Fasting Forward: Why I’m Looking forward to this year’s Tisha B’av

Amichai Lau-Lavie

July 24, 2015


(it’s 4am in LA, not sure if i’m on Jerusalem time, or NY or here, or all at once: TLV to LAX through JFK in 20 hours, I’m in the west and my heart still in the east, body in the middle, catching up ,I sleep and my heart is awake, on a sofa at a shiva house, on the eve of the night of mourning and fasting, remembering my nephew’s question, musing on the meaning of this fast:)

His question surprised me: ‘Do you fast on Tisha B’av?’

This was in a car going from Jerusalem to Ben Gurion Airport on my way back to NY, just two days ago, driven by Eitan, my 24 year old nephew. We were talking about this and that when he asked about the fast. “Yes” I answered. “Why? What do you fast for?” he probed further.

Newly engaged to be married to Noga,  Eitan is a good natured, pragmatic, Modern Orthodox guy, raised in Jerusalem, who recently completed his IDF service, now studying Accounting at the Hebrew University. We’ve never really spoken much about religious attitudes and such. In our family, I’m the one who took off to America, came out, took his kippah off and then on again,  and definitely took on a much more liberal religious life, rarely really talked about around the shabbat table. It’s complicated.  But here was the start of an honest conversation.

“I fast because along with my people I take on public mourning for a single sad day. The temple is only one layer of what it’s about. For me it’s more of an invitation to focus on what’s broken in the world,” I said. “It’s not just about the history of the destruction of the temples and the loss of all those innocent lives. It’s about broken hearts and homes everywhere, fasting to focus on the parts of life we rarely want to: Our scars of violence and abuse and suffering and exiles, often in the name of God; and for every time I and others choose more hate and fear over trust and love. I fast because hunger humbles, reminding me of being in the body, and this is a great Jewish tool for mindfulness and deeper connection with what matters most. Something like that.


And also, more recently for me – it’s become the first day of the sacred season of the Days of Awe – we fast on Tisha B’av and then again on Yom Kippur and in between we move on in and up and focus on what needs fixing in our lives and how to do it better.”

“Interesting.” he said. And that was that. By then we reached the airport and the conversation ended. I didn’t get a chance to ask him if and why he fasts.

While waiting for my flight to board I read an Op-ed piece in the Forward by a colleague of mine, Rabbi Daniel Greyber: Should We Transform Tisha Bav from Fast to Feast?

Greyber wonders whether instead of focusing on historical grief, we modern Jews should celebrate the fact that the exile is over, the state of Israel thriving, and the day of woe be re-branded to reflect the times. Most Jews today are ignorant of the fast’s existence and meaning, he accurately claims, so why not make this date meaningful in ways that echo the evolving facts of our collective reality?  He has a vivid image of what this may look like:

“Could Tisha B’Av become a Jewish festival? Could Jews knowledgeable of Jewish history and dedicated to observance of God’s laws gather around the table on Erev Tisha B’Av, recall the suffering of our ancestors and, over a glass of wine and a sumptuous feast, recite blessings of thanks for returning us to our land?”

I sat there at gate D8, watching the hustle and bustle of the Jewish homeland’s airport, and wondered what my nephew would have thought of Greyber’s feast. Who better than he, a native Israeli building a home in Jerusalem based on zionist-religious values, to sit around that table lamenting the past but celebrating the present revival that is his life? The idea of transforming Tisha B’av into at least a half day of gratitude is not new. Rabbinic voices questioning the full observance of the fast go back to the third century CE.

I suspect, however, that Eitan won’t go for it. As few in our history have. Not only because it’s so unorthodox but mostly because there is so more to this fast day than the tragic facts of our storied past. For many of us these days, what this day is about is not the temple trauma nor longing for its return but rather what it means for us to even mourn, together, as a people.

Greyber is correct about the fact that for most Jews today the temple’s memory is meaningless while for some of us it is drenched with meaning – and complex political significance.   For most Jewish Israelis, for instance, this day is vaguely recognized as linked to a historical reality that results in shutting down restaurants and concert halls for one prime time summer night because of yet another Holocaust like trauma.  Eitan’s question echoes on behalf of these many different voices:  Yes, he, more than others, knows the lamentations, but what in this day and age are they really still about?

I like Greyber’s feast concept as a way to deal with the fascinating challenge that is 21st century Tisha B’av, but I’m not setting the table just yet. Turning this fast day into a reflective feast misses the point entirely. It is not just about the loss of home and sovereignty, the terrible loss of life and the demise of a religious center, once upon a time, now over.  It is not just a warning reminder about the danger of animosity or antisemitism, nor is it a day for pity and tears about the Holocaust and Inquisition and every war and pogrom that happened, per a lot of  traditions, on this very date. It is, I think,  about all of those combined as a mega-moment of the need and right for grieving in public and for looking mortality in its skull-like face, to its face. Simple as that. For 24 hours.  A collective meditation on our basic human fear of death. There are plenty of days on the Jewish calendar for full on celebration. This one, beyond historical realities, is a day to grieve.

