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Finding myself as a parent on Tisha B’Av

Sitting on the floor with my brood of 5 is not a stretch, but prayer and reflection have become a challenge, and I know I'm not alone. Here's my new approach
Illustrative. Children, at home. (iStock)
Illustrative. Children, at home. (iStock)

This is the article I never wanted to write. When I was a teenager, a college student, and a 20-something married woman, I would have ignored this article. When I started having children, in my late 20s, I would have hated this article. When our twin boys brought us from a family of three to a family of five, I would have repressed these thoughts as hard as I could. Fast forward to today, heading into Tisha B’Av 5779, and I am ready to share these thoughts publicly.

Tisha B’Av is not designed for families with young children. A day of fasting, of mourning, of contemplation and sadness; a day of thinking about the past and reflecting on what we might rebuild — none of these in any way describe a day that I might spend with my wonderful family. Mine is a family of many emotions, which move quickly through their souls. It is a family that needs to eat, talk, and move frequently. While sitting on the floor is not a stretch for them, prayer and reflection can be managed only in short quantities, if at all.

In all other ways, my life is optimized for a meaningful Tisha B’Av. I started fasting when I was 11, proud of my ability to stand with my father, sit through the kinot and the shiurim, and relieved and fulfilled when the fast was over. Even as the fast became harder for me, Tisha B’Av always began with the haunting melody of Eicha and the sounds of the kinot. My oldest was born during the three weeks, and my twins on the 11th of Av. I spent a lot of fasts not fasting, but I still tried to be at services when I could. And when I couldn’t? I knew that was just an exception and so I didn’t focus on the ramifications for my religious life.

Today, life with my five children is situated in the midst of a community of other families with young children. I listen to other parents organizing outings for the day, generally glossing over the fact that no one here has a full day’s worth of “Tisha B’Av appropriate” activities for their families, and I watch my social media accounts, full of my friends in other communities alternating between making plans and making excuses. The undertones are all the same: parents, especially mothers, feel guilty. Women, especially those who, like me, used to teach shiurim on Tisha B’Av, are alienated from themselves. Below are three thoughts meant to bring us back to ourselves on this Tisha B’Av.

1. Jewish sources provide a robust model for viewing long historical periods as anomalous blips that need to be accounted for, but not taken too seriously. Once upon a time, the Temple stood in Jerusalem, and aliyah la-regel (pilgrimage) was a part of Jewish life. Psalm 122 beautifully describes the joy and excitement of being a part of life in Jerusalem at that time in history: שמחתי באמרים לי, בית ה׳ נלך (“I rejoiced when they said to me we were going to the House of the Lord”). All of us reading that mizmor, as well as our ancestors for genrations before us, are in exile. The kinnah that begins with the words  אֵשׁ תּוּקַד בְּקִרְבִּי, בְּהַעֲלוֹתִי עַל לְבָבִי (“Fire will burn within me, when I raise on my heart…”) contains a refrain reminding us of the distance between our triumphant exodus from Egypt and our sad exit from Jerusalem. In the final refrain, however, we look ahead to when we will return to Jerusalem, with gladness and rejoicing. This intermediate time in our history will pass. So, too, our years of raising young children need not be the sole defining factor of our religious selves.

The ways in which our texts speak about exile give me faith that it is okay to hold on to a vision of myself as a human that is not always in concert with my place in life right now. At its best, I hope that the image I hold up to myself is one that I can also speak about to my children, so they understand how Eema sees herself, and what those aspirations might mean in their lives.

2) At the end of Mishnah Sotah, there is a long list of aspects of life that were altered by the destruction of the Temple. Some are specific to the loss of the Beit Hamikdash, but others seem more general. Fruit doesn’t taste as good as it once did. In other words, even that moment of biting into a summer fruit can be experienced as a moment of loss. This resonates with the way that children experience life. When so much is new and new developments can be confusing, loss can be experienced very acutely. My toddler will sob convincingly for several minutes when I tell him that no, he may not eat a second plum. Though 2-year-old emotions can be funny, it is certainly true that children experience intense emotional highs and lows that jaded adults sometimes miss. The question is not what I can teach my children about loss, but, rather, what they can teach me this Tisha B’Av about being in the moment and feeling the sadness latent in every experience of a world that is broken in so many ways.

3) Fasting is definitional to this day, and it is okay to focus on the fast. Don’t get trapped by halakhah. My Facebook groups and text feed are full of women wondering how to feel about another fast that isn’t. The texts begin “I am nursing… pregnant… spending the day with my three little one in the heat and have been advised to drink…” And the scholarly advice is pouring down around them. Halakhically, there is no significance to eating less than a shiur on Tisha B’Av. “Just drinking” is not a halakhic approach to ensuring that this fast is survivable. But to tell a woman who is desperately looking for a way to feel connected to Tisha B’Av that, since she must eat something, she may as well eat normally, is not always the advice that we are looking for. During the final days of my high-risk twin pregnancy, I felt it was important to eat differently on Tisha B’Av. I didn’t consume fewer calories; I was conscious of my responsibility for babies A and B. It was my choice to skip ice cream and other treats, and to make my way through the day with the awareness that every bite I ate was meaningfully replacing the activity of fasting in some way.

In our moments of great joy, we are meant to remember the destruction of Jerusalem. The sadness of Tisha B’Av includes moments like the end of the kinah mentioned above, when we express confidence that we will someday return. My children are a source of overflowing joy, and also, spending the day with them will be be exhausting, and I will experience a sense of loss thinking about the Tisha B’Av I didn’t have. Each one of them is named after a relative who passed away, including my mother, my father, and my father-in-law. I’m used to the mingling of celebration and sadness, and that’s what I will focus on during the quiet moments this Tisha B’Av.

About the Author
Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld is the director of Education at Sefaria, an online database and new interface for Jewish texts. She is passionate about Talmud education and expanding Jewish textual knowledge for all. Sara is also a fellow of the David Hartman Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Her previous experience includes serving as director of Education at the Center for Jewish Life - Hillel at Princeton University, as part of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus. She studied Talmud and Jewish Law at various institutions of Jewish learning in Israel and America and speaks frequently at synagogues, schools, and university communities. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their five children.
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