Our collective memory consists of the narratives and experiences individual Jews bring to the Jewish story.
Tisha b’Av is a fast day that commemorates the destruction of the ancient Israelite temple—first in 586 BCE, then again in 70 CE. I fast and pray on Tisha b’Av, but I don’t want the Temple to be rebuilt. I like Rabbinic Judaism, but I have doubts about what would happen at a restored Temple site. I think it would resemble the scene at the Kotel on Friday nights—yeshiva boys doing a joyless dance, police yelling at women who sing too loud, and tourists recording the whole thing on their iPhones. It doesn’t do a lot for me.
But I do mourn on Tisha b’Av. I grieve for the lost lives, the violence, and the hopelessness that plagued our people when both Temples were destroyed. I imagine structure and meaning destroyed, trying to figure out how to live in a world where it seemed that God no longer dwelled. It is scary and empty and unbelievably sad.
Tisha b’Av is a container for sorrow and fear. For generations, Jewish catastrophes have been attached to this date. The Crusades are said to have been launched on this day. Expulsions from both England and Spain are connected with Tisha b’Av, as is the mass deportation from the Warsaw ghetto to death camps during the Shoah. Tisha b’Av gives shape to Jewish trauma; it is a day for communal mourning, for remembering what was and for lamenting the loss of what might have been.
A mythic telling of the Tisha b’Av story would end here. But that doesn’t work for me, and it might not work for you. As a Jewish people, our traumatic memory is not only collective. In the words of historian James Young, it is also “collected.” Our collected memory consists of the narratives and experiences individual Jews bring to the Jewish story. Sometimes, these experiences map easily onto the history of our people. There are firsthand accounts of Crusaders’ rampages and the expulsion from Spain. Oral history projects continue to chronicle the lived experiences of Holocaust survivors. But sometimes people bear sorrow that is not part of the Jewish myth, but is a central part of their own Jewish story. Death, illness and violence haunt many of us—and they often hover around the margins of our commemoration of communal tragedy. I have marked Tisha b’Av with bereaved parents and victims of violent attacks. They come to this day with their own burdens of suffering—legacies associated not with the destruction of the Temple but with random crime and incurable illness.
When I fast on Tisha b’Av, I think of these people and their pain. I layer this onto my mourning for millennia of Jewish loss. I grieve for our collective trauma and for our collected traumas. And I pray. Not for a rebuilt Temple but for a re-imagined future, where we tell stories of abundance and joy.