Saturday, July 28, 2018

American July and the Three Weeks

So already, the July page of my Combined Jewish Philanthropies calendar juxtaposes two overlapping Jewish "seasons" that contradict each other emotionally. The picture at the top shows a bunch of seemingly carefree girls enjoying pizza and friendship at a Jewish overnight camp where they're experiencing "the fun of Jewish life"; the first three weeks of the calendar section* at the bottom--referred to by many as the Three Weeks--comprise a period of mourning and grief that culminates on Tisha B'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Second Temple and a number of other "Jewish disasters." So is summer for Jews about pleasure, grief, somehow both? And is this question more puzzling for very assimilated, secular American Jews than for more observant, less assimilated ones?

Not that anyone would expect a group of prepubescent kids of any Jewish subgroup--the Facebook pages of my Brooklyn cousins show me that overnight camps are a popular summer choice for Orthodox Jewish kids, too--to be grieving over the destruction of the Temple and grappling with its meaning in their own lives. But if summer is the season that assimilated American Jews, like many other Americans, generally associate with more than a weekend's worth of freedom, fun, and leisure, it's an interesting challenge to reconcile this American pleasure imperative with this Jewish mourning period that's book-ended by two fast days.

Lots of different viewpoints in The Week
Or are they really that contradictory? While many American kids have been off at summer camp, a number of other kids--kids detained on American soil--have also been spending time away from their parents. And they've been much on the minds of American adults--at least when we haven't been thinking about the Helsinki "summit," Michael Cohen's audiotapes, the vulnerability of America's power grid and elections, and the recent killings in the Gaza region. Summer camp it isn't. Sadness and anger are palpable. If there's any good news, it's that more Americans--at least in my circles--are getting busy getting active. There are definitely some who are still holding fast to their grief, innocence, and entitlement to inaction, but many others have become more open to new understandings of the present and themselves, and to getting moving.**

But oh what a difficult moment when one large group of Americans believes the "real America" is being destroyed, another large group believes the "real America" has yet to exist because freedom, justice, and opportunity for all has yet to be achieved, and another large group believes the "real America" is finally being reinstated and reborn under the leadership of President Trump. In response to this complexity, different ones of us at different times feel newly disenfranchised, still disenfranchised, or potentially disenfranchised. And from at least one point of view, each of us is understood as complicit, intentionally or unintentionally, in the disenfranchisement of certain others.

Tisha B'Av is a holiday about national loss, group loss, not personal loss, and all of the groups specified above have been feeling loss for various reasons. Loss isn't the "summer stuff" of our childhood fantasies and expectations, but we're feeling it. Unless we turn off our televisions, computers, and phones, we just might mourn in connection to our particular "group loss" all summer.

Truthfully, I don't feel the emotion of grief about the destruction of the Second Temple, although I can understand that the event must have been terrifying, and also hugely challenging and dispiriting for those left to figure out what to do next as people yearning to live as Jews in a monumentally changed world. 

What I do feel grief about in this present moment is the enthusiastic stripping away of rights that I view as importantly American. I also know that while I'm feeling grief and anger over these changes, there are other Americans who are feeling joy.

If I have any appreciation of the function of the Three Weeks, it's because of Abigail Pogrebin's My Jewish Year; 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew.** While fasting on Tisha B'Av, Pogrebin asks Rabbi Burt Visotsky "why, when the Romans brought down the Second Temple, does Eichah [the first Hebrew word of the Book of Lamentations, which is read on this holiday] suggest the Jews bear significant responsibility" (272). 

Pogrebin summarizes Visotsky's answer: "The Talmud says we ripped each other apart instead of our enemy. When we should have united to beat back the Roman army, we instead argued among ourselves, even killed each other. Sinat chinam--translated as 'baseless hate'--was our downfall" (272-3). Then she paraphrases her own understanding--"I get it: God destroys us when we destroy each other. We will pay for Jew against Jew"--and then talks about how uncomfortable she is (as am I) with God's meting out such a punishment of Jews (273).

Screen Shot of Frum Satire Web Page***
The two of them then discuss the problem of "Israeli divisiveness," which deeply troubles Visotsky: "We're commanded to love one another," . . . Ve'ahavta Lerei'acha kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself. We're commanded to love God. So why are we teaching hate?" (274) But the Israelis aren't the only problem: "'And we're all equally guilty,' he continues. 'I've certainly been intemperate in my rage about politics that I don't care for'" (275).

He makes the final connection of past to present with his next assessment of the problem, not an assessment with which Pogrebin fully agrees: "'Instead of working to find ways to talk to one another, we find ways to shut one another out. That's really the tragedy of this holiday. If you want something to mourn for, that's it. . . . We're just wallowing in sinat chinam'" (275).

A really good friend visited me the other day, fresh from the cabin where she 'd been camping out for the week. She'd just had an important insight related to a polarizing situation she'd recently been in the midst of. Recognizing that she'd put most of her energy into trying to make others understand her, she'd decided that in the future, she'd try to understand others before trying to get them to understand her.

In my opinion, America is in the midst of a big sinat chinam moment. I'm not sure if our differences are bigger than they've ever been, but I am sure that there are more deliberate, savvy efforts to manipulate us into conflict with one another than there have been in the past. Furthermore, our leaders all too often use language to disrespect and dismiss, and their example damages efforts at candid, civil conversation and any kind of bridge-building across difference.

As a result, we're all imperiled. Loving our neighbor is a great aspiration, but it's a long shot right now, despite how many of us claim to live lives guided by religious teachings. A good way to begin working toward it might be to commit to not hating our neighbor. The next step--and this one will take some work and practice, some stretching and skill-building--could be trying to understand our neighbor--which means listening more than speaking, and  treating him/her with enough respect that s/he might be inclined to speak sincerely and somewhat openly to us.

It's still July. Tisha B'Av was last weekend, so officially the three weeks of mourning are over. But as this blog attests, baseless hate is still much on my mind, and acts of aggression are still much in the news. Meanwhile, summer goes on--sometimes intense, sometimes in tents. Just had to lighten things up with a joke. Enjoy yourselves, even though there's much to lament and do. There's time for it all.

* Because the Jewish calendar is lunar rather than solar, this would not be true in every Roman calendar year. 
** Pogrebin, A. (2017). My Jewish year: 18 holidays, one wondering Jew. Bedford, NY: Fig Tree Books.
*** Fried, H. (2013, July 15). Why we still fast on Tisha B'Av. Retrieved July 28, 2018, from


  1. As I have found myself (American non Jew) waiting for Yom Kippur to mourn my part in the destruction of our American Democratic Republic, I pause at my newfound sense of naivete. Of course I don't have to wait that long! And of course a reading of soalready will raise my sense of awareness!
    I too will not have an emotional response for the destruction of the second Temple (I'll Google that later). And I have wanted to understand what feels to me as a lack of unity among those of us who are United in our disapproval of the current US President.

    I suppose to mourn or grieve the status quo is not the same as being sorry such a large portion of my tax dollars go toward its funding. And I am grateful to make the distinction.

    1. Hi, Berhan--

      I thank you so much for reading and responding to my blog--and for making the important connections you're making. Just to say that while I think it's good for us to reminded that we can always "begin" to mourn, I think it's also important to embrace those especially set aside days when we can mourn with others. I'm glad I'm only reading and seeing your comment for the first time today, as it's only the reading I've been doing in the last couple of days that have permitted me to respond as I just did. It consoles me to think that you and I will both be mourning and reflecting on Yom Kippur about the state of things! I will feel so much less alone. See you at First Friday this week????