Every week, I give a parashat ha’shavua shiur, Torah portion of the week class, at two Jerusalem homes for the elderly. This past week, instead of the parasha, I focused on Tisha B’Av, which falls this year on Shabbat and is observed — since Yom Kippur is the only fast permitted on Shabbat — on Sunday. Usually, I try hard to make my shiurim interactive, but this time I decided to read extracts from a commentary I co-authored on Megillat Eicha, the book of Lamentations, the biblical book that’s chanted in synagogues on Tisha B’Av.
Lamentations Through the Centuries, which I wrote with my friend and colleague Paul Joyce, is a Reception History. That is, it doesn’t focus directly on the biblical text, but on how that text has been used, received, through the centuries in music, art, literature, politics, liturgy and so forth. Our commentary was different than most other reception histories. We structured it according to the model of midrash: a verse of Lamentations, a discussion of a secondary source (in midrash that’s always a verse from elsewhere in the Bible) that in some sense relates to it, and then back to Lamentations to read it afresh in light of the secondary source.
I selected five extracts to read at my shiur, one from each chapter of Lamentations. Once I’ve published a book, I tend not to look back at it but, if I do, it usually sounds familiar. So I was shocked to hear myself reading a sentence written in 2011 or 2012 that no longer rang true. The context was a discussion of a short film called Eicha, made by the director of S’rugim. Here’s the extract in full:
How [Eicha] the gold has grown dim! The pure gold is debased. The sacred stones lie scattered on every street corner (Lamentations 4:1)
What is in a name? Lamentations 4, like chapters 1 and 2, opens with the word ‘Eicha’. According to Jewish tradition, most books of the Bible are named after their reputed author, their central character, or their first significant word (see on Lams 1:1). The book of Lamentations follows the third model and is therefore known as Eicha. Translated here simply as ‘How’ (as in NRSV), the word ‘Eicha’ conveys in Hebrew a sense of anguish and despair resonant with its familiar rendition, ‘Alas’ (see for example NJPS). A short, independent Israeli film called Eicha (2001, Hebrew) directed by Eliezer Shapiro — who went on to direct an immensely popular Israeli soap opera about young Orthodox ‘singles’ in Jerusalem — revolves entirely around the significance of the name ‘Eicha’. But Shapiro’s concern is not the title of the biblical book, but rather the name of his film’s heroine, a young woman whose parents gave their daughter the lamentable name of Eicha. Eicha’s parents chose this name — understandably not a popular choice for baby girls, despite its pretty, feminine sound in Hebrew — because she was born on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the date on which Jews traditionally mourn the destruction of the Temple. In all countries and cultures, names can be revealing about the socio-economic status, religion, geographic and ethnic origins, and cultural preferences of their owners, or at least their owner’s parents. Shapiro’s film asks the loaded question ‘What is in a name?’ in relation to the highly complex society of modern-day Israel.
The film Eicha opens just before its eponymous heroine’s eighteenth birthday. Eicha is shown alighting from a bus along with her friends, a group of young women whose conservative, ‘modest’ clothes and hair styles immediately identify them (to anyone familiar with Israeli society) as politically and religiously right-wing Jews from a settlement. The girls are on their way to a political demonstration protesting the intention of the government of the day to give up land — including the land upon which settlements such as theirs were built — for peace. But Eicha uses this rare opportunity to spend time alone in the big city for another purpose. She slips away from the demonstration to buy clothes in a decidedly non-Orthodox boutique. Seeing her traditional garb, the ultra-fashionable shop assistant — readily identifiable by her clothing and hair style as a secular and probably politically left-wing Jew — has no trouble placing Eicha as a settler, but she cannot place her name. Even Eicha’s reference to Tisha B’Av elicits a blank expression; the Temples and their destruction are off the radar for this young woman. The film’s viewers get the message: no matter what clothes Eicha wears and how she cuts her hair, her unusual name will always stand between her and the secular Israeli society into which she yearns to blend. Eicha understands that too, and she decides to change her name at the earliest opportunity, which, according to Israeli law, is the day of her eighteenth birthday. On the ninth day of the month of Av, her eighteenth birthday according to the Hebrew calendar, Eicha arrives at the government offices where name changes are registered and approved. But, unknown to Eicha, Israeli bureacracy runs according to the Gregorian (solar) calendar, not the Hebrew (lunar) calendar. In that particular year, the Hebrew calendar was running ahead of the Gregorian calendar, and thus her official, Gregorian eighteenth birthday had not yet arrived. Eicha is told that she is too early, that there is nothing to be done, and that she will have to wait and come back another day. On her way home to her settlement, she passes near the Kotel, the Western Wall, where she encounters members of the ‘Temple Mount Faithful’, a group of right-wing religious fanatics that advocate the rebuilding of the Temple on its original site (now occupied of course by the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site of Islam). Eicha becomes entangled against her will with the demonstrators, and her distinctive modest attire makes it easy for the police to mistake her for one of them. When a security guard asks her name, her fate is sealed. It goes without saying that a young woman whose very name is identified with the loss of the Temple is there to demand its restoration. Eicha is arrested. Her originally American mother – half-anxious about her daughter’s well-being and half-proud in her mistaken belief that Eicha was arrested while calling for the rebuilding of the Temple – comes to secure her daughter’s release from prison. They emerge together from the police station to see their car being towed away from the spot in which it was illegally parked. The film closes with the mother’s tragi-comic response to the sad chain of events: ‘This is the worst Tisha B’Av I have ever had!’