We Are the People of Tisha B’Av


We Are the People of Tisha B’Av

On Tisha B’Av, we remember. We remember
the catastrophes that befell our people
throughout the generations. We remember
our temples, twice destroyed, the waters
of Bavel where we lay down and wept.
We remember the blood and we remember
the fire. We remember the fear and we
remember the shame. We remember the ache
of exile, repeating, throughout the generations:
“My heart is in the East and I in the uttermost
West,” the words catching in our throats like
shards of broken glass.

We remember our martyrs. Shimon ben Gamliel
and Rabbi Yishmael, each of whom sought to die first
to avoid seeing the other suffer. Rabbi Akiva, flailed
to death by metal spikes, drawing out the Sh’ma so
to expire when the word echad passed through
his lips. Chanania ben Teradion, wrapped in a Torah
scroll and set on fire, wet wool placed on his body by his
tormentors to prolong the pain.

And the nameless, uncounted, holy martyrs in every
generation, they are remembered. In York and Mainz,
Cordoba and Fez, Kiev and Kishinev, Hevron and Tzfat.
Wounded and scarred, we remembered. Confused
and frightened, we remembered. Throughout the
generations we remembered. And in ’67, Har HaBayit
in our hands at last, our paratroopers wept and remembered.

I once heard this: in the days before the Allies liberated
Auschwitz, there was mass confusion and the Nazis
began shooting Jews with indiscriminate fervor.
So, to save themselves, a little girl and her younger
brother descended into the sewer system of the camp.
The stench was awful and they were terribly afraid
but there was no place else to hide. So, to keep
their sanity the children began to sing. In filth
to their waists, they held hands and sang songs,
remembered from their Sabbath table, songs from
what surely must have seemed like another life.
Songs our people have sung, in good times and bad,
throughout the generations. Then, as the two of
them sang “Shalom aleichem, malachei hasharet,
malachei elyon,” other children heard the plaintive
tune and climbed into the sewer. And soon, they
too were singing. Thinking not of God, thinking
not of angels. Thinking not of history, thinking not
of generations. Thinking of the notes, only the notes.
Fluid as milk, sweet as honey. Holding hands.
Determined to survive.

Is there a single day in history on which Jews could
not rightfully choose to mourn? A single minute?
Imagine the endless fast. The low stools of grief.
We are the people of Tisha B’Av, the Tisha
B’Avniks, stuck forever on that bloody day;
the harbinger of bloody millennia, the harbinger
of a bloody future. For this we know and this, too,
we’ll remember. In Gaza, in the Bekaa, in Tehran,
a hundred-thousand rockets point at Tel Aviv.

And, like Job, the King of the Tisha B’Avniks, the
leader of the low-stoolniks, we beseech God,
demanding answers to impertinent questions.
Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the innocent
suffer? Why, God, did You abandon me when
I needed you most? And God answers us, as he
did to Job, mind your own goddamned business:
“Where were you when I set the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, big shot, if you’re so smart.”

And we cannot leave our sad song without this:
On Tisha B’Av, we remember Michael Levin.
Michael, an all-American boy, who joined
the Israeli army because he felt the pull of history,
the pull of the land, the pull of his people. Michael,
who was in Philadelphia when war in Lebanon
broke out. Michael, who flew back to be with his
unit. Michael, who took a sniper’s bullet to the head.
Michael, whose funeral was attended by thousands,
though he had no relatives in Israel. Michael, who
once said “You can’t fulfill your dreams unless
you dare risk it all.” Michael, who was twenty-two
on the day he was buried: Tisha B’Av, 5766.

What are we to do with this destiny of devotion
and death? We are always climbing, seeking
some unknown celestial summit to plant a flag
in triumph, but who can breathe the thin air
at such heights? Only angels and we are not,
will never be.

And yet, we remember, throughout the generations,
that morning follows the darkest night and spring
the coldest winter. We remember our sages teaching
that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av.
We remember that even in the sewers of Auschwitz,
there can be hope.

The Pain That Cuts Deep

Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote a poem called Why I Write Poetry, in which, spoiler alert, I offer a series of reasons why poetry writing appeals to me. And, in one line, I proclaim: I write poetry because I like the look of ink on a yellow pad. When I use a red pen, the words appear to be written in blood.

Recently, I tried to recall what I was thinking about when I wrote those words. To “write in blood,” is a metaphor, of course; one that implies a kind of existential importance to the words being written; a suggestion that, with the turn of a phrase, the poet can create or destroy. I think I must have been feeling very full of myself back then, to have written such a self-aggrandizing line.

This week’s parsha poem, in honor of Shavuoth and the recently commemorated Yom Hazikharon, is entitled, The Pain That Cuts Deep, and it comes from a different place, from a humbler poet; one who knows what it feels like to watch a son become a soldier; a poet who has reached a point in life where he understands, that ink is ink and blood is blood and the power to create and destroy, as if one were a god, is nothing but a self-aggrandizing illusion.


The Pain That Cuts Deep

…a youth and a lass slowly march toward the nation…dressed in battle gear, dirty…full of endless fatigue, yet the dew of youth is still seen on their head…then a nation, in tears and amazement will ask: “Who are you?” And they will answer quietly, “we are the silver platter on which the Jewish nation was given.”

–Natan Alterman, The Silver Platter

When my son was 10, he insisted we stay up all
night on Shavuoth studying, according to the ancient
tradition. Balancing the need for a good night’s sleep
against the pleasure of spending time with my boy,
it was an easy choice and when I asked him what he
wanted to learn, he said poems:

But Jewish poems, abba.

That night we read dozens of poems—Jewish poems—
until it was time for the morning prayer. He was the youngest
person in the room. When we walked home, I asked him which
poem he liked best and he said (almost too quickly):

Alterman, The Silver Platter.

When my son was 13, with a sweet jump-shot but 4 inches
too short and 30 pounds too light to make the team, he wailed
on the car ride home like the child he was. But the grief and loss
were real and deep. And though I understood why he’d been cut
(in more ways than one), I had to pull over, halfway home,
unable to see the road through my own sodden eyes. But I knew
what he did not; he would never be cut from a team again.

When my son was 16, he told me he needed to go to Poland
to see the death camps. Money, I told him, was tight and
he said he’d pay the $2,000 himself. I asked him why it was
so important and he answered with a question:

How can I pass up the privilege of being a witness?

And, as if I needed more convincing:

That generation is almost gone. The witnesses must tell their stories.

When my son was 18, he told me he was joining the Israeli army.
When I asked him why, he answered, again, with a question:

How can I pass up the privilege to serve in the first Jewish army since Bar Kokhba?

Afraid, knowing the now well-built point-guard with a killer jump-shot
would not have a desk job, I said, in a voice, too harsh:

This isn’t a novel; you’re not Ari Ben Canaan.

Instead of responding in kind and with a literary reference
better than mine, he disarmed me:

The Jewish nation, he said, wasn’t given on a silver platter.

When he was 24, my son, the lieutenant, came home on furlough.
He does not discuss his life as a soldier and this is probably best
for all concerned. And he has never spoken about the camps,
though I have asked. But that’s okay. When he is called,
the witness will take the stand.

Throughout the too-short visit, just to look at him leads me to tears.
But I make no effort to conceal my sodden eyes. Matt learned, long ago,
to appreciate the pain that cuts deep. And though he is now, forever,
beyond the dew of youth, I do not have to ask him who he is.

He is the boy who stayed up one night to read poems with his abba.

He is the silver platter on which my life was given.