Saturday, August 4, 2012

Trying to Mourn by the Book

Last week was Tisha b'Av, the "saddest day of the Jewish calendar." Commemorating the destruction of the Temple, observant Jews fast for a full day, restrict Torah study to the sad books of Lamentations, Job and Jeremiah, and mourn in typical Jewish fashion. This was my second Tisha b'Av as a Jew, and even though I was in Jerusalem last year for my first one, I just couldn't get swept up in the sorrow associated with the day. This year, in a small American town with so few Jews that you think you'd sooner encounter a unicorn than a fellow Semite, I struggled for a few days with the idea of fasting for the full day before deciding against it. After all, the Olympics were on and it was my father's birthday, too. I wasn't exactly in a mournful mood.

While I understand and can get behind the fact that a large portion of Jewish observance is based on tradition and ritualistic practices, and participating in them enriches one's experience as a Jew, and I certainly am not the only Jew who feels emotionally disconnected from mourning events that happened a couple thousand years ago, Tisha b'Av sits uneasily with me for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons are personal, some are political, and some...I can't quite put my finger on.

Politically, I'm ambivalent about the idea of mourning the destruction of the Temple while Jews have since found their way back home to our ancestral holy land once again. I don't care how volatile or controversial the state of Israel is--it's ours, and as it exists, that's nothing short of a miracle. The fact that people are speaking a revitalized Hebrew as their mother tongue when the language was nearly dead and relegated to religious and academic usage for a thousand years, is remarkable. A country that is home to Jews from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas and virtually every other pocket of the world along with a historically unprecedented number of converts, is profound. The existence of a country where Jews outnumber all other groups would have been unheard of a half a century ago, and only fantasizing, idealistic Zionists would have ever believed it would one day be a reality. Modern day Israel is a testament to the vitality and endurance of the Jewish people. It's hard for me to long for the restoration of the Temple, or Judaism as a sacrificial and centrally located religion. I long for the Israel that I left at the beginning of June this summer. Sure, it's imperfect (as is every nation on the planet since the beginning of time), and the challenges that Israel and Judaism itself face in a modern, largely hostile world, are massive, to say the least. But it is what it is today, because after the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish exile that followed, Jews were forced to adapt throughout the world and throughout time, maintaining their rituals, customs and traditions, and therefore, their identity. And here I am, a 26 year old WASPY small-town ex-religion-basher who only began to learn about Judaism a few short years ago, embracing a Jewish identity and faith as though it's what I have been missing my whole life...because it is. If Jews had not been dispersed throughout the world, who is to say that I would have found my way to Judaism, and my beloved, sorely missed Jerusalem?

This is not to say that observing Tisha b'Av is useless and the day is irrelevant. It's a part of Jewish history and the events the day memorializes could have very well destroyed the Jewish people. But Jews and Judaism were not ultimately destroyed, and given the present day circumstances of the existence of the state of Israel...well, there's something redemptive about that, right? Isn't it evidence of a Jewish renaissance? A kind of salvation?

Of course, many Orthodox Jews would read this (and they probably aren't) and label me an ignorant convert (that is, if they even considered me a legitimate convert in the first place). True redemption, the end of mourning the loss of the Temple, thus rendering Tisha b'Av obsolete, will only happen when the Messiah comes, all exiles are gathered out from the diaspora and back in the Holy Land, and all with the guidance of God's willing hand. Yes, I'm aware of Orthodox views of the state of Israel (some of them favorable, some of them insisting that Israel is a blasphemous example of Jews forcing God's hand before it is time for our redemption), and I'm aware that deeply religious Jews may actually be capable of mourning the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish exile that resulted from them (both Temples, that is) with a real sense of, well, mourning. But the saddest day on the Jewish calendar? What about Yom HaShoah?

Yes, Yom HaShoah is a new addition to the Jewish calendar, and was only established in 1953 by the state of Israel, and has been more controversial than the electricity vs. fire on Shabbat debate. Why don't we fast on Yom HaShoah? Why don't we engage in traditional Jewish mourning rituals? Why do ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel refuse to stand in silence during the sirens like the rest of Israel does in honor of the dead? Why are they inclined to go to the Kotel on Tisha b'Av and grieve the destruction of the Temple, but not to stand for a couple of minutes out of respect for the 6 million Jews that were brutally murdered only a few short decades ago? Are they heartless? 

Of course, the answer is no, they are not inherently heartless, and like most things involving Jews and Judaism, it's complicated. While I was struggling with observing Tisha b'Av last year in Jerusalem and figuring out what exactly that meant to me, I pondered these same questions. As it turns out, the way in which Yom HaShoah was established is a perfect example of Jewish modernity butting heads with Jewish tradition, and the schism in Jewish thought over how Judaism should thrive in the modern world.

