Tisha B’Av and the Miserable Delights of Judaism

A177 tesha b av

Written by David Komerofsky. David (also known as DKom), a first-time Jewrotica writer, has been Executive Director of the Texas Hillel Foundation at The University of Texas at Austin since 2006. In 2010 he was named a Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life for bringing vision, dynamism and absolute integrity to his leadership of Texas Hillel. David is originally from Akron, Ohio and is the father of thirteen-year-old twins. He loves folk music and playing the guitar (badly).

Rated PGSome people are only happy when they are miserable.

For Jews with this affliction, the commemorations of Tisha B’Av are a real treat. We read the Book of Lamentations, sit on low stools, weep for the Temple and generally try to outdo each other in sorrow. And we fast, oh do we fast. Offer an observant Jew a sandwich on Tisha B’Av and you will get such a glare. Oy! It’s a pretty good idea, this condensing all of our communal unhappiness into a single day, in the dog days of summer, to ensure maximum suffering. We Jews are nothing if not efficient and practical (except for the fasting in summer and the whole “we don’t eat shrimp” bugaboo).

Without Tisha B’Av and its catch-all of misery, every day might be a memorial to Jewish tragedy. Over the course of four millennia we’ve had ample opportunity to be oppressed. So lest we become like the Catholics who have a saint for every day, we don’t assign each day to mourn a particular slaughter. (Though that might make a fun desktop flip calendar).

What’s more, as we remember the destruction of the Temple and the other calamities assigned to the ninth of Av, we blame ourselves for the pain we suffer.

It’s an interesting coping mechanism for a powerless people. For thousands of years we had no control over our destinies so we imagined that our oppressors were nothing more than divine instruments sent to punish us for our misdeeds. The Babylonians and Romans didn’t destroy our Temple, we did! Just by not doing what we were supposed to do and doing what we were not supposed to do, we are the source of our own tsuris. So if we want the future to look different than the present, all we have to do is follow the mitzvot. Sounds nutty to me but, hey, whatever gets you through the day. And the Babylonians and Romans did pretty much disappear, but we’re still here. Take that, Nebuchad-what’s-your-name.

Blaming ourselves as the victim has taken deep root in the Jewish psyche. Look up “neurosis” and you might find a caricature of the stereotypical Jew. Or at least an article written by one. We’ve got the market cornered on crazy and its treatment. And that’s funny but it’s also tragic. It has launched careers and ruined lives, cost billions in therapy but put countless analyst’s kids through Harvard. We do love a good blessing/curse.

The blessing and curse of being Jewish is, in part, that it is impossible to be Jewish on our own. We need a minyan to say certain prayers, we can only fulfill certain mitzvot in connection with a community and we can only perpetuate Judaism by bringing others into this world. Judaism isn’t meant to be lonely – on the contrary, it’s supposed to be a team sport. We are not intended to bear our burdens by ourselves, we ought to share them with those we love so that they, too, can suffer. If misery loves company, Jewish misery loves a whole congregation moaning and wailing in unison. There’s no better way to suffer than with those you love. Some call it a family vacation.

The old joke is that every Jewish holiday is the same… they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. But Tisha B’Av is different. It’s more like this… they killed a lot of us, but it was our fault, so let’s not eat for a day. (But let’s stuff our faces afterward to account for the lost calories lest they be wasted and our oppressors continue to win).

So what’s remarkable about Tisha B’Av, this most solemn and pitiful of the Jewish calendar? That we still observe it even though its whole premise is foreign to the 21st century Jew. We are not powerless, we are not to blame for our problems, we are free to control our destinies. In fact, part of the reason why so many hate us still is that we have turned history on its head. Jews are no longer subject to the whims of dictators – we control the fates of others. And who is at the forefront of the campaign to blame us for every problem in the Middle East? We are!

