The Hebrew Month of Av Begins: What it Can Mean to Us

As the Hebrew month of Av begins, Jews become starkly aware that Rosh HaShanah, the new Jewish year arrives in two months… and they’re two months that will pass quickly. It is time to get ready.

In just another week, we commemorate Tishah B’Av, the Ninth of Av, a day Jews commemorate as the anniversary of the destruction of both the first temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and the Second in 70 CE by the Romans. In addition, many other catastrophic events in Jewish history – including the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the beginning of World War I – fell on that date.

Most Jews commemorate Tishah B’Av by reading the biblical book of Lamentations, which places responsibility for our catastrophes squarely on our own shoulders. Its essential message is that we have a Covenant with God, who hopes and expects us to create a just caring and compassionate society, but we did not. Consumed by jealousy and baseless hatred for others, we neglected the poor and needy, failed to treat the elderly with dignity and respect, and spurned opportunities to make newcomers feel welcome in our midst.

If on objective examination the judgment feels unduly harsh, it remains—if we allow it to be—a powerful spur to our process of self examination and change as we get ready for the New Year to arrive.

For me the key moment of Tishah B’Av is when we read in the middle of Lamentations (3:40) the verse:

‘ נַחְפְּשָׂה דְרָכֵינוּ וְנַחְקֹרָה, וְנָשׁוּבָה עַד ה

Nah-pisah d’ra-cheh-ch v’ nah-ko-rah, v’na-shoo-vah ad Adonai

“Let us search and examine our ways and return to the Eternal One.”

The overriding message of Tishah B’Av for non-Orthodox Jews – who do not mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and certainly do not pray for its rebuilding – is: “We can be better than we have been. The time is now to begin the effort to align our actions more closely with God’s hopes and dreams for us.”

After all, the message of Rosh HaShanah, as the anniversary of Creation itself, is that we human beings – not the rhinoceros or the tiger, though they be swifter and stronger than we – are in charge of and responsible for this world and for one another.

This coming year, I begin a new career venture as seasonal rabbi at Bat Yam Temple of the Islands in Sanibel, FL. In the past, the rabbi conducted services for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and then returned when “the season” begins on November 1.

In my  interviews, I pointed out that I would like to begin before Rosh HaShanah with Selichot and other events in preparation. By way of analogy, I explained that the Boston Red Sox don’t just show up on Opening Day in Fenway Park to begin their season. They train in nearby Fort Myers in order to be ready for the season.

Similarly, we Jews should not just show up on Rosh HaShanah and expect to be ready for the arduous season of repentance and atonement that culminates on Yom Kippur. We must prepare our hearts and minds in advance for that sacred task.

No one doubts, of course, that any day is a good day to think about how we act and how we can do better. But in its wisdom, our tradition has marked the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as the time to focus on improving ourselves with particular intensity.

If we take that assignment seriously, we must prepare in advance. As the Hebrew calendar flips from the month of Tammuz to Av, it is a good time to begin to prepare.

I am pleased that this essay appears on the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ.org) blog, July 26, 2017

 

Poppy

My grandfather, Benjamin Goldstein My grandfather, Benjamin Goldstein

July 11, 2017: My grandfather, Benjamin Goldstein, died 61 years ago today. I was only ten, but we had a special bond.

You see I was Benny’s first grandson after he had been blessed with five granddaughters, and that made me very special in his eyes.

My mother often described how Benny was overjoyed when he visited her in the hospital. He so hoped to have a grandson, and there I was.

My sister Rochelle, who was 13 ½ when he died, remembered her grandfather this way in a high school essay; “Looking 50 while being 70 my grandfather, Benjamin Goldstein, was the handsomest man I ever knew.”

Benny could fix anything, an ability that sadly was not passed down to his grandson. Miraculously, though, remnants of that gift do manifest themselves in his great grandson who carries his name, our son, Benjamin Fuchs.

