The idea that Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in ancient Jerusalem, could serve as my own personal means of identity integration came to me in what I consider to be one of the most sacred spaces in Washington, D.C.: the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where, for the past decade, I have made an annual Tisha B’Av pilgrimage.
Visiting a Holocaust memorial on a Tisha B’Av afternoon is not all that unusual for religiously observant Jews, and neither is what I did the night before: sitting on the floor of my synagogue and listening to various men read from the Book of Lamentations. Perched cross-legged against a wall, the summers I spent at Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth camp, couldn’t have been further from my mind.
But the next day, shortly after emerging from the darkness of the Nazi propaganda exhibit into the shaft of light illuminating the Hall of Witness, I suddenly visualized a Tisha B’Av scene from my past life at Camp Galil. In it, I was standing silently in darkness outside Bunk 6, waiting with my bunkmates to join the parade of campers that would eventually snake down to the candle-lit braicha, as we called the swimming pool in Hebrew, accompanied by torches and solemn drumbeats.
There by the chlorinated water, we sang such elegiac tunes as “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and wept …” and listened to the recitation of the litany of tragedies that had befallen our people. The destruction of the First and Second Temples didn’t mean a whole lot to us, but the Holocaust did. We were children of the 1960s, and the not-so-distant memory of the Shoah helped to stoke our passion to make aliyah.
Looking back, I realized that Camp Galil was not only the place where I first learned to observe Tisha B’Av, but also the first place that offered me the freedom and safety to craft an individualistic self, albeit within the constraints of the Habonim brand of non-conformity.
I had loved my seven summers at camp—the Question of the Week at Saturday night campfires, Israeli dancing on Friday nights, and singing 1960s protest songs life “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus” and “Draft Dodger Rag” during bus trips.
I didn’t end up moving to Israel, as many of my fellow campers did, and instead moved on to traditionally observant Judaism after marrying my Shabbat-observant husband. During three-plus decades of marriage and religious observance, there have been moments when I’ve wondered if the Labor Zionist sensibilities forged during those identity-forming teenage summers had continued to exist below the surface of my consciousness. Did any of the residual left-wing Jewish tendencies, other than being a Democrat who likes to perform random acts of tikkun olam, remain part of my understanding of who I am as a Jew?
But there in the Holocaust Museum, while studying the myriad Jewish faces in the photos covering the walls, I realized that my Habonim experience was at the root of my need to continue making Tisha B’Av a personally authentic, if idiosyncratic, observance. I don’t sing mournful songs on Tisha B’Av night anymore, but I do watch Holocaust-themed movies like Schindler’s List and The Pianist, an annual tradition that likely evolved directly from the mournful, cinematic incantations of ‘Zchor!’—Remember!—sung be campers around the braicha.
There was no straight part to get from Bunk 6 to the swimming pool in those days, nor was there a direct route for me from the end of my Habonim days to my embrace of observant Judaism. But seeing the two sides of my Jewishness—the traditional and the ‘Free to be You and Me’—converge on Tisha B’Av has helped me realize the ways they have intersected, and even occasionally merged, in shaping my Jewish identity. Which is a good reason, even on the saddest day of the Jewish year, to feel grateful.
Marla Brown Fogelman is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Parents, the Forward, Moment, and other national and regional publications.