In the decade that I have lived in Israel, I have been fortunate enough to have never spent an August here. From overseas I smugly empathize with all of my friends who hide in the shade and arctic air-conditioning while their children demolish their homes and their sanity. As temperatures in Israel move from insanely hot to the seventh circle of Dante’s inferno, we are donning sweatshirts in the chilly Laurentian evenings and jumping into a breath-stopping cold, clear Canadian lake. It is a huge blessing, one that I count down to starting from the moment we disembark at Ben Gurion until we take off again the following summer. Don’t get me wrong, I love Israel. I wouldn’t want to raise my children anywhere else. But it’s so freaking hot and boring in August, and it’s so temperate and fun in Ste. Agathe (one hour north of Montreal), that I can’t help but look forward to getting out of here. I have to leave my husband behind for the month, but even that steep price isn’t enough to deter me from packing up my brood to trek and kvetch our way to the Great White North.
For four summers before we began our yearly Canadian escape, my husband and I relocated our family to New York’s sixth borough, the Five Towns. There we fell comfortably into a pattern of sending our kids to very expensive camps, eating very expensive kosher food, enjoying a very expensive beach club membership and shopping. Wandering awe-struck through the aisles of Target as though I had stumbled upon a lost Mayan ruin and spending entire days in Century 21, losing all sense of time, I became the worst kind of consumer: a starving one. Before all the big name-brand stores made it to Israel, I was so hungry to buy unnecessary crap that I would binge-shop for a few weeks straight before balancing out mid-summer. Usually my shopaholic recovery coincided with the 9th of Av, and even last year as I sat on the floor of Ste. Agathe’s beautiful new synagogue, a strange sort of shift happened inside of me when I heard that first intonation: אֵיכָה
I have always been a little morbid and cynical. Maybe that is why I connect with the Book of Lamentations: “The elders of the daughters of Zion sit upon the ground. They have cast up dust upon their heads. They have girded themselves with sackcloths. The maidens of Jerusalem hang their heads to the ground. My eyes are spent with tears, my innards burn, my heart is poured upon the earth in grief over the destruction of the daughter of my people. The young children and infants swoon in streets of the city.” As I hear these words, every year since I began listening to them, my eyes sting and I break out in a sad sweat. A deep hurt heavy like a stone in my belly, my heart aching, I can almost smell the fires that burned Jerusalem, I can almost hear the keening of mothers holding their starving infants. The words of Jeremiah prophetically evoke images of ghettos, death marches, expulsions and war. In the recitation of these verses, we remember every murdered Jew, every destroyed home, every insult and attack. On the day of the first transport from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, we sit on the floor and weep.
For me, one of the strongest collective memories brought up by these sad words is the siege of Jerusalem. From November 1947, immediately following the UN announcement of the Partition Plan, until June 1948 Jerusalem’s 100, 000 Jewish residents were cut off from the rest of Palestine by Arab militias. Every time I drive to Jerusalem from my home in Bet Shemesh, I am reminded of this siege by the dozens of crude convoy vehicles left along the highway as a memorial. Zipporah Porath, a Jerusalem resident, wrote in March 1948: “Jerusalem has been holding its breath for two days. A convoy returning from Kfar Etzyon was ambushed in the hills of Hebron by thousands of Arabs lying in wait all along the road […] We aren’t fooling ourselves. Jerusalem and its 100,000 Jews are in for it. Everyone knows there is no defending the city from a strategic point of view […] Food and water supplies are getting critically low and our worst nightmare, isolation from the Jewish State, may ensue.” – From Letters From Jerusalem, 1947-1948 by Zipporah Porath, Jonathan Publications (2005)
The world may have forgotten that this country was paid for with blood and tears, some days even I forget. However, on the 9th of Av the entire violent history of the Jewish people weighs on me as I sit on the floor, crushing me with every smothered cry, every lost brother, child, mother, friend. How have we endured? I once told my mother that I didn’t want to be Jewish. I never questioned the existence of a Divine Creator, but why would I want to remain a part of a nation which although called “The Chosen People” seemed only to have been chosen to suffer? Why must I forever identify myself with the never-ending pain of our people? It would be easier to just walk away and dissociate from all that heavy stuff. Start fresh as something else, someone else unburdened by legacy and memory. But of course, it was easier said than done, and when push came to shove I knew I needed to be Jewish and I needed to be in Israel. It was never a choice.
This inescapable knowledge of what and who I am is what traditionally led to my mid-summer crisis of consumerism in the form of the following question: What the hell am I doing in diaspora on the 9th of Av? Hearing those words, crying those tears, I am always filled with longing for the country I now call home. It is our only home. It is a land that we, as a people, have longed for since we were a people, and it is a land that is finally ours. For all of its imperfections, every time I drive to Jerusalem I look at those rusted trucks and try to take a moment to remember how precious a gift it is to live here. How remarkable that in just 65 years my people have irrigated and built and innovated Israel into a tiny country where any Jew is safe to be a Jew.
Today is the first day of the month of Av. Today my newsfeed is littered with hate and dissent. Jewish teens lynching Arab teens in the heart of Jerusalem, Jewish women throwing vile sludge at one another on our holiest religious site where countless Jews have died and which is finally ours, child abuse, rape, rising inflation, gay bashing, price tag revenge attacks. Have we forgotten how costly our presence here has been? Have we forgotten how fortunate we are to simply have food and water? Too many times the Jewish people did not even have that.
This year, for the first time in many years, I will be in Israel on the 9th of Av. I do love Target, there is nothing like a chilly lake, and sitting on the floor in a carpeted, air-conditioned shul is definitely more comfortable than sweltering heat and hard cement. But this year when I hear the low lament: “אֵיכָה” I will be home where I need to be. Where my family needs to be. Where I hope we will all be, next year in Jerusalem.