A historical description of Tisha Be’av

‘The blood rushed quicker through my veins, my back, bent for centuries in ghettos and pales straightened itself.’

July 15, 2013 23:10
Boy prays at Western Wall.

Boy at Kotel 370. (photo credit: Yoram Sela)

Tisha Be’av has always been the “figment of my imagination” fast day. I have observed Tisha Be’av in so many places I could never recall them all. I dressed in white, in black and brown depending where I was, once even fasting on a canoe trip. I helped my campers build the Temple, and then my friend’s campers burned it to the ground. To be sure,Tisha Be’av has had it tough occurring in the summer when many of us are on vacation. The heat can turn one’s fast into an ordeal.

However, that first time (a half-century ago) my wife, Rita, and I fasted here in Jerusalem and peered from the roof of David’s Tomb at where the Kotel was supposed to be – I felt that Tisha Be’av, in spite of the number of Jews who observed it, was one of the moments in the Jewish year which kept us focused on returning to our land.

Tisha Be’av was no longer a figment of my imagination; it provided, annually, a poignancy which lifted us from the ruins of the past and deposited us in a new Israel.

Growing up 10,000 kilometers away, I knew being at the Kotel for the fast day was an experience in itself. Since our family made aliya in August 1977, I have been at the Kotel for Tisha Be’av.

Guess I was expecting too much; I was never moved by Tisha Be’av at that sacred space. It turned out my search was for someone to describe the experience at the Kotel for me. Took a long time to find, but I finally did, in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle from 1902. Isaiah Raffalovich, the author and a committed Zionist, returned to Eretz Yisrael, his home, in the 1890s, making sure to arrive on the eve of Tisha Be’av thereby carrying with him to the Western Wall that night the memories of the past and the hopes for the present.

Raffalovich, born in Eastern Europe in 1870, was brought to Jerusalem in 1882 when his parents made aliya. In 1898 he published his most famous book, Views from Palestine and its Jewish Colonies, which was an album of his own photographs.

Returning to Europe in 1901, he was ordained as a rabbi. From 1904, for the next two decades, he served as a spiritual leader in England. Fulfilling his dreams, he moved back to Israel in the 30s and died here in 1956.

Never having arrived in Israel by boat, it was enriching to see the view back then.

“The steamer entered the harbour of Jaffa,” he wrote. “The picturesqueness of the little town, looming out between the orange and lemon groves, with its white flat-roofed rows of houses, was quite enchanting.

“I was carried away to the time when on this day the country was overrun by the Roman legions landing at this very place intent to shatter the bulwarks of the Jewish defence and to crush the independence of Judah, sending my brethren fleeing before them, taking shelter in the caves and in clefts of the rocks.”

Having watched two cousins return alive from the hell of the Holocaust to walk erect again, I could understand exactly the meaning of Rafallovich’s words.

“I felt a sudden change come over me; the blood rushed quicker through my veins, my back, bent for centuries in ghettos and pales straightened itself and I so desired to replant them on the beautiful but desolate spot before me, our land.”

“After disembarking, bargaining and bribing, I succeeded in settling in a carriage of the newly built railway to Jerusalem.”

“Jerusalem! The goal of my journey. I am at last in the place for which all Israel has yearned these last eighteen hundred years. The city seemed to be clad in deep mourning.”

Remembering a walk from the Jaffa Gate once on a Tisha Be’av, the sadness there reverberated from the walls surrounding me with each step I took. However, Raffalovich was able to draw a moving contrast.

“The sun in the West looked like a fiery ball, and the minarets and the steeples of the many churches were streaked with gold. The effect was marvelous. It seemed as if the whole of Jerusalem was wrapped up in flames, and it forcibly reminded one of the time when on this very evening the city was illumined by the flames of its burning Temple.”

Yes, but the Romans, who put the city to the torch, have disappeared, and we are here.

“When I reached the Jewish quarter the inhabitants, barefooted and in tatters, were hurrying to the Western Wall, there to pour out their hearts in prayer and supplication.

The paved little space before the wall was crowded with men, women and children.”

That sight has been presented in various photographs, but when you hear a fellow Jew describe the scene, it is oh, so different: “...Moroccan Jews, squatting by the wall, responded in tones difficult to describe, to the lamentations read by the Chacham, now and then raising their hands pathetically heavenwards. At the other end a group of calm Sephardim were singing the same verses to their own tune. Just in the middle, and nearer to the wall, hundreds of Ashkenazim rent the air with their cries.”

“In front of me stood the ancient monument, as eternal testimony of former greatness.

Nine rows of huge and gigantic stones is all that is left of Israel’s glory.”

How fortunate am I to stand at the Kotel triple the size.

“The crowd became denser, and the weeping and wailing, deafening... sobs and lamentations broke out afresh.”

I also wept. I wept bitterly. I wept not only for the destruction of the city but also for Am Yisrael.

Raffalovich was resolute: “[R]ecognize that after 18 centuries of wailing and lamenting.... rise and do something for the regaining of the old greatness.”

On this Tisha Be’av, 36 years since our aliya, our family has done its share to “regain the old greatness of our country.”

“[At] midnight, a new group came to mourn at the sacred spot whence the Divine Presence has never departed. I remembered the legend that at this hour foxes are seen to walk about the place.... no foxes except in the form of Arabs apparently greatly enjoying the ‘fantasia’ – mocking and laughing at the poor ‘Yahud,’ who thinks to retake their country.”

Thankfully we can say: Our country is retaken! A believer back then, Raffalovich still experienced the sadness Tisha Be’av evoked, but he believed that Am Yisrael- Eretz Yisrael restored was sewn deeply in the fabric of the day, merely waiting to be called forth.

In honor of our grandson Daniel D. Geffen, son of Keren and Tuvia of Ramat Hasharon, who will celebrate his bar mitzva this month.

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