Tishah B’Av entered my life when I was a young adult on the way to orthodox practice in Melbourne.
In the evening I attended Echah at the Caulfield Centre, a few minutes’ walk from home. They did not yet have a purpose-built Synagogue, so the service was in the darkened front room of the Centre with people sitting on the floor around the fire (it was winter in Melbourne).
A parallel could have been drawn with Jeremiah watching the flames and witnessing the destruction of the Temple, but no-one put it into words.
One morning I went to Toorak Shule where the service was in what was then called the Minor Synagogue. As I was not a regular worshipper there Rabbi Rapaport said to me, “Did you come because you like the way we lament?”
I hadn’t the heart to tell him that the Shule was on the tram route to the university, where my first lecture of the day was at 9 am.At that time there was no user-friendly edition of Echah (the Book of Lamentations) and Kinnot. That came later with Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld’s edition.
In a detailed review I wrote of the book I pointed out that it was tradition to use poorly printed paper editions of the Tishah B’Av service as Mashi’ach would surely have arrived by next year and Tishah B’Av would be superseded, though I added that even when Mashi’ach came Rabbi Rosenfeld’s book would remain on people’s library shelves as an academic record of what had once been.
Rosenfeld was probably the first to incorporate Holocaust references in a prayer book. I was one of those who agitated for Tishah B’Av to become the official memorial day for the Holocaust despite the fact that the Knesset decided otherwise.
I still think I was right and am surprised that the religious community did not back the proposal I had endorsed. Let me say that neither the Holocaust nor the creation of Israel has been properly marked in our liturgy even now. If we exert ourselves to observe less dramatic episodes, how can we not give ritual status to the two seminal events of our age?
In time I studied Echah very extensively and lectured on the text at university level. Though it is one of the shortest books of the Tanach, its text is often difficult and the theological nuances require considerable attention, in particular its interweaving of the three explanations of the tragedy: 1. God, 2. the enemy, 3. our own sins.
My wife and I spent Tishah B’Av in South Africa one year. Over and above the normal feelings of the day, our emotions were mixed – joy at the solid strength of orthodoxy in Johannesburg, and sorrow at the derelict centre of the city and the level of crime and violence. We spent the afternoon on a guided tour of Johannesburg, wearing sneakers because of the fast and unable even to take a drink of water.
The Tishah B’Av which we observe these days in Jerusalem is much more intellectual, with hours of shi’urim that look at the texts and the meaning of the event with parallels to later tragedies.
At our shule in Sydney, Tishah B’Av brought very good attendances of Shom’rei Shabbat, who could not normally come to the Great because they lived too far to walk.
Another such day, but a completely different mood, was Purim, when again Shom’rei Shabbat were always in evidence. The blessings of being a downtown shule…