In 2014, I observed Tisha B’Av with Amsterdam’s Renewal community, Beit ha Chidush.
We met at 8 pm in the library of the historic Pintohuis on Jodenbroadstraat, formerly the “Jewish Main Street” of Amsterdam. The Pintohuis once belonged to an influential Sephardic family and this evening we sat on the floor and read by candlelight and by flashlight. We read some kinnot and sang a few hymns including “Eli, Eli.” We held an evening service and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for those missing from our lives, for those lost in the Shoah, for those who have no one to mourn for them, and, on Rabbi Hannah Nathan’s request, for those who had died in Israel and in Gaza that summer.
For every reading from the Book of Lamentations, we followed each Hebrew chapter with a reading from an English translation, and, in this way, I was able to share my voice. The words rang out in that small space. With candles on the floor and on the tables, the tiny minyan, with our focused attention, seemed full of energy, almost dangerous. I couldn’t help thinking, “We are a force to be reckoned with.”
Kneeling on the floor of the Pintohuis, listening to Rabbi Hannah’s sermon in Dutch, I was grateful to be in the presence of vibrant contemporary Jewish life in Europe.
I recalled when I was at Auschwitz that spring, I didn’t cry at the exhibits of suitcases and shoes, even though something savage clutched at my heart, but I began to weep when we entered a building containing a new exhibit curated by Yad Vashem. Entering this new exhibit you enter into song: glorious, beautiful chanting in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and Arabic, the voices of children ringing out. These voices accompany you into a large rectangular white room with nothing in it except for life-size projections on each wall of what Jewish life in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa was like before the Shoah. These images surround you and teem with life: photographs of families on holiday, weddings, schoolchildren and teachers, markets, shuls, trips to the seaside, children playing ball. It was there that I cried for what had been and what had disappeared: “The joy of our heart has stopped: our dance is turned into mourning (Lamentations, 5:15).”
“It’s hard to be Jewish in Europe. It’s difficult. You don’t want to be Jewish in Europe right now,” Julie-Marthe Cohen, curator of Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, once said to me over coffee.
I told her I planned to write a family memoir that wouldn’t be “just another Shoah story” but a pan-European, pan-generational saga of resisters and rebels, and that it would emphasize that, although many of my relatives were secular, they were so courageous about defending their culture and faith.
Resistance is our past and our legacy. In these European ghost towns and ghost neighbourhoods the living are taking over now, contending with the hymns of mourning and lamentation with their candles and flashlights, lighting a path in the darkness.
Tisha B’Av is an opportunity for turning, for facing our own sorrow and alienation from the loss of Zion as manifested in our own times. But most of us are afraid of turning inward. I too am afraid. Afraid to face my personal exile, my destroyed inner temple, my empty and desecrated buildings, my abandoned villages, my tears, my fields of sorrow, my dried up well that used to brim with love, my slaughtered sheep, my ragged clothes, my orphans, my parched mouth that used to sing, my emptiness, my ravaged heart. How am I to confront this misery inside myself, and outside myself, and go on?
But, when we sang “Oseh Shalom” together in the Pintohuis, I was not the only one whose voice was choked with tears. Illuminated and fed by the flickering flames, what we sang that night was a plea to God and to the universe for healing, compassion, connection, and peace. When we finally left the Pintohuis, the sun was setting, and it was twilight on Jodenbroadstraat. Descent for the sake of ascent, darkness to light, sorrow to gladness, narrow places to freedom – all are of this world. We have only to follow the momentum in the turning, and to be courageous.
“Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva. Chadeish yameinu k’kedem. Turn us to you, O Lord, and we will return. Renew our days as of old.”