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Lamentation for a Swimming Pool

This Tisha B’Av, I’ll be mourning for a different site of spiritual importance in Jerusalem

Ilana Kurshan
July 19, 2018
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

It has been nearly a year since the closure of the Jerusalem Pool. The lot that housed the Olympic-size pool is now a giant hole in the ground, and an upscale supermarket is expanding into the area that once housed the complex’s one-room gym. Instead of the hundreds of children who used to splash in the kiddie pool each summer, now there are just a few manned tractors clearing away the rubble behind a billboard advertising the luxury condominium that will be built on the site. A few weeks ago, on the eve of the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, I walked past at 9 p.m. and saw a giant crane hauling the two-story aquamarine waterslide over the billboards into a waiting truck. As I stood there, mourning the demolition of the pool where I swam nearly every morning for over a decade, I could hear in my head the haunting chant of the book of Lamentations, whose words I modified only slightly: Alas! How lonely sits the city pool, once great with people. (1:1)

The book of Lamentations is traditionally attributed to Jeremiah, who was mourning the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E. The walls of the city were breached, the Temple was set aflame, and Jerusalem was left desolate. This tragedy is commemorated every year on the ninth of Av, a day marked by fasting, mourning, and the chanting of Lamentations and other dirges. According to Jewish tradition, the ninth of Av was a day when five tragedies befell the Jewish people: not just the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, but also the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, the return of the dispirited spies sent by Moses to scout out the Promised Land, the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, and the plowing of Jerusalem to dust by the Roman general Turnus Rufus.

It was around the time of Tisha B’Av last year that the owners of the Jerusalem Pool sealed the decree of destruction, announcing that the pool would be closed down forever. The news was crushing, but it came as no surprise. For years the sword of Damocles hung over the pool—every fall, when I came to renew my annual membership, I was told that I could renew only for a few months, because it was unclear if the pool would remain operational past then. A few years ago the members joined together to form a team of spies to scout out the lay of the land, and the report they brought back was not good: The owners of the pool wished to sell the property to developers, and they couldn’t care less about the swimmers, who were as insignificant as grasshoppers in their eyes. The swimmers tried to rebel, staging protests and demonstrations and petitioning the municipality. But ultimately the revolt failed. The stone walls enclosing the pool were breached and its grounds were plowed to dust. Her gates have sunk to the ground, her bars smashed to bits … Her foe has laid hands on everything dear to her. (2:9, 1:10)

The loss of the pool is felt most acutely in the summer, when the pool was a haven for the children of south Jerusalem, whose parents brought them after school to splash in the water, careen down the water slide, and—because no trip to the pool was complete without it—buy overpriced ice pops at the pool kiosk. The parents would sit on plastic chairs watching from the side and waiting with towels, enjoying a rare moment to themselves while the kids occupied themselves in the water or played on the grass. Like many parents, I brought my kids to the pool every summer Friday afternoon—I would stay up late finishing all my Shabbat cooking on Thursday nights, so that we could enjoy a long afternoon in the water. In the morning I’d pack our stroller with bathing suits, goggles, and towels, and we’d go straight from school to the pool, so the big kids could jump around in the water while the baby napped. Then we’d walk home, the wet bathing suits draped over the handle of the stroller, exhausted from the sun and the splashing and eager for a good night sleep after welcoming Shabbat.

But alas, no longer. My children are forlorn, Jeremiah laments (1:16). My kids know about the destruction of the pool—we pass the site every day on their walk home from school. Over the course of the past few months they’ve insisted that I wait for a few minutes each day so they can observe various stages of the demolition. “Where is our pooly-pool?” my toddler asks each time we stop and watch. Swimming is a luxury, and we are lucky we had the pool for so long. But even so, I cannot help but hear in her question an echo of those forlorn children of Jerusalem, who turned to their parents imploringly after the city was ravaged: Babes and sucklings languish in the squares of the city. They keep asking their mothers, “Where is bread and wine?” (2:12).

