As we observe Tisha B’av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, Jewish tradition calls on us to fast and reflect on the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, but also the Holocaust, pogroms, terrorist attacks, and the multitude of tragic mile markers that punctuate Jewish history.
I find it poignant that our day of mourning this year falls on July 18, the anniversary of the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) building, the deadliest antisemitic attack since the Holocaust. Yet even though I’ve traveled and reported in Argentina, I had never heard of the attack until I started working for American Jewish Committee (AJC).
There’s so much I have yet to learn. I was not raised Jewish. I’m hardly observant now. My family has barely begun shul shopping. So, when I was recently asked to help teach a unit on Judaism to journalism students, I had to wonder why anyone would find me the least bit qualified. As it turns out, that was the point, and thankfully, I wasn’t the only teacher.
The lead professor teaching the course is modern Orthodox. Raised in a strict Orthodox home, he still keeps kosher, observes the Sabbath and even canceled a haircut this week because it fell within the nine days leading up to Tisha B’av.
Our pairing was intended to demonstrate for the students the myriad ways of being Jewish, the fluid nature of Jewish culture and faith and the age-old debate of what we Jews are. Are we a religion? Are we a peoplehood? Are we a nation? What are we?
I explained to the students that no matter how much progress I have yet to make, being Jewish is an inescapable part of who I am. It’s woven into my family narrative. I was raised on stories about pogroms in Eastern Europe and the cautionary tale of the great uncle disowned for not marrying a Jewish woman. His brother, my grandfather, chased the love of his life, also a Christian woman, to Chicago and convinced her to convert. Later, he struggled to find a rabbi who would marry my parents on a promise that my father would eventually become Jewish too. He did convert, albeit several years later.
But check your assumptions. The cautionary tale about my great uncle was told through the lens of his parents’ tremendous regret and helped explain why he, his wife, and one of his children sought the open arms of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And my parents would have gotten married regardless of whether my grandfather found a rabbi who owed him a favor. Yes, these are the stories that fueled my Jewish senses, but that came later. These also are the stories that led my parents to resent organized religion and raise me with anything but.
As a result, I entered the field of religion reporting as a blank slate, infinitely curious and personally prepared to land wherever I found comfort and meaning. The stories I happened to find most fulfilling were ones on Jewish subjects. When the rare opportunity came along to immerse myself in a religious tradition, I chose Jewish rituals. I took a dip in a mikvah for the High Holidays. I spent a month trying to observe the Sabbath mitzvot.
It became so clear that I had what religion scholar Vanessa Ochs has called “Jewish sensibilities,” principles and values that help us understand how Judaism defines or shapes our lives. They include an innate desire to repair the world, to be a mensch, to keep the peace, and to remember our ancestors. We also make distinctions. In other words, we take our calendars very seriously, she says. I suggest perhaps we even internalize them.
Which might explain why, seemingly out of the blue, I have spent recent weeks consumed by a sense of loss. Quite suddenly, I have found myself grieving the loss of family and friendships, the loss of my 20-something figure, the loss of every opportunity missed, the loss of sanity during the pandemic as well as the loss of life.
Could this just be a pandemic-induced funk? Or could it be that these are the days leading up to Tisha B’Av? I’ve concluded it’s not a coincidence. My Jewish sensibility is reminding me that even in the middle of sunny July, now is the time to wallow.
Ochs also talks about the innate sensibility called teshuvah, the belief that we can turn things around, build on our sadness and make changes for the better. We are works-in-progress and transformation is always possible, she said. Dare I say . . . Jews-in-progress?
So, this year, on Tisha B’Av, I will sit with my sadness and figure out how to build on it. I will remember lives lost both throughout Jewish history and in my own family.
I might even fast, not just because that’s how you reclaim your 20-something figure, but because it’s a gift offered to me by my Jewish tradition.
An abbreviated version of this piece originally aired on People of the Pod, a podcast about global affairs through a Jewish lens by American Jewish Committee. In the same episode, the author spoke with AJC Europe Managing Director Simone Rodan-Benzaquen and included highlights of her interview with U.S.-based Iranian exile Masih Alinejad about her activism and the harrowing experiences she faced in Iran. Listen here.