In 2014, the eve of the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz was a cool summer night in Amsterdam. As I cycled home, I saw through pub windows that Germany had broken Argentina’s football heart. FIFA’s 2014 World Cup was on the news there – not the air strikes, rockets, mounting escalation, possible ground invasion, and rising numbers of civilian deaths in Israel and Gaza that July.
That evening, I had attended a staged reading of a new script by British playwright Julia Pascal. “Honeypot” is about a Swedish woman with Shoah family-history who joins Mossad, but then falls for her Lebanese-Palestinian target. Staged by members of an anglophone theatre company, it was performed in the Café Mehzrab, a hub for international artists. The Mehzrab is run by a young Persian-Dutch storyteller whose parents serve Barbari bread, Ash-e reshteh (noodle, bean and spinach soup), and fresh mint tea made in a samovar.
I watched the play only half-present, dreading the news I would learn when I left our cozy enclave by the water and tuned into the BBC World News. It seemed like déjà vu. I remembered the summer war between Lebanon and Israel in 2006: weeks of not sleeping while fearing for my friends and their families while normalcy and yet another World Cup dominated life in Montreal. This time, I endeavoured to send out prayers for peace rather than anxiety. But I felt so helpless in Amsterdam with my World Cup madness, mint tea by the sea, and Middle East politics served up in a two-act play. I knew I couldn’t do anything. Would this violence lead to the destruction of our metaphoric Temple? I eventually fell asleep by chanting “Salaam. Shalom. Salaam. Shalom.”
The Fast of the 17th of Tammuz was on July 15 that summer and I fasted for the first time. I was also writing an academic article about human rights abuses in Haiti, and I spent the day in a haze of sadness and hunger, alternating between writing about one set of horrors and watching a new madness unfold on the BBC.
Few non-observant Jews mark the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, a minor fast day when we remember five tragic events, including Moses breaking the tablets in anger after the Israelites built the Golden Calf, and how the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem in 70 CE and destroyed the Second Temple. This is the first day of the three weeks of mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, when we read “The Book of Lamentations” and consider the existential and physical exile we continue to experience. Traditional Jews observe the customs associated with periods of mourning during these three weeks and refrain from celebrating weddings, listening to or playing music, and cutting their hair.
During the height of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, this period of mourning seems incongruent with the lush pleasures of the natural world. But, like so much in Jewish practice, there is something beautiful about the seeming contradictions between levity and sobriety and sadness and joy that we hold up together at this time. On both the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, we recite what is known as the “Long Avinu Malkeinu,” the extended version of the touchstone prayer about God’s boundless and constant love for us. Also, if the fast days fall on Shabbat, they are postponed until Sunday, so that the joy and peace of Shabbat is not compromised. Moreover, this period is one in which we are encouraged not only to increase our study of Torah, but also to increase our offerings of tzedakah.
This period of three weeks of mourning is a time of contradictions. On the eve of the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz in 2014, I experienced both the banal madness of the World Cup and the fierce madness of the world. But this seeming contradiction only increased my sense of gratitude and my awareness of the beauty around me. Like the salt we sprinkle on challah, and the glass we break at weddings, our tradition encourages us to hold up sweetness and bitterness at once. Without sorrow, we cannot relish the goodness of life.
The Amsterdam sunset marking the end of the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz in 2014 was long and luscious. I sat on the roof to watch the northern night come and, for each star that emerged, I chanted “Salaam. Shalom. Salaam. Shalom.”