Yom HaShoah happens to fall in the month of Nisan, a month that traditionally forbids some mourning rituals and is supposed to be a festive time. Why did the Knesset, then, decide that (against the suggestion of the Rabbinate to designate the Tenth of Tevet as the official day to memorialize the Holocaust) Nisan would be the month that Yom HaShoah was to occur? Perhaps there's something kind of poetic about observing the solemn Yom HaShoah right after Pesach, when we celebrate our freedom from slavery in Egypt, followed shortly by mourning those who fought and died for the establishment of Israel or were killed in terror attacks on Yom HaZikaron (Israel's Memorial Day), to immediately (seriously, the next day) celebrating our freedom again on Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israel's Independence Day). Or maybe the Rabbinate and the Knesset just really didn't like each other and often bickered over how much say one should have over the other...seems plausible. 

But there's more to it than that. Standing at attention during a nationwide sounding of a siren, observing a moment of silence, flying flags at half-mast, showing Holocaust documentaries on television and playing somber music on the radio, are all fairly modern and goyish ways to commemorate the dead. It's understandable that some ultra-Orthodox Jews would have reservations about mourning in such a way, especially if there is a disconnect between how they do mourn, how they understand mourning, and how they feel when they mourn. Imagine being expected to mourn someone close to you in a completely foreign way, and how uncomfortable and even meaningless that would seem. In ancient Egyptian culture, mourning Egyptians supposedly shaved their eyebrows when their cats died. Wouldn't it feel strange, if not absurd, to engage in such a practice after your beloved kitty passed, if you were, say, not an ancient Egyptian? Wouldn't you do more than raise the eyebrows that you refuse to shave off at the mere suggestion of it? And as your deceased cat is given a lavish funeral before being embalmed and mummified and lovingly placed in a tomb with cream and mice for the afterlife, you would protest. After all, you probably didn't regard your feline companion as a deity (much to the chagrin of your cat), and these rituals would feel meaningless...even offensive.

Some of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel also claim that their way of life commemorates those killed in the Holocaust. They continue to live just as they lived in Eastern European shtetls before that world was wiped out of Europe, and at every moment, they are remembering and honoring the dead...but I can't help but wonder what that means as far as remembering and honoring the Jews who didn't live in Eastern European shtetls, such as the assimilated and cosmopolitan Jews who were killed simply for being Jewish, even if they looked and behaved like their non-Jewish counterparts. 

And finally, Tisha b'Av, some opinions hold, is the official Jewish day of mourning, and the Holocaust, while horrific and still so fresh in the memory of the Jewish people, is just another tragic episode in Jewish history, like the destruction of the Temple. It's a hard argument for me to accept, especially if the destruction of the Temple is so far removed from our understanding of tragedy, while the entire world, Jewish and non-Jewish, is still reeling from the trauma and repercussions of the Holocaust. I was in tears all throughout the day on Yom HaShoah. I was feeling guilty for sitting in an Aroma cafe drinking Turkish coffees with my laptop open in front of me, researching and pondering how much Tisha b'Av should mean to me, on Tisha b'Av. But I don't see Judaism as a guilt-based religion, hence the lack of observance of something that I am ambivalent about. It's important to me to find a balance between meaning in my observances and rituals so it doesn't feel like hollow, just-go-through-the-steps tradition, but to also recognize the worth in engaging in such traditions and rituals as a Jewish person. The ex-atheist in me tells me to tread lightly and consider what my religious observances mean to me, and the newly spiritual side of me tells me not to shrug off observances that remind me of who I have chosen to be. I can keep kosher while I cook on Shabbat, drop f-bombs as though I suffer from Tourette Syndrome all throughout my pining for Jerusalem blog, and appreciate and value modesty while I love wearing fishnet stockings with heals and a mini-skirt. Not every Jew would agree with me, but I see nothing conflicting or contradictory in my behavior. I want to be Jewish, but I want to be Megan as a Jew, more specifically. If the day ever comes where it feels right to trade in my mini skirts for ankle-skirts, keep food on the hot plate on Shabbat and to clean out my filthy mouth, then I'll still be Megan as a Jew. But it has to feel right.

And of course, the subject of mourning for me as a convert is also complicated. A week before Tisha b'Av, was the one year anniversary of the death of my best friend from my childhood. When he passed away, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I was in Jerusalem. I had been there for about a month and was living in the dorms at Hebrew University, exhausting myself in ulpan. I had few friends since I was one of a handful of students who were there for the whole summer, and it was months before I found my circle of friends at Pardes. I was also having trouble disengaging from some relationships that I left behind in the States. I was lonely and still settling into my new environment, still settling into my Jewish skin, and then suddenly, friends I had hardly spoken to since grade school were emailing me about Ryan's death. 