. The film Eicha is less an example of the history of interpretation of the biblical book than a snapshot of its complex place in modern Jewish culture, even – especially – in the Jewish state. The different responses to this young woman’s name signify the varying responses within Israeli society to the book of Lamentations and what it represents. For Eicha’s new-immigrant, religiously and politically right-wing, Orthodox Zionist parents, their daughter’s name signifies their commitment to a particular vision of the Jewish state. They are seemingly oblivious or indifferent to the name’s mournful associations, but think only of the future when, as they see it, the Temple will be restored along with the glory of Zion. The government employees — representing here the Jewish state — would be happy enough to change Eicha’s name, but they (literally) do not recognize the date that confirms its significance. For the young, secular Israelis among whom Eicha longs to live, her name reflects incomprehension of aliens in their midst — the girl and the Temple. For the policemen assigned to guard the Temple Mount and prevent politically explosive incidents, the name Eicha conjures up a dangerous fundamentalist, someone who cannot let go of the past. And for an adolescent girl trying to find herself in a complex world that pulls in many directions, her unusual name is part and parcel of an identity she would sooner shed. In the hands of those socio-political alchemists, the movie makers, Eicha the name transmutes – from lead to gold to pure gold, and back again. (Lamentations Through the Centuries, 2013)
Here’s the sentence that shocked me when I re-read it last week:
On her way home to her settlement, she passes near the Kotel, the Western Wall, where she encounters members of the ‘Temple Mount Faithful’, a group of right-wing religious fanatics that advocate the rebuilding of the Temple on its original site (now occupied of course by the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site of Islam).
In 2011 or 2012, it seemed fair enough to describe the Temple Mount Faithful and other groups like them as fanatics. They were extremists at the margins of society who by no means reflected the Israeli mainstream. What shocked, sickened and deeply depressed me last week, is how much that’s changed in the meantime.
The public face of these ‘fringe’ movements, Rabbi Yehuda Glick, is now a Member of Knesset. He’s spent the 9 days leading up to Tisha B’Av touring the county convincing mainstream Orthodox Jews to turn their back on the rulings of the Rabbanut, Israel’s rabbinic authority, which strictly prohibits Jews from ascending the Temple Mount. For Yehuda Glick, visiting Har Ha’Bayit is an obligation that will lead inexorably to the building of the Third Temple (they’re already crowd-funding to train the priests) and the coming of the Messiah; no matter what death and destruction it ignites, he wants everyone to go up.
One stop on Rabbi Glick’s tour was Nitzanim, a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood that’s frequented by middle-class, middle-of -the-road Orthodox Jews, include many ‘Anglos’:
Please join us for a “Nine Days” discussion about the Temple Mount with Knesset Member MK Rabbi Yehuda Glick, Director of Haliba – The Initiative for Jewish Freedom on the Temple Mount.
What were the once the extremist concerns of a dangerous lunatic fringe have entered Israel’s moderate heartland.
I’m not sure whether it makes me feel better or worse to know that this is by no means an exclusively Israeli phenomenon. In fact, it’s almost universal. Brexit is one manifestation of it, and Donald Trump is another. All these populist movements are characterized by the idea of a ‘return’ to traditional values that seem harmless enough in themselves and appeal to many ordinary people, especially religious people, but are absolutely inseparable from hatred and violence. As an example, I urge you to watch this short video of scenes from Donald Trump rallies posted by the New York Times. Please watch it.
What’s shocking and terrifying is that these people are not neo-Nazis and similar. They are ordinary Americans.
In America, I think and pray, the tides are beginning to turn. One tiny but auspicious sign is the way this Trump supporter’s (red shirt, white beard) draw dropped when he heard his candidate endorse assassination (Trump later denied it, of course). The fanatics — we ardently hope — are crawling back to the fringes, and the eyes of the majority are opening to the unspeakable cost of maintaining their values in this particular way.
I’ll spend my Tisha B’Av praying that the same will happen, bimhera b’yamenu, speedily and in our days, here in the Land of Israel; that we’ll long for the Temple, as we always have, while distancing ourselves from the hubris — the more than lamentable arrogance and pride — of taking its rebuilding into our own hands; that we’ll focus instead on building the just society our prophets demand.