I’ll start this post by going all the way back to 1982. I was then a graduate student in Hebrew Literature at UC Berkeley. I wanted to use Yiddish as one of my minor languages so I took the summer to attend the YIVO language program. It was a glorious program in so many ways. But I didn’t bargain on Ariel Sharon starting a major war during my time in New York. But he did and I became a Yiddish student by day and an anti-war activist by night (and day).
I teamed up with an especially creative fellow, Jay Bender (where are you now?), through the Manhattan New Jewish Agenda chapter and we jointly organized an anti-war rally outside the Israeli mission to the UN. Jay and I compiled a wonderful set of literary resources for the rally and we did readings of Israeli, Lebanese and Palestinian poetry. I don’t remember whether Jay or I had the idea first, but since Tisha B’Av falls in the summer (it was August 3rd this year), we decided to incorporate a reading of that most inconsolable of Biblical books, the Book of Lamentations (Megillat Eicha in Hebrew) into our program.
This was a stroke of genius. At the time of our rally, the IDF was pulverizing Beirut and turning it into a shambles (though I’m sure the damage then would be a piker by comparison with the damage from the current war). Lamentations is a kina (sorrowful song or dirge–traditionally the book is attributed to Jeremiah, but scholars find this apocryphal) on the destruction of Jerusalem by the Assyrians in 586 BCE. If you have never heard a reading of Eicha, it is read with a most mournful and soulful trope (melody) as befits one of the Bible’s saddest books. When we first thought of the connection between the destruction of Jerusalem and Beirut it was our “Aha” moment. Of course, it was a perfect analogy. It enabled us to bring the destruction of another country home to Jews by placing it into a context that would resonate more than merely by considering the objective reality of Beirut’s destruction.
I can think of no better way to convey this than by quoting the text itself:
How lonely she sits
The city that was once filled with people
She is like a widow
That once was great among nations
And was a princess among states
She is now a tributary
She weeps in the night
Her tears on her cheeks
None comfort her among all her lovers
All her friends betrayed her
Becoming her enemy.
Judah is exiled through his suffering
And his servitude.
She sat among the nations
But found no rest.
Her pursuers overtook her
In her narrow straits…
Jerusalem remembers in days of suffering and anguish
Her treasures from days of old
As her people fall by the hand of the enemy
And none aids her.
The enemies have seen her
And laughed at her torments…
All her people sigh
They have given [away] their treasures
For food to revive the soul.
‘See O God and look because I have become desolate.’
translation: Richard Silverstein
It seems so eerie to sit now in the midst of another awful war in Lebanon in which the city of Beirut sits alone like a widow mourning her dead. Twenty-four years have passed and very little has changed. Beirut is still in mourning. Souls are dying on both sides of the conflict. Woe unto us for our folly.