I’m trying to sing Lamentations in Ladino, a sad book of the Bible in a dying language I don’t know. I couldn’t care less about the destruction of the Temple—what synagogues all over the world are commemorating today, Tisha B’Av, with the chanting of Lamentations in Hebrew. I mourn those who die at borders, trying to get out of Egypt, and those who make it: strangers detained in the desert, captives waiting to be deported. I lament the exploitation of workers Israel calls infiltrators, who labor like slaves in four-star resorts.
I’ve been to the remnant of the temple in Jerusalem. I had gone to Israel to follow the stories of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who’d crossed the Sinai. Peter, who thought along the way, the Holy Spirit is going to Jerusalem. Daniel, who asked when he got there, where is the Holy City? Gabriel, who told me his father was killed in South Sudan; his mother drowned herself in the Nile. He asked me to meet him at the Wailing Wall.
Three years later, I put family photos of people who’ve lived worlds apart side by side. I wish I could cry, but I look at the flowers on the wallpaper behind my dad, his brother and sisters, sitting around the breakfast table ages, it seems, before they died. I look at the cinderblock wall and the clothesline behind a Sudanese family who barely survived the civil war. They fled their hometown, Bor, when it was captured in 1991. Bor was burned to ashes in another massacre last December. I wish I could cry like some Jews cry when they remember the destruction of the Temple. But I am not a Jew. I’m a Christian who laments disasters that keep happening—in places like Bor, like Jerusalem, over and over.
I do my makeshift Tisha B’Av ritual—singing Lamentations as a way of grieving for refugees. And a way of assuaging my distress over the disparity between my life and theirs: all the food on my table next to the picture of my friend’s sister and her children. They are facing starvation. I try to lull myself with Lamentations. How dare I? How dare I make other people’s suffering into a soothing song? How dare I weave the fragments of their lives into a narrative?
Sometimes I find myself saying “we” when I, alone, pray for my family and for the refugees who’ve shared their stories with me. I long for what does not exist—a family who doesn’t keep dying, a Sudan that’s not still at war. I long for a table we can all gather around, a place without pain. But that’s a prayer for another day, another Jerusalem.
Today, I’m focusing on the grievances. My family history of fatal illness: the kidneys that failed my father; the trauma to his brother’s brain; the scar tissue choking my mother’s spine; the stroke that left my grandmother half paralyzed; the tumor in my aunt’s body that metastasized to her lung. And now me: It was hard to breathe, in the weeks leading up to my diagnosis. A cancer I didn’t yet know I have was depleting my red blood cells. My hematocrit and hemoglobin were half of what they should be. I don’t know how to talk about it without getting clinical: Physiology is my family’s language of pain.
Tisha B’Av gives me a new language in which to grieve.
Sounding out Lamentations is like breathing the layers of living history, a song that endures no matter what catastrophe. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 took Ladino to the ends of the Ottoman Empire, creating an amalgam of Old Spanish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish, Bosnian, Serbo-Croatian. It’s like the Creole I want to make of the dialects I grew up with: Alabama vernacular from my mother’s family, my dad’s English as a second language with elements of his native Egyptian Arabic. Rabina maek, our God is with you. I understand when Sudanese say that in times of crisis. I can say it back.
But I didn’t say rabina maek when I called my friend Lazarus after I learned he’d lost his mother and two uncles in the December massacre in Bor. Instead, I said “I’m sorry.”
“I have not been in a good mood,” he replied.
I asked what prayers I could say.
“You’re always praying for us,” he said. “I pray for you, but I don’t know what to pray for.”
I hadn’t planned to tell him, but I found myself saying “I have cancer.” I didn’t fill the silence with blood counts or the status of my vital organs. I didn’t get clinical or say I’ll be alright. I told him the truth: “I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m terrified of suffering.”
“I understand,” he said.