As a liberal Jewish educator with a traditional background, I have struggled with Tisha B’Av. I’ve been hesitant to pray for a third Temple with its concomitant systems of priesthood and sacrifices. I’ve always preferred to focus on the depth and richness of our texts and traditions rather than on the destruction that is linked to our history, but this year feels different. I have a new sense of the role of destruction in our history.
Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of traveling twice to Israel and Poland. In February, I experienced the joy of celebrating my niece’s bat mitzvah in Jerusalem, and I also had the incredibly opportunity to visit my grandmother’s hometown, Kosovo, just 20 minutes outside of Treblinka. My mama, my maternal grandmother who passed away 13 years ago, came to the US in 1929 when she was a 11.
As a child and teenager, I recall many stories about the 50s and 60s, about my grandparents as young adults, but there weren’t many stories told about my grandmother’s life or my great grandparents’ lives in Europe. As a second/third generation American on one side, and a third generation American on the other, it took many years before I began asking questions about my ancestors in Europe. When I did, I learned that some extended family members had researched our history, and they spoke substantively about my grandmother’s, and great grandparents’ lives. Learning more about my history made me want to experience it, so with two trips planned to Israel this year, I booked my tickets on LOT Air, and made my way to Poland as part of each trip.
I was deeply moved this past February at Treblinka, and had a knowledgeable, sensitive and kind guide who helped me to experience what is a very powerful memorial site for the 1 million people murdered there. Just a few weeks ago, I returned from what was probably the most meaningful experience in my career thus far, officiating at my students’ b’nei mitzvah (siblings) atop Masada. Once again, I had the opportunity to celebrate a Jewish life milestone just a few days apart my from my visit to the destruction of Auschwitz.
In years past, I haven’t wanted to engage deeply with Tisha b’Av. This year, I am pulled to join my community to mourn destruction, and to find ways of observing that resonate with me. In The Jewish Way, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg argues eloquently and passionately against combining Holocaust commemoration with Tisha b’Av. Although I am cautious about this, the experience I had recently in Poland has prompted me to want to renew my observance of the day.
This year I explored the upcoming fast day, deepening my understanding of the multiplicity of ways to practice Tisha b’Av that don’t directly connect to the hope for redemption, the renewal of sacrifices, the rebuilding of a Temple, or the theology of sin and punishment. Many people have written about observing the day as one that marks the communal suffering of our people, or our own individual suffering, or our resolve to cultivate ahavat rather than sinat chinam – unconditional love rather than groundless resentment and hatred.
My experience traveling to Poland was paired with the joy not only of Jewish milestones in my life, but also with the renewal of Jewish life in Krakow and Warsaw. On Tisha b’Av, similar to my travels this year, I will likely spend some time mourning, and other parts of the day in normal (though perhaps not joyous) life. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes in The Jewish Way, “it behooves those who have not known these fast days to revere them, while those who have kept these days must begin to reshape them.” I am in a new place on my journey, open to reshaping dark and mournful experiences, and I will mark Tisha b’Av this year in a way that reflects my past and my current stop on my journey.