Religion & Beliefs

On Tisha B’Av

Today is Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which is known as "the saddest day of Jewish history."  On this day, Jews recite the Book of Lamentations, passing down the story of the destruction of … Read More

By / July 20, 2010

Today is Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which is known as "the saddest day of Jewish history."  On this day, Jews recite the Book of Lamentations, passing down the story of the destruction of the First and Second Temples and pre-Talmudic Jerusalem. It is a holy day during which we Jews mourn a lost world, examine our lives in relation to this loss, and emerge renewed.

I have never actually observed this holiday, but like many other Jews my age, I mourn lost worlds – specifically the one my maternal grandmother fled on November 9, 1938.  At the age of 19, my grandmother, Helga Rabinowitsch, left her native Germany with her younger brother for the United States.  She never saw her parents, her community, or her home, again. After the war, without ever knowing the specifics of her parents’ fates, my grandmother moved forward with her life the only way she knew how, by abandoning the past altogether – the good along with the bad – never again speaking German and keeping silent about her childhood and the world she left behind.

I spend a great deal of my time thinking about my grandmother’s loss and trying to reclaim the world of her childhood.  I am motivated in part by a desire to share the burden of memory and history with my grandmother and hopefully lighten her load.  Mostly though, Helga’s silence has barred me from any sense of continuity between past and present, fueling my desire to know intimately her lost world so as to better understand my own and my place in it – as a granddaughter, daughter, sister, wife, and musician.

I have dedicated myself to understanding the historical context in which my grandmother grew up.  I learned to speak both Yiddish and German, in order to express myself in the languages my grandparents and great grandparents once used to express themselves.  I lived in Germany for two years, hoping that, by inhabiting the physical space of my ancestors, I could somehow access the atmospheres and personalities that had once filled those same cobblestone streets and 19th century buildings.

I also gathered the courage to start unearthing the memories my grandmother had so carefully buried – slowly and gently.  I wasn’t looking for the kind of information I could find in history books. Rather, I was seeking snapshots: What were her favorite foods as a little girl? What games did she play with her friends?  Where did her family go on vacation?  What were her parents like?

So I called her on the phone.  Her favorite meal growing up?  Franks and potato salad.  I informally pestered her with questions over the kitchen table.  Where did her family go on vacation?  To the mountains and to the sea.  Over the last three years, I have extracted her memories in a more disciplined way, filming, photographing, taking notes, and traveling – this time to Eastern Europe, where Helga’s parents were born and eventually perished.  With the help of my mother and aunt, documents have been discovered, timelines have emerged, and new context has been established.

Over 100 letters were uncovered in my grandmother’s attic, letters written to her and her brother from Latvia, where my great grandparents fled when they could no longer stay in Germany.  In addition to the heartbreak and desperation that begins and ends each letter, there is also such intimacy and love.  In one letter, my great grandmother worries over how skinny my great uncle looks in a picture he has sent.  In another, my great grandmother tells my grandmother that she has brought my grandmother’s favorite organza dress from Leipzig and will deliver it to Memphis herself, once she and my great grandfather receive their visas to the United States.

In conjunction with my research and documentation, I wrote and recorded a concept album as a way to access, recreate, and re-imagine my grandmother’s lost world – and to process my relationship to it.  This album, entitled Silver And Ash, will be released on Rounder Records on September 14th, 2010.

Neither Tisha B’Av nor my exploration of Helga’s history are focused solely on memory and mourning.  They both put a premium on self-examination in the face of loss and the renewal that can come from this.   My journey back and forth in time has brought me much closer to my grandmother, allowed me to know her world and the parents she lost, and has provided me with a long sought after sense of continuity between past introspection. 

So today, on Tisha B’Av, maybe those of us not going to synagogue can begin compiling our own personal Books of Lamentations.  We can sit down with our grandparents or parents and ask them to resurrect their lost worlds for us.  We can mourn with them.  For them and for ourselves, and in so doing, begin to create renewed worlds of our own.

Photograph by Ted Barron

Posts

Tisha B’Av

I wake up in a Bushwick loft on Tisha B’Av          the safe                 looks at me with its one notched and numbered eye winking: remember the lifetimes before you, child. Factory, storehouse, temple. I wake up in Brooklyn mourning          … Read More

By / August 1, 2006

I wake up in a Bushwick loft on Tisha B’Av          the safe                 looks at me with its one notched and numbered eye winking: remember the lifetimes before you, child.

Factory, storehouse, temple.

I wake up in Brooklyn mourning          for the wealth that was                  waking up          in quiet Jerusalem.

To stop eating and drinking is to grow unmoored not sure if the sun is more idea or light.

Outside, against the fence a street shrine has sprouted, a tree of candles and photos, “descansa en paz Jose mi caramelo.”

Today we are all lighting candles mourning something.

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