Our Ben gently chides me when I have trouble fitting something into somewhere, “Don’t force, Dad, never force.” When he tells me that, I can hear my grandfather’s voice.

In 1914 my grandparents and two other couples bought a patch of land in what was then far remote Dover, NJ. During the summers the three families lived together in Dover to escape the teeming heat of the Bronx. The women and children stayed the summer, and the men joined them on the weekends.

They were by no measure wealthy. My grandfather worked as a cutter in the garment industry, but land was cheap back then. If only our family still owned that property.

For us grandkids who have childhood memories of the place, “Dover” was a miniature Eden.

Next to the cow pasture of an adjoining farm there was a field perfect for me to play catch with anyone whom I could corral into joining me. There was a wonderful chestnut tree that I loved to climb, and there was a brook a short walk away where we could cool off, and there was a dairy farm up the road that sold the most delicious chocolate milk. Our visits often included a drive to nearby Lake Hopatcong for swimming and a picnic.

My memory of Poppy at Dover is of him walking purposely from the house toward the tool shed on his way to fix something or other.

Poppy’s favorite holiday was Simchat Torah, and I can still see the pride in his face as he carried the Torah around the synagogue! I have no doubt that in that memory lie the roots of my love for Torah to this day.

Poppy was also an integral part of my first solo bus trip.

My mom and dad sent me when I was nine to visit grandma and Poppy. I was going to ride the bus from East Orange to New York City all by myself.

I stocked up on comic books at Rosen’s Candy Store, and my mother walked me to the bus stop. I was excited to get on the bus, but once Mom was gone, I was scared.

Seeing Poppy’s face atop his blue winter coat and underneath his gray fedora when the bus pulled into the Port Authority terminal was the most comforting site I have ever beheld.

We went to the circus, “the Greatest Show on Earth” at Madison Square Garden … just my Poppy and me. I could not imagine anything more wonderful!

Living in Grandma and Poppy’s small Bronx apartment was a revelation. They squabbled with each other quite a bit. That was a shock because I never saw my parents argue.

When I came home, I asked my mother, “When are Grandma and Poppy getting divorced?”

“What?” my mother responded. “They are not getting divorced. They love each other very much.”

“But they always argue.”

Don’t worry, “ my mother comforted me again. “They will never divorce because they love each other so much.”

All of their four children and their spouses took Poppy and grandma to the Concord Hotel in the Catskills (a place where years later I would subsequently work as the Assistant Tennis Pro) to celebrate their forty-eighth and, as things turned out, last anniversary.

Poppy died on July 11, 1956 when I was away at camp. Wisely or not—and to this day I have mixed feelings about this—my parents chose not to tell me until camp was over.

That 1956 summer at Camp Minnisink was a banner year for me!

I was the only boy (it was a boy’s camp) to earn the highest YMCA swimming designation, “Sea Horse.” The previous summer, I only got past “Minnow.”  But in ’56 I soared through the remaining tests,  “Fish,” “Flying Fish,” “Shark, “ and the ultimate, “Sea Horse.” I still remember having to tread water for thirty minutes. But the coup de gras for me was being named the most valuable player for the summer on the Minnisink Braves softball team.

I felt like I was on top of the world. The Triple Crown won by Mickey Mantle that same year hardly seemed more significant, and surely the Yankees and the Olympic swimming program would look for me in the not too distant future.

But it all came crashing down the next day when my parents picked me up and, after kisses and hugs, my father told me, “Your grandfather has died.”

I cried and cried.

And I was not the only one.

Grandma cried for him frequently during the subsequent five years that she lived.

In those days on Yom Kippur those whose parents were alive did not stay in the synagogue for Yizkor (the Memorial Service). I vividly remember that when I would come back in for Neilah (the closing service) my mother’s eyes were wet with tears, a sight I rarely saw.

Wonderful memories of Poppy live on in my mind. Just as my birth brought him joy, I try to act in ways that continue to bring him joy in the world beyond!