Tisha Be'av: Another view of the fast day from the 20th century

Come with me to the end of World War II and what Tisha Be’av offered us then, as our souls were wracked in fasting, pierced with sorrow and then uplifted with a tiny glimmer of hope.

 ‘SKYSCRAPER EXPLODES into Flames as Midtown New York Rocks in Blast’ was the July 1945 headline.  (photo credit: Matthew LeJune/Unsplash)
‘SKYSCRAPER EXPLODES into Flames as Midtown New York Rocks in Blast’ was the July 1945 headline.
(photo credit: Matthew LeJune/Unsplash)

September 11 is seared into our memories, and ever will it be. Though 21 years have passed since that incredibly horrid event, we can still remember vividly the pictures of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan, New York.

For some of us, both King Kong movies embedded in our consciousness the giant ape on the top of the Empire State Building fighting off planes as they attacked him and crashed into that famous building.

On this day in August, we might pause to recall an actual tragedy that occurred in New York City just a week after Tisha Be’av in July 1945 and a week before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Tisha Be'av in 1945

“Skyscraper Explodes into Flames as Midtown New York Rocks in Blast” was the headline of the story on July 28, 1945. “A two engine Billy Mitchell bomber rammed into the 79th story of the Empire State Building at 9:49 a.m. today. Exploding into a cone of flames, the plane turned the world’s tallest skyscraper into a pillar of flame and brought death to at least 13 persons [ultimately the number was 22] and injuring at least 25 more.”

Tisha Be’av in 1945 was supposed to mark an end to the annihilation of our people in World War II. The European fighting was over since the Nazis had been defeated and Hitler was now dead, but the universal tragedy continues and we know it is never-ending. A fog had covered the noted structure in the US, and a steering mistake made that aerial tragedy possible.

Empire State Building lit green for Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, July 17, 2015.  (credit: AFP PHOTO / BRIGITTE DUSSEAU)Empire State Building lit green for Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, July 17, 2015. (credit: AFP PHOTO / BRIGITTE DUSSEAU)

All over the world on July 17, 1945, we read Lamentations, focused on the ancient tragedies, with the modern Holocaust staring us in the face. The Shabbat of Comfort, Nahamu, was welcomed not only by Jews but also by Americans and the Axis’s opponents. Then, incredibly, a military airliner crashed into the modern symbol of freedom. Wailing filled the air in New York – how could it have occurred in the great metropolis, ha’ir rabbati am?

PREPARATIONS FOR Tisha Be’av this year are most important because we are faced daily with the possibility of Iranian nuclear bombs. Over and over, when US President Joe Biden visited a few weeks ago, just before the “Three Weeks” began, both President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Yair Lapid emphasized to the leader of the free world that an agreement has to be made to halt the production of that horrific bomb.

Come with me to the end of World War II and what Tisha Be’av offered us then, as our souls were wracked in fasting, pierced with sorrow and then uplifted with a tiny glimmer of hope.

Japan’s American chief chaplain Rabbi Morris Adler’s radio address “Occupied Territories” was broadcast from Tokyo, where he was stationed, to the world in the fall of 1945. “We mobilized our strength [to fight back] because the new order which our enemies sought to establish aimed to destroy the ideas and principles which, as free men, we cherish.”

He quoted from a Nazi primer from which children were taught. “The teaching of mercy and love of one’s neighbor is foreign to the German race, and the Sermon on the Mount according to Nordic sentiment is an ethic for cowards and idiots. One of the foundations of fascist teaching was hate.” As a result, Adler emphasized, “we were all classified as inferior and subhuman... condemned to extermination or enslavement.”

Then the key question was posited. “Have we won the war of ideas as fully as we have won the war of weapons? I challenge you as I challenge myself, Are there still occupied territories of the spirit in our midst?”

That was the issue to be confronted on Tisha Be’av in 1945, and one that has recurred again and again: how to neutralize and dispatch the “infamy and brutality” that had become rooted in the occupied territories of the mind.

An editorial about the fast day asserted: “Tisha Be’av during the past few years has also served to remind us of the more recent calamity that fell upon Israel – the destruction of one-third of the entire Jewish people by the German savages, whom we considered human and civilized.”

Something else had also occurred. “Today many Jews mourn the loss of their faith in the values of that Western civilization which could produce such inhumanity, which could only destroy such savagery at the price of a great world war in which millions of lives were lost.”

FROM JERUSALEM in 1945, a letter was sent by an American soldier who was recuperating from wounds he received in the European campaign.

The heart of the letter reads: “Some of the Jewish soldiers from different parts of the world, also here now, rushed in yesterday to announce it was Tisha Be’av tonight. As a Jew with limited knowledge of our faith, I had once heard that name in Sunday school. Others announced assuredly – we were going to the Western Wall at sundown to remember the ancient Temples. Okay, I thought; fine with me.”

“Some of the Jewish soldiers from different parts of the world, also here now, rushed in yesterday to announce it was Tisha Be’av tonight. As a Jew with limited knowledge of our faith, I had once heard that name in Sunday school. Others announced assuredly – we were going to the Western Wall at sundown to remember the ancient Temples. Okay, I thought; fine with me.”

American soldier's letter

The letter continues to a friend in the US with some asides and then picks up. “I have climbed Mount Washington in New Hampshire and was thrilled by the scenery far below. I stood under Natural Bridge in Virginia, wondering how it continued to stand. What I had never done until tonight was to see a Jewish stone, which had an ancestry of several thousand years.

“The dying sunshine bounced its rays off a rock of the ancient Jewish Temple. Those same rays bounced off me. Standing there, I realized I had been fighting in [the] American army for the past two years to preserve this stone.

“Preserve a stone? you may ask. Yes, a stone. We Jews, I finally can see, have experienced tragedy after tragedy – we have been expelled from one land after another.... Touch it for just a moment and the sparks will fly, sparks that can kindle our Jewish souls.

“I now know that Tisha Be’av is about fasting and lamenting, but when you can do it here as a part of the ancient-modern soul of our people, there is a kernel of hope for each breath you take. Perhaps that inhaling here will infuse many with the courage to stand tall, to help all mankind and to build the homeland.

“I make no pledge for myself, but I hope that there are those ready to build forever our little place here on earth.”

I found the letter in a trash pile near Hendersonville, North Carolina, the locale of my summer camp in the 1950s. Only recently did it surface out of some old letters forwarded to me by a friend who cared for some sealed cartons I had left in the US 45 years ago when we made aliyah in August 1977. The name to whom it was sent is torn off – the writer’s first name is Norman.

The 21 days before Tisha Be’av are characterized by grief. How will I make it through? I ask myself.

I remember the waiter David Their of Jacksonville, Florida, singing “Eli Tziyon” at Camp Blue Star, as a boat on the lake burned with the sign “Let the Jewish people live.” That touched me then; maybe it will help me and others again.

Dr. Israel Goldstein, the great American and world Jewish leader, who is counted along with Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver as outstanding US rabbis who were great Zionist advocates, lived in Jerusalem for almost 20 years after retiring early from his noted pulpit. I had the privilege of knowing him here before he died.

“David, most people cannot understand how we Jews accomplish what we do. I look at it this way: If we can suffer so much and survive, then when we have our own land, what amazing successes we can have! Alas, will our neighbors let us just live?”

Let us energize ourselves to arrive at Tisha Be’av not bogged down with sadness, but standing tall. Let those 25 hours fill us with hope and resolve to protect this little nation of ours.