Over centuries this date had become the marker of permitted  sorrow, collecting compelling reasons. It has become a day to pause, and publicly proclaim that history is full of bad decisions leading to tragic consequences and that sometimes all we can do about it as just sit together and weep. But not weeping in vain. Only from this weeping for what’s broken can we build again to restart again, new page, new life,  new year.

This is our ancient psycho-sensitive-semitic wisdom at its best  – reminding us that if we don’t pause to fast in sorrow we will forget how to truly feast with joy. Even God, wrote one of the sages, sits quietly, in a secret spot, on this sacred night, and sobs. Is God sobbing for the Jews or for all that’s gone wrong with creation?

The mystics thought about this, as did our ancient storytellers who created midrashic legends that told other reasons for the saddest night of our year. Each year, only on this night, one  legend recounts, the Hebrew people who wandered through the Sinai desert on their way to the Promised Land, would die. As sun set on this day, each year, they would all dig graves, go to sleep inside of them, and in the morning, some would rise and some would not. Thus they died for 39 years. But on the 40th year, the curse was over, the old generation was gone, and every single Hebrew rose from the grave on the morning of the Ninth of Av, ready to enter the land. They waited a few more nights to make sure they didn’t get the date wrong and when the moon was full they celebrated the new chapter in their lives. This is how we got not only the fast of the Ninth of Av but also the feast of the Fifteenth of Av – later re branded as the Festival of Love.

The authors of the Zohar took it one step further – the Fast of Av recalls the rift between the feminine and masculine in our lives and in the cosmic heavens. If the temple was the home of God, then its’ destruction was the ultimate divorce, father and mother going off in different directions while we, the children, are torn between them. We’re left with a rift and a split and a scar in our personal and collective psyche, waiting not for a rebuilt nation but for a deeper healing of a post traumatic people yearning for a deeper union and a healing of the soul.

This traumatic impact, all those generations later, is echoed in yet another fascinating piece published in this week’s Forward ( I had a long wait for that flight..) Gal Beckerman writes about the state of Jewish anxiety, manifested both in the US and in Israel in different format as  reasons for concern about survival and continuity.

Perhaps, then, the re-branding of the Ninth of Av should focus on our deeply held anxiety, enabling us to gather, as mourners, with flashlights in hands, not just chanting the old litanies of sorrow but taking time to evaluate what we are really crying for and begin to asses our roles in fixing the wrongs.

And while most Jewish voices place the Ninth of Av within the context of historical-political conditions of concern, there is a vast and valid and growing body of liturgy and literature that frames this night as the opportunity to delve on the human experience of sorrow, beyond the tribal tears.

Can this day be the very day on which Jews from all around the world – and those who love and live with them – engage in focused dialogue about what tore and tears us apart with needless hatred so that we can build bridges, together, again? Can we re-brand the Ninth of Av is the Jewish day of Fasting-Forward?

I flew back to NYC just a few days before the day on which Jerusalem was burning, to try out a new way of marking and mourning this fast.

This coming Saturday night, along with my team at Lab/Shul NYC I’m co-curating NINE – a night of conversations about trauma, loss and healing in our private and public lives. Held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – a Living Memorial to the Holocaust, artists and activists, Jewish and Christian clergy, will come together to share narratives of loss and exile, persecution and pain. Burnt churches in the South, homophobia in Russia, domestic violence and the loss of parents: What can this fragile night teach us about listening to each other’s histories of hatred and legacies of pain so that all together we can rise to today’s challenges and lessen the horrors inflicted on so many, all over the world?

We will begin the night with chanting Lamentations on the lawn, then move into the  museum to explore through its exhibits and through art and conversations about loss and how it matters. This is the sort of Jewish response in a Jewish context, to the simply human challenges we face – held on a day sacred to our people by years and years of fears and tears.

Perhaps for the first time in many years or ever, I am actually looking forward to fasting – to being part of this meaningful day long meditation honoring all death, all life. The replies I gave to nephew’s question, rolling in my head all flight long, made perfect sense by the time we landed.

From NYC I took another flight, to LA, rushing to make it on time to the funeral of a friend and mentor: Theodore Bikel, a Jewish icon who passed away this past week at the age of 91.

We stood around the deep grave at the Hillside cemetery, Leonard Nimoy just around the corner, not far from Fanny Brice, shoveling American soil on a plain pine coffin, to which I added stones taken from my father’s grave in Jerusalem, just before Eitan and I took off for the airport. Theo’s sons emptied small bags with soil from the Mount of Olives. Theo, who loved Israel so much and to his dying day fought hard for peace among all its people, would have liked that a lot.

Looking into Theo’s grave I was reminded of that story of the Hebrews in the desert, digging their own trenches, bidding each other good night not knowing who will live or die. Like us, on any given moment. Looking into Theo’s grave, remembering my father’s, I was looking into the face of mortality,proud of our wise tradition, ready to fast, and to feast and to live and mend our beautiful and broken world.

Shabbat Shalom


Farewell Brave Friend: Theo Bikel's Last Concert
Welcome to Open Heart: Lab/Shul High Holy Days 5776/2015