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How Tisha B’Av Invented the Jews

Why we owe our sensibility, our neurosis, and our sense of peoplehood to that one fateful day millennia ago

Ruby Namdar
August 01, 2017
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Wikiemedia commons
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The destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple by the hands of the Romans in the year 70 CE seems to most of us, contemporary Jews, as a distant historical event, anecdotal at best—quite marginal to the way we conceive our identity. Few stop to think of how this event—which in my opinion was the formative trauma around which our identity was shaped—effects who we are as Jews today and informs our sense of collective-self and reality.

It wasn’t just a glorious city and the breathtakingly beautiful Temple that stood in its midst that were destroyed on these dreadful two years of the Roman siege on Jerusalem, the nightmare-like three weeks in which most of the civilian population was brutally butchered by the enraged Roman legionnaires, and the fateful day—the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av—in which the Temple was torched, destroyed and plundered. The ninth of Av commemorates the destruction of our inner sanctuary, of our sense of collective-self, the integrity of our identity.

The shock to the collective Jewish ego was nearly fatal: falling from God’s grace, moving from chosenness to abjection, from glory to disgrace. The Holy Temple, considered one of the most magnificent structures of the ancient world, reflected a self-conception of beauty, power, and groundedness—all of which have been lost with the destruction.

Once The House (the Home, really) of God and the nation was ruined, and so many of the Jews forcibly sent to exile, the self-conception of the Jewish people has been radically changed and severely damaged. We were suddenly not beautiful, strong or grounded—we were considered ugly, weak and rootless. We became “Other”, unwelcome guests, loathsome vagabonds. The “unnaturalness” of Jewish existence as we know it today is a direct result of this historic trauma that was never treated and therefore never healed. What we today call Jewish culture (not to mention Jewish neurosis) with all its glory and intellectual might, is, in fact, the scar tissue of that terrible wound.

Everything about Jewish culture and folklore can be traced to the destruction: Our escape to the intellect; our need to always feel more moral than one’s neighbor, hyper-moral really—and at the same time our obsessive need to compete and over-achieve; our serious issues with body image, with Jewish beauty or the lack of it thereof.
Even the grand over-reaction that is Zionism, with its obsessive focus on the bodily and the concrete, is an offshoot of the same neurosis, a result of the same trauma. Zionism is the other side of this equation, the antithesis of the Jew as a luftmensch, an “Air-person”, deprived of a land, and therefore detached from the ground, floating aimlessly, and helplessly, in the air. Zionism, with its understandable need to overcompensate for two millennia of sorrow and humiliation, has chosen the path of denial and adopted the bizarre strategy of “Negation of the Diaspora”, as if diasporic existence was a free choice rather than a forced choice. As the generations passed, the memory of this collective trauma was blurred.

The customs of mourning the destruction of Jerusalem on the ninth of Av became less raw (traditionally Jews used to sit on the ground, throw handful of dust on their own head and wail loudly as the book of Lamentation was chanted) and more controlled. Diasporic Jewish existence seems more comfortable, benign and in ways almost natural. But the trauma of the destruction is still there, lurking under our collective skin, never really dealt with and refusing to heal.

Ruby Namdar’s novel, The Ruined House, won the Sapir Prize, Israel’s top literary honor. It was published in English by HarperCollins in November of 2017.