquid into bowls and brought them to the table. Something immediately struck us about the aroma. What was that strange ingredient? I fished the soup can out of the garbage and read the small print. Pork. I dumped the contents in the sink, and it was at that point we decided Purim was asking for more than we could give. Sheri went home to nurse what turned out to be a raging sinus infection.

Zion spreads forth her hands and there is none to comfort her.
There's no Jewish
experience quite like
sitting in the dark with
hot candle wax dripping
on your hand.

On Tisha B'av these tales of misery are just mood setters. One year the holiday fell a couple days after I had my wisdom teeth removed. I arrived at the synagogue accompanied by a small but persistent pain. One side of my face looked like I was holding a small grapefruit in my cheek. My jawline was dull yellow from the kind of bruise that comes when something integral to your body is crushed then yanked out. I felt awful.

It was probably the best Tisha B'av I ever spent.

This year, as always, we'll enter the synagogue. There will be the uncomfortable moment when we're not sure whether to say hello to someone or observe the funereal mood of the day in which no one greets his fellow.

Then we will open to Eicha -- the word itself so brooding and vulnerable. How the city sits solitary, that was once full of people! How she has become like a widow!

The mournful chant. The flickering candle and another drop of hot wax. O the mourning for Jerusalem that once had the promise of youth, but now is broken boned, exhausted and starving because of our ancestors' sins. All her gates are desolate, her priests sigh, her young women are afflicted, and she is in bitterness.

The chanting continues and the darkness deepens. Whatever once was pleasant -- the young men at their music, the elders at the gate -- is gone. The prophets have lost their power to see. What's left is shame and terror. In line after line Jeremiah piles on the misery. "They that be slain with the sword are better than they that be slain with hunger." "We are orphans, we are fatherless." "We have drunken our water for money." "Shall our women eat their fruit, the infants they fondled?" "Our days are fulfilled; for our end is come."

And the greatest terror comes from the realization that Jerusalem, Jeremiah, the Jews, have been abandoned. Zion spreads forth her hands and there is none to comfort her. No parent. No friend. No God.

I'm shaken. This is the bottom. No need for pretenses. No reason to put on a happy face. Feel this, pour your own darkness down the well, and you've had a successful Tisha B'av. The wax is nothing.

Copyright 1998 by David Holzel

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