Summer camp was always a joyous time in my life, but one thing about camp each summer was exactly the opposite: Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. Tisha B’Av is a fast day on which Jews remember the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem as well as just about every other tragedy that has ever befallen the Jewish People.
Tisha B’Av was no fun at all, and camp was supposed to be fun. We all hated it. We hated the lead-up to the day because no meat was served for the nine days preceding Tisha B’Av, except on Shabbat, and the dairy and fish meals were disgusting. We hated missing softball and baseball practice. We hated sitting on the ground and having to do read Haftarah at Mincha. There was a lot of dislike.
On Tisha B’Av the pathway from the dining hall to the basketball courts was lined with tea candles, and the entire camp would sit on the ground and listen to the traditional chanting of Megillat Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, by candlelight. Campers and staff would take turns reading the text from start to finish, and while it was long, it was beautiful. Most haunting of all was the chanting of Perek Gimel, the third chapter, which for my money is chanted to the most beautiful of all nusachim (liturgical melodies). Each year I would listen to Perek Gimel and be envious of those who had mastered the tune, in particular the reading always done by Yehudah Gubani, the ageless Yemenite Jew from Bet Shemesh and Rosh Ivrit.
In addition to Eicha, the singing of songs like Eli Tzion with its mournful and solemn tune and meaning always spoke to me. (Click here to listen to an mp3 of Eli Tzion.) For me, Eicha and Tisha B’Av will always be about the way that it sounds when being experienced because it is so unique, just as the High Holidays will always lead me right to its unique sound and nusach. Reading Eicha, singing Eli Tzion, and remembering the story of Zion in the heat of the summer… there’s something about it that I’ll always hold on to.
Years have gone by; a full decade has passed since my last Ramah summer. In that time a lot has happened. I spent a year in Israel, I got married and had three kids, had a few jobs, and am now happily ensconced in Jewish professional life. I have been back to Ramah only twice since then for very brief visits. In those ten years, I took nine years off from observing Tisha B’Av. Last year, though, I decided to take on a new challenge and volunteer to read chapter three at my synagogue. I rediscovered the beauty of the tune and chanted the reading on Tisha B’Av. As I read Eicha by candlelight in an air-conditioned sanctuary, it wasn’t a great leap to close my eyes and be back on the basketball court at Ramah. Tisha B’Av by candlelight at Ramah is one of those memories that are always going to be just under the surface, ready to be accessed and relived, instantly associated by nature of the special connection between the place and the moment.