I didn't mourn, not completely, anyway. I cried a bit, reminisced about my childhood, felt remorse for the reasons why we eventually drifted apart, unburied some dormant, unresolved issues from that time, contemplated my own mortality, panicked over the thought of wasting my life, second guessed everything I'd been doing for the last several years, and then cried some more. I didn't come to terms with any of it, though. I didn't know how to. So instead, I pushed it all away, shoved as many of the worms back into the can as I possibly could, and stared at Hebrew textbooks and flash cards until I thought my eyes would bleed. Somehow, a year passed, and the occasional sense of sadness that comes with loss would suddenly boil up to the surface, even as things improved for me, and I'd panic a bit and worry that everyone and everything I love might suddenly disappear from my life, and loss after loss from the whole year stacked up on themselves. Then I came back here. Another loss.

I am relatively ignorant when it comes to Jewish mourning. I haven't been faced with a close death in a Jewish community and my confusion over how to simply mourn someone even outside of a Jewish context, only makes it more difficult to wrap my head around. As the anniversary of my friend's death approached, I started to wonder what I should do; do Jews mourn non-Jews the same way they would mourn a Jew? How would I mourn my parents and other family members when the time comes? How would they mourn me? Will I be laid to rest in Israel? What about my Conservative conversion? What will the Rabbinate say about that? Will I be married and have kids? Will my grave be separate from them? Does Mom know that I shouldn't be cremated? What do I do?

After speaking on Skype with a teacher of mine from Jerusalem, I was comforted a bit to be told that, while such questions are big questions and are important, there are some satisfactory answers to them. It also became apparent that I obsessed over Jewish mourning rituals around the anniversary of my friend's death in place of actually mourning him, and coming to terms with his death and all of the things that his death had conjured up for me. "I'll visit his memorial," I told myself. It's been a few weeks. I can't bring myself to visit it, even though I know that I need to. Maybe confronting it in some concrete way will keep me from tearing the scabs off, and will finally allow some old wounds heal.

Which brings me to my final thought on mourning, rituals, and Tisha b'Av. Mourning a past that is only mine in a collective sense while I live in an exciting, miraculous, amazing time that allows a country like Israel to exist in a post-Temple destruction, post-exile, post-Holocaust world as a Jew who does not have the distinction of being born as such, feels...weird. Not weird like, "wow, you Jews are weird with your sack cloth and ashes, your fasting and sitting on the ground style of guys wear black all the time, so isn't that, like, a symbol of mourning and stuff?" But it feels weird on a personal level. When I participated in the minor fasts like the Fast of Gedalia and the Fast of Esther, I did so because I was living in a Jewish environment where it felt enriching and meaningful to participate in such observances. But Tisha b'Av carries so much more weight with it, that I have to pause and consider what it means. It's certainly possible to glean meaning from Jewish holidays even if there is a bit of a disconnect between the actual thing it's based on and your life as you live it. Judaism is, after all, an ancient religion filled with codes and laws, and yet it has stood the test of time precisely because we are so hesitant to throw out the old and welcome in the new, redefining Jewishness and pushing boundaries that lead off into no man's land...or no Jew's land, as it were. That kind of attitude is a double edged sword; on the one hand, it means preservation of a people and its culture, but on the other hand, it means a lot of strife and clashing with the changing world, and the Jews who want to change with it while bringing Judaism with them as they go. Tisha b'Av, because of it's weightiness and because of it's association with mourning, and because of my disconnect between mourning and being observant, it feels weird for me.

In any case, Tisha b'Av isn't going anywhere any time soon, and hopefully, neither am I (except to Jerusalem, of course). Perhaps I'll have enough time on the planet to come to terms with the fact that, at this point in my life, I can't feel the meaning of Tisha b'Av in my soul, even if I try to translate the day into something personalized for me. So many things to come to terms with, so little time. Maybe all I'm really trying to say is...I've mourned so much lately, that adding a day of even existential sadness, is too much. I want to be happy that there is an Israel in this world, and I was there, rather than lament the many years of exile that seemed to destroy Israel altogether. That in itself, like the personal losses we can't get over, seems unbearable and impossible to come to terms with.

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About the Person Manipulating the Mouse and Keyboard

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Jerusalem, Israel
I write about being Jewish, but not being born Jewish, living in the Jewish homeland, longing for living in the Jewish homeland when I'm not living there, Jewish holidays, customs, ideas, thoughts, and the occasional thing that has nothing to do with anything Jewish. But mostly, this blog is very Jewish.