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Tisha b'Av: A Family Story?

Gosh. I leave New York—and my trusty laptop—for a few days, and the world goes beserk. John Edwards and his affair, Russia invading Georgia, random violence at the Olympics, and a scandal involving Sudan’s profit margin on the same kinds of food the world is shipping its starving citizens. Yikes.

Yet through all of this, I couldn’t stop thinking about Tisha b’Av, for obvious reasons. It’s one of those holidays I have to really work to connect to each year, but this year, I had some unexpected help from soon-to-be-rabbi Kate Palley, who gave a great drash about ways to connect to the Temple. I will admit that for me, the Temple is a big ole abstract symbol. I get it intellectually, a little, but it’s an all-head-no-heart deal, and that’s sad on a holiday that should be mostly heart. But Kate spoke about how the Temple was the last time the Jewish people could come together automatically, like a family, and that’s when it clicked. Family has been on my mind a lot, too.

Actually, the reason I was away from my hometown (and aforementioned laptop) for a few days was to be with family. Family that lives far away, that I care for very much but that lead different lives from me. For a while, in fact, parts of my family led flat-out divergent lives—away from one another.

So when I thought about the Temple, and tried to reach around for that mourning, I found it helped to think about my family, writ large. And you know what? It is a damn shame when families break apart, drift away, lose touch. It’s not just the story of my family, either—it’s certainly the story of the Jewish people. (If you don’t believe me, check out the comments section of any article on Ynet or Ha’aretz or the Jerusalem Post website. People say stuff to and about each other you couldn’t make up on your own. Whew!) It’s not just “two Jews, three opinions”—multiple viewpoints are not the problem here. It’s more like, “two Jews who never have a face-to-face conversation because they’ve both written the other off as the source of all ills in the Jewish world.”

And, sadly, this is the story of the feminist movement, too. First, it happened in the movement’s youth, when younger members of the women’s liberation movement rebelled against the more staid NOW. (For more on this fascinating and far-too-little-known aspect of history, check out Ruth Stone’s The World Split Open, which will blow your mind.) As I’ve kvetched about before here, this infighting (often baited by the media) goes on still.

And, if Russia invading Georgia—regardless of the specifics, which it’ll take me several days of sifting through newspapers, blogs and my stand-by foreign policy wonks to form an opinion about—during the Olympics, yet!—doesn’t remind us of the insane tensions and grudges we hold in our larger human family, well, I don’t know what would. In truth, I have no interest in finding out. Who hasn’t seen a reference somewhere, in the great piles of words written every day about the Arab-Israeli conflict, to the story of Isaac and Ishmael? It’s like we save our deepest rancor not for those who are most Other, but those who are most like us. Those who are family. Even in America, where we share so much in common and have such a joined future, we fight like animals. We waste time that could be spent building up our common causes breaking each other down.

It would all be a bit too depressing for me, except I spent the last three days hanging out with my family, and it was fantastic. Did it take a lot of work for everyone in that room to be there, and be there for each other? Not in the present, really, but in the not-so-distant past? You bet. Keeping families together sometimes takes a lot of work on everybody’s part, but so what? It’s so, so worth it. And it is, truly, within our reach if we want it badly enough.

So one year soon I’ll hang around Jerusalem for Tisha b’Av and really focus on the proper political, historical and religious contexts. For now, though, I’ll trust that the personal really is the political, and I’ll think about my many families, large and small, all over the world—my family that is the world, in fact—and I’ll rejoice that some of the rebuilding has already begun, and that so many show up every day to keep at it, and when I think about the Temple, I’ll mean it when I say, “May it be rebuilt speedily, and in our days,”

–Mel Weiss.