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By the Arch of Titus: Spending Tisha B’Av in Rome

Tisha B’Av was the first Jewish holiday I learned about growing up in Soviet Ukraine, and I’ve come to observe it in unexpected ways

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In the afternoon of the fast day, a trance of sorts settled in. You can call it dizziness, but it was something more than that: a headache-laden sense of removal from the world as one knows it, which was only intensified by the already dark, introspective, mournful spirit that Tisha B’Av carries with it. We sat down on a rock in the middle of this hot European metropolis and took in our surroundings, with all of the day’s disconnect and heaviness.

The summer trip to Israel that my wife Shoshana and I planned last year had fallen through, but an opportunity to travel to Italy turned up instead. Without thinking much about it, we booked tickets. At some point it dawned on us that we would be spending Tisha B’Av in Rome—at one time, capital of the empire that was responsible for the events that we remember on Tisha B’Av. We immediately knew where we’d spend the holiday: at the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the sacking of Jerusalem’s second temple. The 2,000-year-old arch contains a panel depicting legionnaires carrying off the Temple’s menorah and other sacred objects of worship.

I learned the story of Tisha B’Av long before I learned the stories behind other major days on the Jewish calendar. Growing up in Soviet Ukraine, I didn’t even know I was Jewish until I was 8 or 9—let alone what it meant, or the history that went with it. My first real primer came when I pulled off my parents’ bookshelf a translation of Leon Feuchtwanger’s The Jewish War, a historical novel based on Josephus’ writings, which recount the period that starts immediately preceding the Temple’s destruction and proceeds to detail the sacking, and the aftermath.

We arrived in Rome the day before Tisha B’Av and spent the afternoon’s last moments racing through the working-class neighborhood of Testaccio, where we were staying, trying to find a supermarket to put together a pre-fast meal. In the morning we traveled to Rome’s children’s museum to give our toddler a kick before diving into our own agenda. By the afternoon, we finally set out for the Forum, the historical area of Rome, where the Arch of Titus is one of numerous stations.

Mediterranean sun is at its hottest in August. We quickly discovered the utmost importance of shade—an importance of biblical proportions. Walking through Rome on foot, we thought about Jonah, whose whole attitude to life transformed along with the sprouting of a tree that gave him shade—and how when the tree withered, his spirits did, too. In the Mediterranean, life is considerably cooler under a tree, and on a fast day, being in the shade felt closest to drinking water. Wandering through the city, as we replenished ourselves in shade and shadows, walking toward the Arch felt like a pilgrimage rather than tourism.

***

When I was a teenager, I had a very vague notion of my Jewishness. One thing was clear though: the fear of others knowing. I didn’t realize until later that the world around me knew very well who I was: Teachers and older students at school, nurses at the hospital, peasant women at the market place—everyone knew it because I did not look Slavic. And when the opportunity arose, they made comments, either right in my face or within earshot, so that I’d overhear. It was a lot like racism.

One May 9—the Soviet Union’s official D-Day—probably in 1993 or so, I read my first Jewish prayer. Aged 13, I was mouthing words I did not understand. Knowing the alef-bet, which I memorized in a Sunday school instituted shortly after the Soviet Union’s collapse, did not amount to literacy, and I stumbled through words like a blind man. But there was no choice. Every year on May 9, people throughout country, Jews and Slavs and others, would gather at war memorials and graves and think about their losses. Our family traveled to a cemetery in a town called Haschevato, to the mass grave where members of our family are buried. Other descendants of the shtetl’s survivors would come, too. But that year was different: The last old man who remembered Kaddish by heart had died. I was the only one left who could sound out the letters.

I don’t think any of us were believers. But you grow helpless thinking about losses of that caliber, and something has to fill the space. It was better that we did not understand what the words of Kaddish meant; I don’t think they would have gone over well with us. Uttered in Russian, they would have made us think of Orthodox priests muttering in churches—and there’s probably nothing more foreign than that to a Russian Jew. In retrospect, reading that first Kaddish was the bar mitzvah I never had. I learned little of my people’s history, or of the language bouncing in my mouth, but I knew that people who gathered at the site needed it.

It did not take long after that for me to make a link between Josephus’ tale and the Shoah—and stories of pogroms, which I read about in Isaac Babel’s “My First Dovecot” and various Sholem Aleichem tales. In the latter’s stories, the name of Bohdan Khmelnitsky carried entirely different connotations than it did in textbooks of Ukrainian history, rashly put together immediately after the Soviet Union’s collapse. To Ukrainians he was a hero who fought for the country’s independence from both Russia and Poland; to shtetl Jews of Sholem Aleichem he was a menace responsible for thousands of deaths in pogroms he initiated throughout the land. Before long, in the 1990s, Khmelnitsky’s portrait was found on the freshly printed Ukrainian money.

It had never occurred to me that our wrought history entitled me to anything. Perhaps it is a sentiment belonging to a liberated, Western Jew: the idea of reparations, or even some sort of a karmic kickback of justice. I guess I thought that being left alone was good enough.

