Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Tisha b'Av: Where Sadness Meets Sport

Saint Paul, Minnesota is one of the locations hosting the 2005 JCC Maccabi Games, a kind of “Jewish Olympics” for Jewish teenagers. It’s a wonderful opportunity to engage in athletics and competitive sport, within a supportive Jewish atmosphere. It eliminates the Friday night practices and Saturday games that so many other sports opportunities require. Kashrut is observed, so those who keep kosher don’t have to worry about a post-game pepperoni pizza.

So long as the emphasis is on Jewish community and not solely on physical achievement and competition for its own sake (thanks to Marc J. for this reminder), it’s an event I would find much easier to support.

But there's one major thing.

The games this year just happen to take place on the week preceding Tisha b’Av, a day of mourning commemorating multiple tragedies. The three weeks prior to Tisha b’Av, known in Hebrew as bein ha-metzarim (between the straits) are considered the saddest time in the Jewish calendar, with increasing practices of mourning during the nine days just before Tisha b’Av.

An excerpt from my book, Destined to Choose (p. 181-2):

“During these three weeks preceding Tisha b’Av, we highlight its importance by refraining from activities that bring us great happiness. We don’t schedule weddings or dances, or even camping trips. We postpone haircuts and manicures. We give to charity, and try to think about others who are less fortunate more often than we think of ourselves.

“So the next time any of us are at the lake, or planning a picnic, or enjoying a warm summer’s night, we can think about the freedom we have and the blessings in our lives. What would it mean to be in exile from our homes, our families, everything that was familiar and meaningful? What would it mean to have the center of our religious world destroyed by people who would not only burn it down but desecrate it first? We can allow ourselves to feel sad, even angry, for those to whom these events were a reality.”

What does it mean, what does it say about us, that such a positive event is scheduled during a time that Jews are traditionally supposed to have more somber thoughts?

One thing it says to me is that the commemoration of Tisha b’Av in America – or at least in the Twin Cities – has been reduced to the day itself, if even that.

Are American Jews finding Tisha b’Av less and less relevant to today’s world? I could draw some interesting parallels between Tisha b’Av and 9/11. Would that make it any more relevant?

Another thing it says to me is that inclusion is subjective. Supposedly, the JCC Maccabi games are open to all Jewish teenagers, age 13-16. Over 1,000 Jewish athletes are expected to participate. But those athletes who observe not only Tisha b’Av but also bein ha-metzarim – The Three Weeks – will be prohibited by their own religious observance from participating. At a Jewish event!

I don’t want to make this a statement about Orthodox versus Conservative versus Reform. I know plenty of Conservative and Reform Jews who take Tisha b’Av seriously. I know plenty of serious Jews who otherwise take Tisha b’Av seriously but this year are fully in support – and participating in the fun – of the games.

I do want to make this a statement about how decisions get made, how events are planned, and whether or not those making the decisions and planning the events know who they’re excluding and why.

I’ve requested an official statement from the JCC hosting the games. Hopefully, I’ll get a response. Stay posted!
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