My Word: Between tears of pain and joy

I am writing these lines midweek – a peculiarly Israeli week. Emotions of joy and sadness are universal.

Worshippers at the Western Wall on the eve of Tisha Be'av, July 25, 2015 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Worshippers at the Western Wall on the eve of Tisha Be'av, July 25, 2015
I am writing these lines midweek – a peculiarly Israeli week. Emotions of joy and sadness are universal.
They are common to people all over the world, throughout the ages. But as I write, I feel suspended in a very particular time, in an extraordinarily special place.
On Sunday, we commemorated Tisha Be’av, the ninth day of Av, marking the destruction of the First and Second Temples and many other calamities that befell the Jewish people. The day of fasting and mourning this year was postponed so that it didn’t detract from the Sabbath. This column is being published on Tu Be’av, 15 Av, often called the Jewish Festival of Love, or even the “Jewish Valentine’s Day,” although that description makes many Orthodox Jews shudder.
Tisha Be’av and Tu Be’av can, of course, be marked – each in its own way – anywhere in the Jewish world, but they can’t be truly felt outside Israel.
Whether you’re religious or not, the signs of Tisha Be’av are unmistakable: There’s special programming on radio and television and, more noteworthy, no commercials to interrupt the broadcasts; ahead of the date, the weather forecast includes information pertinent for those fasting; and shoe shops do a brisk trade in non-leather footwear, another sign of mourning used to mark the day.
A neighbor of mine quipped that the only acceptable greeting is “Good mourning!” He made the comment as we watched a parade of people going to and from traditional readings of the Book of Lamentations and the special lectures taking place all over the city.
Many fellow Jerusalemites made their way to the Western Wall.
Channel 10 has been running a series in its news program on attitudes to Jerusalem’s holy sites: Nothing in this least-forsaken-by- God spot lacks contention. There is an argument over whether Jews should ascend the Temple Mount, both for religious reasons and because of the political-security ramifications, but there is no doubt for many that this is the holiest spot of all.
Given the holiness of the site, scenes of violence there are heartrending.
Deliberate provocations, by Muslims or by Jews, are an affront to all. But there was something ironic about Muslim protesters stockpiling rocks and firecrackers inside the mosques to throw at Jewish visitors claiming that a Jewish presence at the site where the Temples once stood defiles the Temple Mount, as if hurling insults, bottles and rocks and trying to erase its history added to its sanctity.
YOU’RE NOT meant to enjoy Tisha Be’av and I don’t, but there is something spiritually cleansing about being in Jerusalem itself on that day.
Tu Be’av, on the other hand, is all about love. Traditionally, it was the day on which the unmarried women of Shiloh dressed in white and went out to dance in the vineyards, where they could be chosen as brides by equally eligible men.
In recent years, the festival has enjoyed a revival – particularly among the secular – and as soon as Tisha Be’av is over, love is in the air, building up night by night until the full moon casts its white light over the Earth, obscured only by small clouds of cynicism here and there.
The holiday has stood the test of time, but it has become more commercialized.
The serious lectures of Tisha Be’av turn into special events for lovers and romantic singles seeking their beshert, their match made in heaven.
Hotels offer special deals for couples; shopkeepers ply appropriate gifts and there are sing-alongs, movie screenings, “happenings” and weddings galore. Tu Be’av marks the start of the summer wedding season.
Last week, Shawn Evenhaim, the chairman of the Israeli-American Council, visited the Jerusalem Post editorial offices to discuss the work of the association which tries to foster the unique Israeli identity of expats in the US.
When you live in Israel, he noted, whether you are religious or not, you are aware of the Jewish calendar and exposed to its special rhythm and feel. When you live abroad, whatever traditions you personally observe, you are at odds with your surroundings.
The obvious example is Yom Kippur, when in Israel traffic, including air traffic, comes to a halt; state television and radio go off the air; and a silence descends, so different from Israel’s usual frenetic noise and vibe.
Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Independence Day are also dates that can be marked anywhere, but lack a certain element outside Israel, where the general population is going about its business, unaware of the emotional roller-coaster felt by Israelis on these two days.
Tisha Be’av and Tu Be’av are similar in that way.
This year Tisha Be’av came under the pall of the Iran deal. On a day when it is natural to reflect on the fragility of life, let alone life in this land, the deeply disturbing agreement took on a new dimension.
I don’t think Israel is under immediate, existential threat – despite the obvious angst. I do, however, worry about the increased threat of terrorism by groups sponsored by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The dangers do not face Israel alone. A nearly nuclear Iran, flush with cash from the deal, threatens a large swathe of the Muslim world where it is already supporting terrorism and involved in fighting. As those who drew up the deal point out, if Iran is nuclear nowhere will be safe.
The difference lies between those who believe the deal will cause the regime to become a more moderate force, or at least delay Iran’s nuclear breakout capabilities, and those who see it as a form of appeasement – strengthening the ayatollahs’ regime without changing its basic goals and nature.
The 5+ powers seem to consider Iran a possible moderating force with which to combat the growing strength of Islamic State.
In a column I wrote this time of year in 2007, titled “Love and War,” I noted that there was a flurry of diplomatic activity in the (Sunni) Arab countries which had been forced to take the homegrown threat of jihadi terror seriously: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states were meeting to discuss the successes of al-Qaida.
“The Saudis are also apparently planning to send a mission to the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad, and, according to FM Faisal, ‘hope [to] work closely with Iraq regarding security aspects, especially terrorism,’” I wrote at the time.
It is depressing to think how far we haven’t come since then.
So many heads have rolled since al-Qaida evolved into ISIS and particularly in the year since ISIS developed from the ridiculed “gangs in Toyota trucks” to Islamic State, in control of vast areas, including in Iraq.
Tisha Be’av is a day of mourning, a natural time of introspection and soul-searching. The First Temple was destroyed, it is believed, because of corruption and the cardinal sins of paganism, murder and adultery; the Second Temple was lost because of “baseless hatred.”
These are trying times, but despite all the dangers it is nonetheless an incredible era of revival for the Jewish people, more than six million of whom now live in Israel.
The crass commercialism of Tu Be’av invites cynicism. But as neighboring countries are increasingly overtaken by a fanatic, medieval form of religious hatred and warfare, we can count our blessings. Promoting events dedicated to love, a few days after recalling the results of baseless hatred, can’t be a bad thing. The exploitation of the festival of love for commercial purposes is obvious, but thank Heavens we can still sing, dance and have fun. And despite the tensions (and the disgusting hate crimes committed after this column was written and first published) there is nowhere more fitting to celebrate life than Jerusalem. But you might have to be here to truly feel it.
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