Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Long, Hot Summer Fast

While I usually write about eating, today I am writing about not eating. At sundown last night a little known Jewish holiday called Tisha B'Av, or the Ninth (day) of (the month of) Av, commenced, marking the beginning of a 25-hour fast. Whereas Jewish holidays generally adhere to the rule: "they tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat", there are at least five days on the calendar where this is not the case. These days are designated as fast days - more of a "they tried to kill us, they succeeded, let's fast" approach, involving mourning and repentance. Like most Jewish practices, fasts are observed to varying degrees by members of the Jewish community. While it is a feature of many religions and belief systems, in traditional Judaism fasting requires - at the very least - complete abstinence from eating and drinking.

Tisha B'Av is a unique day, one that I approach with dread each year and not just because it lands smack dab in the middle of the summer, when days are long and hot. It is the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar. As far as fasts go, it is second in gravity only to Yom Kippur, the more widely recognized Day of Atonement, but the purpose, tone and mood of these two days are quite different from one another. Whereas Yom Kippur is a day to atone for personal and communal sins, to repent and start anew, to pray for the year ahead, Tisha B'Av commemorates major tragedies throughout Jewish history - the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust. This one day encapsulates every devastation that Jews have experienced over time due to anti-semitism and religious and political persecution. It bears the ominous message that despite protesting "Never Again," history has a nasty way of repeating itself. And rather than ignoring this fact, rather than quelling the fear and anxiety with food and drink, with the business-as-usual routines of everyday life, tradition demands that we forsake eating and instead feel those emotions, mourn the past, take stock of the present and develop steps toward changing the future. In the Orthodox circles I grew up in, this was not so much a charge toward self-assessment (that will characterize the High Holidays in a few short months) but a cry against complacency, getting too comfortable in the world. Spending a long hot day without food or even water is a struggle and physically mirrors the conceptual struggle I feel on Tisha B'Av. While searching for some articles that might lend more meaning to my fast, I came across this piece from a Jewish website that recast the theme of the day through an analogy to Howard Schultz and Starbucks. I miss Seattle.

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