Summer has always been full of contradictions for me. The days are long yet the season is short. Summer experiences are like gossamer—try too hard to hold on to them and they vanish. During the summer I take stock, look back and marvel that I survived winter’s hibernation or the frenzy of the calendar.
Summer is a quiet time in the Jewish calendar. There is a slow but steady movement towards the high holidays. And then there is Tisha b’Av—simply translated as the ninth day in the Hebrew month of Av. Tisha b’Av is a day of remembrance filtered through bereavement and mourning that is both as private as a yahrtzeit and as public as a yizkor. Tisha b’Av is a crater I seem to stumble into every year—a crater that filled with ancient and modern traumas. Israel’s holiest Temples were destroyed in different years on the same date.
The symbolism of that wholesale destruction comes back to haunt Jews even on the happiest of occasions as in the breaking of a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony. Other historical tragedies befell Jews on that day as well. Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade in which tens of thousands of Jews were killed, and many Jewish communities were annihilated. Jews were expelled from Spain on Tisha b’Av in 1492. World War One broke out on Tisha b’Av in 1914 and set the stage for the Holocaust. Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were deported to Auschwitz on the ninth day of Av. Old and new history are omnipresent during a month that the Talmud instructs that we must reduce our joy.
In the summer Jewish observance may feel lighter, less busy but it is has its moments. On Tisha b’Av my mother never let us kids swim. We sat on the side of the town pool, sadly dunking our feet. This was a random punishment for nine-year-old me. Under ideal circumstances my mother didn’t let us go into the pool for at least two hours after lunch. This made Tisha b’Av the equivalent of continuously digesting a meal. But food was a moot point because we never fasted. Yet we purposely ate lightly if not more hungrily. The holiday also had a personal resonance for my mother. Her Uncle Baruch, who never observed any aspect of Tisha b’Av, died in a car accident on the very day. A few years later, on another Tisha b’Av, another uncle was run over by a streetcar in Havana.
Tisha b’Av always seemed to sneak up on me when I was a child and then as an adult I lost track of it altogether. Only when I went to work for a Jewish organization was I aware of it again. For some of my colleagues it was a day of true mourning. On the eve of Tisha b’Av they recited Lamentations on the floor of their synagogues. They went to work yet fasted all day. They wore cloth shoes and eschewed comfortably sitting at their desks. I remember my boss consciously trying to stand for most of the day. It was an austere yet functional shiva. I now see that my family and I were in the clutches of a makeshift Judaism, unable to forget Tisha b’Av yet not able to implement its more profound implications. We were on automatic pilot. Our practice never transformed us.
There was the summer when I wanted my Judaism to go beyond arbitrary bans on swimming and I decided to keep kosher. This made my parents anxious about many things including our annual summer vacation. Was there any place within a reasonable distance that we could go to for those two weeks where I would eat? The answer finally came to my father. The Catskills. My parents had honeymooned there and fifteen years later—1975—most of the big hotels were starting to dilapidate. But there was still palpable nostalgia for and loyalty to the Catskills. We stayed at Brown’s Hotel, owned by relatives of Jerry Lewis – a fact you could never forget because his picture was plastered everywhere.
That summer my sister learned to ice skate and my brother perfected his diving. I ate kosher food until I couldn’t eat anymore and fell madly in love with the waiter for my table. Bobby was an aspiring doctor from New Jersey. I was a fourteen-year-old as terrified of mixing meat with milk as I was of imagining myself kissing a twenty-one-year-old. Brown’s was a formative summer experience for me with its hint of summer romance mixed in with my newly found Judaism.
These days there are no bans, no lamentations, no uncomfortable standing for me on Tisha b’Av. I concentrate on honoring memories while living in the present.