Jul. 19th, 2010

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So it's Tisha B'av again. That day when we all communally mourn by getting collectively dehydrated.

And, in general, I have trouble getting into the mood, even with the fasting. Sure, I go through the motions. I listen to Eicha while sitting on the floor. I deprive myself of food and water. I try not to do anything fun - at least until the afternoon. (Netflix. Tomorrow afternoon will be all about the Netflix.) But I don't get into the mood. I feel a bit weak and icky, but not sad. 

Even this evening, as I followed along during Eicha, word for word, my mind wandered, and I didn't really process what I was listening to. I was thinking about my upcoming move (on Wednesday) and how exciting it is, and all the stuff I need to get done before then. Not in a stressful way, just in a bored one.

But I also got to thinking about when Tisha B'av *was* meaningful, and what made it feel that way.

Up until the age of 10, Tisha B'av was a day to wear jellies (remember those? I think that was what they were called, anyway. Those slipper-like sheos made of plastic.) and be aware that my parents were fasting. That was it. 

But then, when I was 10, I spent my first summer at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, where Tisha B'av was the only Jewish holiday that fell during the summer. (Unless you count Rosh Chodesh - which isn't really a holiday, or sometimes the 17th of Tammuz, which we ignored completely.) Tisha B'av at camp was a Very Big Deal. They really worked hard to set the mood.

On the evening of Tisha B'av, each edah (age group) would meet individually to say - not sing or chant, just *say* without any tune at all - the beginning of Ma'ariv. Then, when we reached the point where it was time to read Eicha, the edot would head, one by one (I think they coordinated with phones or walkie talkies, or maybe they just had a schedule), to the Beit Am, the room that was big enough to hold the whole camp on its cement floor. 

They turned out all of the lights in camp, and one of the oldest edot set out paper bags filled with sand that each held a single candle. These candles lit the path that each edah followed to the Beit Am. 

They made us walk in silence, and sit down in silence, and wait in silence until every edah had arrived. Sure, there was some whispering, but it was, overall, pretty quiet. We sat, as I said, on the floor, and all of the lights - except for the emergency lights - were off. A choir made up of staff members stood on some risers at the front of the room, and sang sad songs a capella. (Stuff like Al Neharot Bavel, opening lines of Eili Tzion, Eili Eili, Mima'amakim, etc.) At the front of the room sat a long line of campers, all ages, each of whom had learned a few p'sukim of Eicha.

They handed out Eicha booklets with Hebrew and English, and we all turned on our flashlights to follow along. The singing stopped, and a microphone was passed down the line of Eicha readers from one end to the other until the entire thing had been read. More than once, I wanted to record the sound of three hundred pages turning in unison each time we reached the end of a page. I don't know why, but even that was powerful in an oddly understated way. When we were done with Eicha, we all stood together to sing Eili Tzion, and say (but not sing) the end of ma'ariv, reading Aleinu aloud without any tune at all. Then there was more singing from the choir as the campers filed out, again, in silence. By then, the candles were out, and we had to use our flashlights to find our way back to our bunks in the dark. 

The next day, we slept in because much of the camp was fasting. After tefillot - and a second reading of Eicha, we had special activities - classes or arts and crafts, whatever they were - that related to the topics of the day like the destruction of Jerusalem, bad events, or just plain Jerusalem for the younger kids. At some point, the younger kids who weren't fasting (I think) returned to the Beit Am to set up benches. Midday, the entire camp met there for Mincha, and we got to sing this time, and they would explain how the day gets more hopeful in the afternoon. Then, lunch for those not fasting, a nap for those who were. In the afternoon, we watched serious movies like Exodus, The Wave, maybe Schindler's List. The younger kids once watched Harriet the Spy to talk about Lashon Harah. This let us keep the mood of the day while also letting those who were fasting stay in one place and not move very much - whether staff or campers. 

But what sticks in my mind the most is Tisha B'av night. 

The mood was appropriate. It was quiet and somber. It was a Big Deal. 

It was also beautiful.

As a camper, I'd sit there, transfixed, as I listened to the a capella singing. I wanted so badly to be a part of that choir. 

For six years, I spent Tisha B'av this way, and every year, I felt the seriousness of the evening. Then, I went on USY on Wheels. I don't really remember what we did. I think we read Eicha outside in a parking lot, and not really the whole thing, and some of it in English. The next day, we took a bus tour of Yellowstone, and the only thing that made it feel like Tisha B'av was that we were surrounded by dead trees, just by coincidence, due to a recent forest fire, and that we stopped, midday, to daven mincha in a clearing. Two people had to hold our (fake) Torah open in midair (It wasn't respectful to carry a real one with us as we traveled, so we used something that looked like a Torah but was actually a copy) and I read two of the aliyot. A staff member faked the third one. Then, many of us drank water, because it was hot enough out (and a high enough altitude - somehow, this mattered) that we needed to.

The year after that was my summer in Israel. Tisha B'av should be meaningful in Israel, right? But Tisha B'av was really late that year, and we returned to the US before it happened. Since my mother was on staff at camp, I went for Shabbat once I was back. Tisha B'av was Saturday night, I guess, because I was still there. I was glad to be back at camp for it, and to have the experience I had missed the previous summer. What had been meaningful at age 10 was still meaningful at age 17. That's how well camp did it.

After that, I spent five and a half summers on staff, which meant five or six more years of Camp Ramah's Tisha B'av experience. (I am pretty sure I was there for it that last summer, but I might not have been.) As a staff member, I finally got to do what I'd always wanted to do as a camper. I got to be in the choir. 

We called ourselves Makheilat Misery (Makheila is choir in Hebrew, or so I am told), or the Gloom and Doom choir. We had a ton of fun at rehearsals. There were inside jokes galore. There were no auditions. Any staff member could take part. And somehow, we sounded good anyway (at least to my ear). 

And we got to stand there on the risers, in our white tops and black bottoms, and set the mood for the campers as they entered the Beit Am. And even though I always ended the evening on a high (hooray! I sang! I performed!), somehow, it was still serious and sad.

It was also still beautiful. 

Sometimes, sad is ugly. It's sobbing and snot and feeling sick to your stomach, and you don't know when you'll ever feel happy again. That's the sort of sadness the Jews of Jerusalem probably felt when their city was under siege and under attack. But other times, sadness is gentle, and calm, dignified, and even beautiful.

That's how it was for 13 summers at camp. That's what I think back to every Tisha B'av now, when I don't have that same atmosphere to help me get into the mood. I think about how Ramah really knew how to set the mood, with proper lighting and sound, with certain kinds of behavior. And I think about that dignified, communal, beautiful sadness, and how it has always stuck with me.

I have yet to recapture that feeling outside of camp, but I hold onto the memory of it instead. So my wish for all of you who are fasting (like me) is that you have a meaningful fast, and all those who are observing in other ways have an equally meaningful day. Whether you are fasting or not, may you have the kind where you are sad not in a messy, miserable way, but in a way that is gentle and calm, and maybe even beautiful.

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April 2012

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