If you’ve been raised by Orthodox parents, attended only Orthodox schools and camps, and spent two years in Israel studying Jewish topics, it can be a bit embarrassing to realize that after 24 years, you have to check Chabad.org to remember all the rules of Tisha B’Av.
But until now, I didn’t need to remember — I had my parents to remind me. My mother would cook a big meal on the eve of the fast, my father would make sure we all got dressed and ate the last meal in time to get to synagogue and we were always told what sort of things constituted “mourning” — for instance, watching a sad Holocaust movie as opposed to reading a lighthearted novel to pass the long hours of the fast.
This year, Jeremy and I not only had to remind ourselves of all the rules, but also decide for ourselves how we would spend the day. I had the day off from work and Jeremy was off from school, so we had hours of not eating, not drinking,and generally not being happy — which, when you take the not eating into account, shouldn’t be all that challenging. But we didn’t have our parents around, pushing us to go to synagogue for the nighttime reading of Eicha (“Lamentations”) or to take the small chairs out so we don’t forget to avoid sitting up high (when we mourn, we sit low down, as during the days of shiva, the official Jewish mourning period after a death). In other words, instead of being told how to commemorate the fast day, we had to figure it out for ourselves for the first time.
The more obvious and direct laws we would, without question, follow: fasting, not wearing leather shoes, not engaging in “marital relations,” as our teachers had called it. But now that the option of skipping synagogue was in our hands, we had to grapple with our own feelings toward the tradition and make our own decisions. We had to decide for the first time whether we think it’s inappropriate to read a book on Tisha B’Av or whether we’d been watching sad movies all those years simply because the other option wasn’t available to us in our parents’ houses.
When we make these decisions, we find ourselves exploring more than just the decisions at hand, but also our own connections to Jewish law, Jewish tradition and the Jewish community at large. Until now, it sometimes seems, we’ve been instructed and guided: Now we are to choose our own paths. That we have each other for support and advice makes it that much more manageable and that much more complex. It’s easy to get caught up in: What will we teach our children? How will we tell them to observe such days as Tisha B’Av? But for now we first need to strike out on our own, take some time to try out different things, explore our own approaches. One day, maybe, we’ll have it all figured out, but for now we need to do the figuring out.
Simi Lichtman is a contributor to the Forward.
Tisha B'Av, Take One