Jerusalem, Israel — Fifty years ago, not long after the Six-Day War had concluded, my grandfather began the Jewish fast of Tisha B’av by reading Eicha (the book of Lamentations) at the Kotel. His melodious recitation of chapter after chapter bemoaning the destruction of Jerusalem was broadcast all over Israel. Having grown up at a time when Jerusalem has for years been securely in Israel’s hands, I can’t imagine the emotion he must have felt less than three months after the war had ended, at being able to enter the Old City, to lament the destruction of the temple in front of its ruins, at a moment when Jewish perseverance and resilience had just been proven to the entire world.
Yesterday, like my grandfather all those years ago, I ushered in the fast of Tisha B’av at the Kotel. The day commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem, the loss of both the first and second Temples. On the flight here, I ran into a former teacher of mine who told me she was rushing back to Jerusalem for the fast. Being outside Israel, she said, was infuriating during this, of all days. Having never been here at this time, I could only smile and nod, not quite processing her meaning. Now I understand. The flood of emotions that comes from listening to Lamentations—from hearing about the absolute annihilation of Jerusalem as you sit on endless planks of Jerusalem stone, as you are surrounded by the old city’s whispering walls, as you stare at the Temple’s last remnant, as you sit beside young, strong, Jewish soldiers in the army’s olive green—overwhelms the mind, overwhelms the body, overwhelms the soul.
Overwhelming is a good word for Jerusalem. Indeed, there’s an entire category of mental illness called “Jerusalem Syndrome,” that describes the unbalanced reactions that the city can provoke. I was overwhelmed when in a touching display of irony, a group of yeshiva boys began singing the somber tunes of Tisha B’av in the Roman ruins that catch the eye of so many tourists. They stood and swayed in a large oval, bracketed by the easily identifiable Roman columns. Rome had sacked Jerusalem, and destroyed the Temple—it was the reason I was fasting. And there, in the middle of Jerusalem, in the center of Israel’s capital, in Roman ruins, were the Jews, singing about faith and destruction and God’s mercy. The dichotomy was overwhelming.
The period leading up to Tisha B’av is called the nine days. It is itself a time of mourning. Observant Jews refrain from eating meat, drinking wine, swimming, and buying clothing. Many of the worst tragedies to have befallen the Jewish people have historically taken place during the nine days; among other examples, the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, the “Final Solution” officially approved in 1941, and the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka death camp in 1942.
There’s much to mourn, but sitting in a sovereign Israel, there’s also much to celebrate. What other people have been successful in reclaiming their homeland? The book of Lamentations begins: “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!” Last night the old city of Jerusalem was not empty, but packed with throngs of people who had come to pray at the Kotel. The modern state of Israel, the start-up nation that has made the desert bloom is no tributary, but once again great among the nations. With one breath we mourn, and with another, we rejoice.