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THOUGHTS ABOUT TISHA B’AV
by Marji Yablon
Numerous Jewish tragedies are said to have occurred on that summer day of fasting, in a chain that has wound through Biblical times, the Middle Ages and the Age of Discovery. It didn’t stop there, but snaked its way into modern times and ultimately into my family’s life.
Can this be? To review:
The children of Israel had barely become a nation when, approaching the Promised Land, they thought it wise to send a search party ahead, to determine if the Land’s current inhabitants could be defeated in battle. The majority opinion of the returning spies was, No. The Land was wonderful, they reported, but its strong, gigantic inhabitants could never be overwhelmed. For exhibiting no comprehension of the word “Promised,” the men of Israel, with very few exceptions, earned a forty-year stretch in the wilderness and no chance of seeing the land, which their children would inherit. (The women, said to have kept the faith, would still have to endure the forty years, but would live to enter Eretz Yisroel.) On what day did the spies return and present their conclusions? As we are taught: 9 Av.
Eight hundred and ninety-two years later, to the day, we learn, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, and six hundred years after that, its replacement met the same fate from the Romans. Sixty years after that, a brave rebellion against the Roman occupation by Bar Kokhba was crushed, again on Tisha B’Av, and the following year on that date, the Temple site was plowed under to allow for the construction of a pagan city on that spot. Tragic in themselves, these events signified longer periods of starvation, death, and exile.
Interestingly, once records became more trustworthy than those for ancient times, the constant appearance of the date 9 Av did not let up.
The First Crusade was declared by the pope on that date in the Hebrew year 4855 (1095 CE). The expulsion of the Jews from England and then from Spain occurred about two hundred years apart, but both occurred on the 9th of Av (in 1290 and 1492 CE).
In the early 20th century, it was on the eve of Tisha B’Av that Great Britain and Russia declared war on Germany, leading to the first experience on Earth of a World War. The difficult economic fate of Germany after its defeat in that conflict led to a Rhineland with a need to blame somebody for its woes, a role the Jews were chosen to fill. With that as a powerful talking point, the Nazis, and Hitler in particular, ascended to leadership of Germany. World War II and the Holocaust were just around the corner.
Perhaps when the wounds have become less raw, Yom Ha’Shoah, that separate day of mourning for the Holocaust, currently observed soon after Passover, will be folded into the day in Av when so much suffering, death and exile is mourned.
TO WAX CYNICAL for a moment, wouldn’t it have been easy to take ancient events, give them the starting month and day of one’s choice, and then declare it THE day of misery? And when it came to more recent, datable events, couldn’t there simply have been some rooting around among the phases of a historical tragedy until, eventually, the ninth of Av showed up?
If so, maybe that’s been the right choice. Modern Judaism encourages participation in life. Tikkun olam, the kabbalistic notion of repair of the world, has become, for many Jews, paired with social justice, especially the need to help the underprivileged -– in other words, to become involved in the world. In the Torah, instructions to work for six days precede the commandment to rest on the seventh. A substantial number of celebratory dates during the year are considered inappropriate for visiting a cemetery. And the laws of mourning require a year for one’s parents, while for all others, even one’s child, it is a month. After that, the mourner is encouraged to gradually return to life.
More than one impetus comes to mind for the setting of an all-in-one date of grieving: The first possibility: Divine intervention, causing major tragedies to occur -- if they have to occur at all -- on the same day of the year. The second: A rabbinic effort to discourage lengthy mourning by arranging that everything is mourned at once. Third: Both.
Two recent events directly connected to my own family have helped me make my choice The first destroyed far more families than mine. The second was ours alone.
MY MATERNAL grandmother came to America from Hungary in the early days of the 20th century, sent against her will across the Atlantic at the age of 12. Her parents wanted her to join her older brothers and sisters in New York City, away from life in their town of Ungvar, where their chances, as Jews, were slim for getting ahead, but excellent when it came to pogroms. Not surprisingly, she would never see her parents again. Correspondence by mail, continuing for decades, would become their only means of connecting.
Her life in America was difficult. The older siblings were unable or unwilling to help her. She worked as a seamstress, fell in love with and married a young man from Russia who’d labored in sweatshops since the age of 15. The happy couple started a family. He died at 25 of tuberculosis, the all-too-common result of long sweatshop hours, leaving his wife with three children under the age of 5. More sad times would follow. Still, when her parents had placed her, for the length of an ocean voyage, in the care of a couple also making the journey to America, it’s unlikely they foresaw quite how much they were saving their daughter from, later in the century.
Through the recent trial of a nonagenarian former Nazi, Oskar Groening, I now know details of a brief period during the summer of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarians were transported in over a hundred and thirty trains to Auschwitz, and murdered there.
On Tisha B’Av in 2015, which fell ten days after Groening’s July 15th verdict, there was a new sense of grief to mix with any sense of judicial victory: He had been found guilty on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.
SOME YEARS, Tisha B’Av falls in August, as it will this year. We’re in a leap year on the Hebrew calendar, and when that happens, a month is added –- a second Adar, right before Passover’s month. This year, that addition will send us all the way to August 13th for the 9th of Av.
In 1944, however, when the concentrated murder of Hungarian Jews climaxed at the end of July, Tisha B’Av fell on July 29th, as though marking the day when virtually all targeted adults and children were dead. Furthermore, the twenty-one days known as the Three Weeks, which lead up to Tisha B’Av and are observed by abstention from happy experiences large and small -– from buying new clothes to holding a wedding -– took up the bulk of July, 1944, as the murders of Hungarian Jews proceeded.
As for my own family’s fate, transatlantic communication had broken down during the war. But even after peace had returned, my grandmother’s younger siblings who had not come to America, along with their whole families, did not get in touch, and in fact, were never heard from again.
As a postscript – My grandmother’s older daughter, my mother, had a difficult first marriage, to my father, which ended in divorce. Mom did eventually enter a marriage that lasted longer than the one to my father, with a truly nice guy, Max, who adored her, became a true partner, and, for thirty-two years often referred to her, in a voice filled with incredulity at his good luck, as his bride. The only force strong enough to end that marriage was Max’s death in 1998 (5758) -- on Tisha B’Av.
Marji Yablon has worked, on staff and freelance, as a journalist, lyricist, performance storyteller, and videographer, on topics including the prisons, Judaism, alternative health practices, and the environment.