The Magic of Tisha B’Av

“Okay. Fold up your chairs and put them on the floor,” says Ranaan, the Rosh Mosh. “Madrichim, help your chanichim light their candles.”

It’s Tisha B’Av in Camp Moshava. I am nine. Or ten. Or eleven. In the darkened Beit Knesset, we sit on our collapsed chairs, holding our dripping Shabbat candles, hunched over our Aicha booklets.

The chazzan begins the sorrowful dirge that is Aicha, his voice filled with mourning. Aicha doesn’t sound like anything else in the Jewish liturgy; It is unique, the soft, sighing ups and downs of the music a lament for all the Jewish tragedies of all time.

When Aicha and Kinot are over, we are dismissed. It’s nighttime. Out in the Wisconsin countryside, it’s perfectly silent. The sky is black and filled with stars. There are no city lights anywhere in the distance. The nearest town is five miles away, Wild Rose, population 565.

We troop up the gravel road to the amphitheater, which by day, overlooks the lake. Our way is lined with glowing paper-bag lanterns, and the light from the candles flickers and jumps, casting eerie shadows on the faces of the campers. Something about the darkness, and the specialness of the evening, tamps down conversation. It is perfectly silent. Even the frogs and owls are quiet tonight.

When we reach the amphitheater, the parade of campers stops. The Rosh Mosh speaks, painting a picture of the Churban with his words. The starvation of the besieged city, exemplified by accounts of mothers boiling and eating their own children; the streets of Beitar a river of blood; the barbaric cruelty of the Roman soldiers, driving columns of chained Jews bound for slavery before them; in Jerusalem, hundreds of thousands of our dead scattered on the bloody cobblestones, young, old, rich, poor, men, women, teenagers, toddlers.

When he gets to the part where the Beit HaMikdosh is set on fire, even the rocks burning, there is a loud whoosh, and on the lake below us, something explodes. An enormous fireball blooms in the black void. A raft bearing a burning hut floats and eddies on the still water, the flames climbing high into the night. Sounds carry further in the thin night air; Small, demonic silhouetted figures run back and forth on the shore, shouting to one another.

This is my Tisha B’Av. It is sombre, powerful theater. All these decades later, I still travel back there in my heart to relive it, that overwhelming sensation of fear, dread, catastrophe and loss.

I’ve never experienced that sensation outside of camp. Until this year.

Because this year, we are at war with a wily and pitiless enemy bent on our destruction. Because this year, there was Kristallnacht in Paris. Because this year, Hungary staged a mock hanging of Israeli leaders. Because this year, in Germany, demonstrators screamed “Death to Israel” and “Jew, Jew, cowardly pig, come out and fight alone.” Because this year, American students are holding Die-Ins at their pricey colleges and universities. Because this year, The New York Times flat out refuses to report the Israeli side of the story. Because this year, the leftist pro-Palestinian narrative seem to be evolving from “Give them their own  state” to “Jews out of Israel.”

This year, I am afraid.

So, you must forgive me if this Tisha B’Av, I travel back in time to a kinder, gentler world, when everyone loved feisty little Israel. I prefer my memories of Tisha B’Av at camp, where there was nothing more controversial than setting fire to a pile of wood scraps on a raft. Because, in the real world, it feels too much like we’re headed for another Tisha B’Av, as the world looks on, and then looks away.




About the Author
Helen Maryles Shankman is an artist and author. Her book, "They Were Like Family to Me," originally published as "In the Land of Armadillos," was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2016 and won an Honorable Mention for the 2017 ALA Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature. Her stories have been published in many fine literary journals, including The Kenyon Review,, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
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