Following the destruction of the Temple, the Jews were sent into exile, where they hung their harps on the willow trees and wept by the rivers of Babylon. Most of the regulars at the pool, too, have gone into exile. I was once a regular—I was part of a group of women who swam every morning around 8. Some of us came between dropping off our children and dashing to work, but most were retirees—older women with canes and sometimes even electric wheelchairs who could access the pool because it was on ground level. I made many friends over the years thanks to those morning swims. One of my closest friends, an octogenarian who is exactly twice my age this year, used to save me the books section of Haaretz every week, which she’d slip into my pool locker. Another older woman who taught English through show tune lyrics in her retirement home used to consult with me each week about the words and phrases she herself didn’t understand— “what does it mean, ‘bet your bottom dollar,’” she’d inquire. Occasionally I’d see my pool friends in other contexts—at the coffee shop, or at the post office—and I’d always do a double take, making sure I still recognized them with all their clothes on. “I’m not used to seeing you dressed,” we joked with each other on such occasions.

I came to appreciate that even though I regarded swimming as a luxury, for many of the regulars it was essential for their physical and mental health. “Cheaper than therapy,” one of my swimming friends used to quip whenever we’d catch sight of each other pouring out our hearts like water, using the pool to drown out our sadness or hurt. One woman told me she began swimming the week after her husband died—she felt so lonely without him in the mornings, but coming to the pool and seeing other people got her out of bed every day. Another woman swam through her cancer treatments, regaling her friends in the locker room with the details of her surgeries and managing, somewhat miraculously, to swim through the pain. Several women swam on doctor’s orders to treat their arthritis or osteoporosis. Indeed, sometimes the locker room felt more like a doctor’s waiting room, with swimmers comparing ailments and remedies while waiting in line for the showers.

The locker room at the Jerusalem Pool was rather disgusting, with white paint peeling off the walls and mold in the shower stalls. When I first learned about the biblical concept of Tzaraat haBayit, whereby a building may be afflicted with leprosy, I thought of the women’s locker room. But I didn’t mind. For me it was merely a passageway into the heavenly world-to-come of the pool, where I found refuge and redemption. During my morning swims I would reflect on the previous day, map out everything I needed to do before picking up the kids, and think through whatever was bothering me. Somehow even my knottiest problems seemed to untangle themselves underwater, like my hair when I when I removed my shower cap, shook out my pony tail, and dunked at the end of my swim. I swam my way through breakups, pregnancies, and postpartum depression—although the doctor said to wait a few months after giving birth before returning to the pool, I was back in the water after three weeks, because I couldn’t function otherwise. For the first few months after my daughter was born, I’d wheel her stroller right in and let her sit by the pool as I swam during her morning nap; the lifeguard would keep an eye on her, and the other women would tap me on my swim cap to let me know when she’d woken up. Tears of sadness, tears of joy; deepest regrets and deepest aspirations—the Jerusalem Pool has seen it all, for me and countless others.

Now all of us regulars have been exiled to various pools throughout the city, but most of these pools are not accessible to the handicapped, or those without cars, or those who have precious little time to spare between the moment they drop off their kids and the moment they start work. Not to mention that compared to the Olympic-size Jerusalem Pool, every other pool seems disappointingly short and narrow: Judah has gone into exile because of misery and harsh oppression. When she settled among the nations, she found no rest. All her pursuers overtook her in the narrow places. (1:3) As far as I know, none of those pools have two-story aquamarine water slides or a large expanse of grass where kids can run free. Gone from fair Zion are all that were her glory. Her leaders were like stags who found no pasture. (1:6)

This year, on Tisha B’Av, I will be mourning the destruction of the pool—not because it is a tragedy that can in any way rival the destruction of the Temple, but because it serves as a powerful metaphor for what that historic tragedy might have meant to our ancestors. The Temple was the place where ancient Jews marked major life transitions—women brought sacrifices after giving birth, lepers came to place blood on their thumbs and toes after they’d been purified, sinners brought offerings by way of atonement. Following the destruction of the Temple, the Jews needed to find new ways of marking and experiencing these major rites of passage. We know from Lamentations that it wasn’t easy, and for a long time the Babylonian exiles could only ask, “How? How?” as they struggled to make sense of what had befallen them. But now that the pool has been closed for a year, I’ve moved past the “hows” and I’m daring to allow myself to hope that one day, perhaps, the pool will be rebuilt. And so I am hanging my bathing suit on the willow tree and joining in the prophet’s closing words of hope: Take us back to you, Jerusalem Pool, and let us come back—Renew our days as of old. (5:22)

Author’s addendum: Thanks to concerted community action, the Jerusalem Municipality has pledged to open a new Jerusalem pool within three years.

Ilana Kurshan is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink.