Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tisha B'Av in Eilat

Tisha B’Av had never been commemorated in my house when I was growing up. In fact I first heard of the day of mourning for the first and second Holy Temples when I was in Israel on a summer tour. That was almost forty years ago. My group was in Eilat, after having spent time in Jerusalem, the Galil, and a kibbutz. The others in my group, college students like myself, were from all over the United States. Few of us had known each other when we first met at JFK airport a month earlier. Now, though, we were familiar with each other, our backgrounds, and what we were looking forward to when we returned to the States in another three weeks
One of the New York girls, who I will call Tammy, was from an observant home. Looking back I think her parents must have been very naive or they would have not sent their daughter on a tour that only guaranteed kosher food but promised nothing about Shabbat observance.

It was quite ironic that her first Shabbat in Israel was the first Shabbat that she broke her observance.  We had a free afternoon that Shabbat in Jerusalem and one of the group leaders arranged for us to buy pre-Shabbat passes for the Israel Museum and ordered Arab taxis to transport us there. I was not yet observant and joined in the outing without any twinge of conscience. The same could not be said for Tammy. Her self-recriminations accompanied us on the drive through the almost traffic-free streets of the Holy City.
Tammy and I did not really become friends so I have no idea how she spent the ensuing Shabbats. It was just by chance that I was sitting next to her in the dining room in Eilat on Tisha B’Av morning. Tammy was not eating breakfast. Among teenage girls that was not so uncommon, but she was not even drinking. Not coffee, not juice, not even water! Moving me slightly, two of the group leaders sat down, one on either side of her
“Tammy,” they told her. “You have to eat. With this heat you can easily get dehydrated. The head rabbi of the army tells the religious soldiers they should not fast if they are stationed in the Negev.
Listening to the conversation I could not help wondering how they could compare a soldier who had orders to be in the Negev to a civilian girl who was there for fun. I kept my mouth shut, though. Apparently they had convinced Tammy. With a self-deprecating face she picked up a glass. “I can’t believe I’m eating on Tisha B’Av,” she mumbled
I remembered the expression on her face the following year when I, now observant, was sitting on the floor, fasting and mourning the destruction of the Holy Temples. The next twelve years were spent in Phoenix, Arizona which was just as hot, if not hotter, than Eilat. No one ever refrained from fasting because of the heat
We made Aliyah and time flew by. Before we knew it we were sending our oldest son to the army. He was stationed in the Negev for basic training and I was concerned what would happen on Tisha B’Av. I did not need to worry
Years later he still describes that Tisha B’Av with shining eyes. First of all, his unit was excused from guard duty Tisha B’Av night. They spent the evening in the air-conditioned synagogue on the base and got to sleep through the night without wearing uniforms. In the morning they were put on air-conditioned buses and taken to the Yerucham Yeshiva. They sat on the ground in the air-conditioned study hall saying kinot until the afternoon when they found beds in the dormitory and slept until time for afternoon services. It was a soldier’s dream; air-conditioning and uninterrupted sleep
My son’s experience did not jive with what the group leaders had told Tammy so many years ago. Had the Israeli army changed so much? From talking to those who had been in the army back when I was vacationing in Eilat I don’t think so. Simply put, I think the group leaders had fed Tammy a line so she would eat and they would not have to worry about her, making things easier for themselves
I did not stay in touch with Tammy so I have no idea what happened to her. She could have regretted her religious lapses while in Israel and done complete Teshuva as soon as she returned home. Perhaps she is a beloved teacher in a seminary that works with newly religious girls. Or the trip could have been just the beginning of a downward spiral that let her to intermarry and live the life of a goya. I will never know.
What I do know is that I learned from Tammy’s experience. Just as I would not ask the cashier in the local drugstore to diagnose heart palpitations I would not look to a non-religious layman to advise me on spiritual matters.
There was one time I did drink on Tisha B’Av. I was nine months pregnant and having contractions.  The monitor at the hospital showed that my contractions were doing nothing. I was ordered by the religious mid-wife to drink warm Kool-aid. I was reluctant, not just because of the fast, but because it tasted awful. Still, it did what it was supposed to do. The contractions stopped and a week later I gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl.
The mitzvot were given to us to live by. There are times they must be pushed aside for health reasons. That is why there are rabbis to answer questions. Had the mid-wife not been religious I would have probably had my husband call the rabbi or ask one of the kepah-clad doctors. Here in Israel, as often as not, our health care workers are observant. How fortunate we are!

Kinot: verses of lamentations
Teshuva:  repentance
Goya: non-Jewish woman
mitzvot: commandments

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