Mourning and Memory

By Misha Galperin

Why is Tisha B’Av, you may wonder, important to a secular Russian Jew? I grew up with little knowledge of major Jewish holidays, let alone an obscure Jewish fast day observe mostly by the Orthodox today. It is a reasonable question. It has a reasonable answer.

The timing of Tisha B’Av is particularly sensitive in my family. You see, two days after Tisha B’Av was when my father witnessed the murder of his father, the rabbi of Tomashpol, a shtetl in Ukraine. My grandfather was not the only one in his family to be murdered that day. He was brutally killed along with the rest of his family and about 400 other residents of the town. In one day, a shtetl in the Ukraine was erased from our Jewish map, like so many other Jewish villages that disappeared in the last century in Europe and Russia.

My dad at the time of his father’s murder was only six-years old and already without the pillar of his family. What’s worse is that he witnessed the whole massacre from a mulberry tree at the edge of town by the ravine where the bodies fell to their death. You may be able to erase a town, but you can never erase such an image from memory. The image of a small boy in a mulberry tree always stayed with me, as if such details validate the entire memory. Perhaps the image of a small boy hidden in a tree represents the innocence of childhood that shattered that day in our family’s history.

My father was haunted by that image in his dreams almost every night since that day.

To me, whether you belief your life is providentially run by God or by something as random as luck makes little difference when reading Jewish history. The fact that Jews were and are tragically and mysteriously marked is not a matter of belief but a matter of historical fact, a fact that it is too easy to forget in America.

Are we not very much a part of the mainstream?
Are we not as accepted and admired and powerful as at any time in our history?

Tisha B’Av is our cautionary tale. As we know all too well, our good fortune is often the beginning of our bad fortune. Much has been written and said about the possibility that our current affluence and influence is more likely to bring the end to our history than years of persecution. We know oppression intimately, so intimately that it unites us and brings us together under a common banner in a way that success never has. We are not sufficiently used to it. It is not yet in our historic DNA.

But we do get reminders that we are still likely to be singled out for hatred and violence simply because we are Jews, like the attacks in France, Belgium, and Denmark in the past twelve months and the current spectacle of anti-Semitic vitriol in the South Korean financial media. Tisha B’av reminds us it is not only about our present but about how our past translates into our present that keeps us from being too confident about our place in the world, too full of the naïve notion that we have fully arrived and that no more harm will ever come our way.

There are people who have tried to abolish Tisha B’Av from our calendar, as if ridding ourselves of all sadness, we will be – as a people – perpetually happy. For me, Tisha B’av is a commemoration of our peoplehood, the desperate and anguished side of being part of an extended family that suffers on occasion. Note the suffering so that true joy can also be experienced fully in its time. It is not spirituality alone that makes us fast. For some of us, it is a matter of history. A people that loses its history, loses its identity. History is not a record of happiness. It is an account of all of our collective experiences.

My ten-year old son Ezra asked me why Jews are the subject of so much hatred and violence for so long. It seems incomprehensible. It seems like the right kind of question for a child to ask at his age who cannot but help notice what happens in the news. Honestly, I don’t have a good answer because as long as there is irrational hatred of any people, there is no reasonable answer. But I told him that Tisha B’Av is a good time to think about this question and to remember.

Dr. Misha Galperin is author of two books and currently heads a philanthropic consultancy business. He is former CEO of Jewish Agency International Development. You can subscribe to his musings at