Perhaps for that reason, after I came to America in 1995, the story of the Jews’ persecution grew increasingly foreign to me. One night at the Bowery Poetry Club’s open mic, a poet of Native American heritage read a long poem, of which I remember this line: “Jews are people who suffered… really suffered… and they’ll tell you about it… again and again and again and again and again…” Maybe it was then that I understood the extent to which the story of our persecution is used as a crutch here, in the West. As a card. As a proof. Tuli Kupferberg, legendary co-founder of the anarchic-folk band the Fugs, riffing on Irving Berlin’s showtune, once quipped: “There’s no business like the Shoah business.”

It is almost not our fault that we use our history this way. What else can we do? How can we mourn or relate to the experiences of the story of persecution? How can we honor it and not use it? What should we do for and about it?

Among traditional Jews, the custom on Tisha B’Av is to read Eicha—the Book of Lamentations—and related texts, called kinnot. Public screening of Holocaust movies is a popular modern development. Holocaust films and literature are truly a genre and as such are often the worst manifestation of the tendency to capitalize on tragedy. Because the emotional stakes are so high, the level of quality can be terribly low. You have your audience by their innards—they come in ready to cry—and little further thought is needed.

One year, on a Tisha B’Av night, I read Goethe’s Faust—a random choice, which, as I read on, seemed oddly appropriate. It is, after all, a story of a tragic choice, the resulting tragic chosenness, and the costs that go with it. It seemed strangely more poignant and relevant than Elie Weisel’s Night, which I read the year prior. Yet, It was only when I read Jerome Rothenberg’s Khurbn, a collection of poems written in the aftermath of the poet’s visit to Poland, that I finally discovered the only encounter with the subject that rang true for me. The book details the poet’s attempts to listen to the ghosts of the departed and transcribe what he heard, or intuited, from resonating, broken fragments of his family history. In the introduction to the book, he writes: “The absence of the living seemed to create a vacuum in which the dead—the dibbiks who had died before their time—were free to speak. It wasn’t the first time that I thought of poetry as the language of the dead, but never so powerfully as now. … The poems that I first began to hear at Treblinka are the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry.”

Rothenberg’s poems were about hearing—or overhearing, echoing, transcribing. They resonated because, I have come to realize, I have no history: I don’t believe in it as such. I have a string of memories, my own and inherited, and all I can do is reflect on my own life’s trajectory, the experience that is solely my own—and listen to the world around me, against my own backdrop. And though history and its “dibbiks” speak everywhere, there are experiences that suddenly give them stage, amplify them.

This spring, in war-wracked Ukraine, my father, my great-uncle, and a few of their friends built a large, beautiful memorial at the site of the mass grave in our ancestral shtetl. The Jewish population is fizzling, and fewer and fewer people come back to Haschevato. This year, though, the grand opening brought together large crowds—mostly locals, the Slavs.

My mother told me that everyone cried at the Haschevato memorial’s opening. Young Slavic children, and elders who remembered themselves as young children at the time of the massacre. A space like that may be the last vestige the waning Jewish population can leave for Ukrainians. As a souvenir.

***

What did it feel like, sitting at the foot of the Arch of Titus on Tisha B’Av? When one wanders into the innards of the myth, and stories overtake personal history, feelings that enter are bigger, and heavier than any truth. As poet Harvey Shapiro had it:

The past was filtering through.
It had no odor, no
Emotion. You could not
Say that in the silences
The past came in
Like water over sand.
There was no movement.
You could not draw the blind.

Sitting on a rock, disoriented by foreignness of it all, fasting, we were smitten: There it was, the formative myth, the beginning of our people’s exilic history depicted right in front of us. Guides blabbered in all languages recounting it. As with the words of Kaddish I heard myself read that first time, it was for the best that I did not understand the words’ meaning. Instead, I wondered: Do any of tourists know that the day depicted on the tableau, which their guides pointed at, is today? Surely they did not, and that added to the surreal feel of the day—the knowing, the secret of carrying the story. The languages enmeshed into a multilingual babble, a circle of babble bubbling around us. You could say I felt we were on an island. That we were both part of something, and sharply isolated. Lacking a better word for it, I felt sudden chosenness.

That Tisha B’Av in Rome, aside from listening to Basya Schechter’s musical rendition of “Eicha,” we did not touch any prayers or traditional texts. But the experience of walking and encountering the Arch seemed to palpitate in us, to culminate through us. A tide of something rocked our understanding of self, of practice, of identity. We exchanged few words, in half-disbelief at the encounter.

It was then, absorbing and listening on a Roman rock, where we sat down, that our toddler son, suddenly asked: Is this a playground?

And I answered: Do you want this to be your playground?

***

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By the Arch of Titus: Spending Tisha B’Av in Rome

Tisha B’Av was the first Jewish holiday I learned about growing up in Soviet Ukraine, and I’ve come to observe it in unexpected ways