Crazy is sexy, and we’ve got it in spades. We are the eternally unhappy and unsatisfied minority that has internalized the world’s problems and convinced ourselves that we control more than we do. We don’t control the things of which we’re accused, like the media and the banks. But we do control more than any generation of Jews before. We have prime real estate at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, we’ve got 1/3 of the U.S. Supreme Court and we’re still not happy.

Want to see crazy? Observe Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem. You can stand at the Western Wall and bemoan the fact that hundreds of generations before could not do that and that that there is no longer a Temple a few hundred feet away. Judaism survives exile and diaspora precisely because there is no Temple! Rabbinic Judaism reformed the whole system to keep our values and ideas alive. But we’re still not satisfied because we are absolutely bonkers and that is what makes us great.

We Jews are one-quarter of one percent of the world’s population. That percentage will continue to shrink. But we’re not bothered by the demographics as much as we should be because we’ve been able to internalize our sorrow in such a way that what others might find debilitating is just our “normal.”

So observe Tisha B’Av and reflect on how fortunate we are to live at a time when misery is quaint. It hasn’t always been that way, and it may not be forever. But rest assured that no matter what history may throw at us, we can catch it, make it ours and hold ourselves accountable for our own misdeeds and those of others.

As a rabbi who works with college students and others in their twenties and thirties, I officiate at a significant number of weddings. So many, in fact, that I’ve had to cut back because they distract from my day job. An interesting tidbit I’ve learned with this kind of work is that even our most joyous moments include more misery than they should. Remember the breaking of the glass at the end of the wedding and the destruction of Jerusalem? Great way to start your marriage. “Mazel tov! This is the happiest day of your life! But we’re going to have to pause for a moment to remember all of the crappy things history has dealt our people. So think about that, then make out a little in front of everyone you know.” We welcome our sons into the covenant of our people by chopping off a piece of shmeckel and eating herring. Gross, and miserable.

This preoccupation with suffering is central to the relationship between Jews and their identities and, I think, to the relationship between Jews and each other. It’s part of what attracts us to each other. “Wait, your great-grandmother was beaten up by Cossacks? So was mine!” We seem to know from the get-go that a fellow tribesperson cannot hate us for who we are, even if s/he hates him/herself for that precise reason. We’re immune from the plague of Tisha B’Av if we only get involved with other Hebrews. Better to start a relationship with the Cossack connection than with “Your grandmother survived Auschwitz? My grandfather was in Europe between 1939 and 1945, too. But let’s not talk about what his job was.”

How wonderful a relationship can be when each party bears responsibility for the other’s hardships. It reminds me of a great scene from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which Larry David tells Mel Brooks’s gay assistant that he doesn’t have a “partner,” he has a wife. More of a rival than a partner. Instead of blaming each other, Jews might be the best at blaming ourselves. If years of marriage counseling taught me anything, it’s that I am indeed to blame for most of the problems in the universe.

This kooky summer holiday is a chance to reflect on our guilty feelings about being free to love whom we choose (no more arranged marriages), free to live at one of the best moments in Jewish history (no ghettos), and free to embrace our Jewish selves on our own terms (Jewish practice is 100% optional). We don’t celebrate on Tisha B’Av, but we can get a little perspective by putting thousands of years of sorrow into a contemporary context.

We don’t have to be miserable to be happy. But once a year we can be happy that we get to be miserable by choice.

David (also known as DKom) has been Executive Director of the Texas Hillel Foundation at The University of Texas at Austin since 2006. In 2010 he was named a Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life for bringing vision, dynamism and absolute integrity to his leadership of Texas Hillel. David is originally from Akron, Ohio and is the father of thirteen-year-old twins. He loves folk music and playing the guitar (badly).
  • Ayo Oppenheimer

    Oh, DKom. I didn’t know what to expect when I invited you to write, but this piece is just YOU: the perfect combination of Jewish history, rabbinics and wry humor bordering on blasphemy.

    Thank you for sharing a reflective yet light-hearted take on Tisha B’Av! 🙂