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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Brushing away the dust

I was a little curious when I glanced at my stats this morning and noticed a series of ‘hits’ from the Department of Commerce in Boulder Colorado, starting at 6:45AM. Then it occurred to me that this was precisely the time I had finished my first cup of coffee… and suddenly it all began to make sense. You see, I am now vibrating at exactly the same frequency as the Cesium atom… and the folks who maintain the Atomic clock over there in Colorado were just checking in to make sure their clocks are correct.

In short... Always happy to help out the scientific community!

To quote a wonderful fiction blogger named Queenie: "Definition of me: Standing over the fresh pot of... coffee on my kitchen counter, my arms outstretched, exclaiming, "Look what I have created!""

Anyhoo… as the title of today’s post suggests, this entry is not about my renewed state of caffeination, but rather the more somber events of Tisha B’Av.

Monday night, a few minutes before sunset, Zahava and I put the kids into the car and drove twenty minutes into the Judean Desert. Our destination: the ruins of King Herod’s mountain fortress; Herodyon.

We weren’t alone in our journey.

Like the scene from the end of ‘Field of Dreams’ (where the long line of headlights weaved slowly through the cornfields at dusk)… we were near the head of a procession of cars winding through the desert landscape towards a mountain that looks for all the world like a volcano.


Along the way, the winding road took us through several Arab villages, so there was a reassuringly frequent encounter with army patrols, check points, and border police. Each time we came upon a uniformed presence, we were greeted with the traditional, “Tzom Kal” (translation: [your] fast [should be] easy). The overwhelming majority of these soldiers are not religiously observant. In their homes around the country, they may, or may not, have marked Tisha B’Av by fasting or reading the book of Lamentations. But being Jewish… and wearing the uniform of Israel’s modern army on the anniversary of the destruction of our ancient national aspirations… these teenaged Jewish soldiers offered this traditional greeting as if to acknowledge their connection to the date… the place… and the long line of their fellow Israelis winding towards Herodyon.

Another reason Jews traditionally wish one other an ‘easy fast’, is because one shouldn’t offer normal greetings (such as ‘Hi’, ‘How are you?’, etc.) on a day of mourning. Handshakes and hugs are not exchanged, and even within a crowd, one is encouraged to refrain from levity.

As we got closer to Herodyon, the volcano-like appearance became more pronounced. King Herod, who also built the mountain fortress of Masada, essentially took this mountain… sliced off the top… and scooped out the insides before constructing a desert palace for himself. Here is what it would have looked like in its day:


Long after Herod was gone from the scene, this fortress became a refuge for Jews fleeing the destruction being wrought in Jerusalem by Titus’ Roman Legions. The Jews who stood on top of Herodyon on Tisha B’Av in 70 C.E. were able to clearly see the smoke and flames from Jerusalem as the Temple was being destroyed. The feeling of hopelessness most have been overwhelming!

And so we came to the same spot to sit on the stones and on the ground… they way they most have sat… in order to continue mourning over those terrible events.

Since it was inappropriate to exchange greetings on Tisha B’Av, the hundreds of people streaming up onto the mountain acknowledged one another with nods, weak smiles and the inevitable ‘Tzom Kal’. This reserved behavior further emphasized the sense of loss, and set the tone for the scene inside the mountain fortress.


As we descended the stairs/ ramp into the fortress interior, the broken pillars, tumbled building stones, and whispering desert wind further hushed the assembled crowd until nearly all available space was filled with somber mourners, seated in the dust.

As the sun set in the distance, the assembled group of people got to their feet, turned to face Jerusalem and began the evening service (Aravit). The adults prayed, and the children wandered tentatively through the crowds. Even thought the kids seemed less aware of the specifics of the occasion (no hurry… they will learn the heartrending details soon enough)… they were markedly more reserved in this setting, and most took their cues from the demeanor of the adults.

After the conclusion of the evening service, the crowd broke up into smaller groups, seeking out little sheltered niches around the windy mountain and began reading the book of Lamentations aloud.

I have heard Lamentations read every year since I was 18, but have always had trouble connecting the comfortable surroundings of the synagogue with the destruction described in the book. Sitting in the dust with my back against a broken pillar… with a direct line-of-sight to the remains of the Temple mount in Jerusalem… I felt no such disconnect.

The circumstance separating the assembled crowd on this Tisha B’Av from the crowd that sat and mourned here in 70 C.E., is that we had a small glimmer of hope… ‘The first flowering of the redemption’… waiting for us outside this ruined fortress. There are once again Jewish soldiers manning the ramparts of a sovereign Jewish state, and despite the best efforts of those who would gladly see us once again led into slavery (or worse), we were privileged to brush away the dust… walk down the mountain… and resume writing the story that was interrupted almost two millennia ago.


* All photos are from the Ministry of Tourism.
** Thanks to my friend Ben Chorin (no, not his real name), who spotted me on Herodyon and [correctly] assumed I would write about my experience.

Posted by David Bogner on July 28, 2004 | Permalink


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Wow. I've been to Masada, but I've never even heard of Herodyon. It's absolutely amazing.

And that was totally worth the wait. I swear, my own ignorance amazes me sometimes...

Posted by: Tanya | Jul 28, 2004 5:38:14 PM

It's good you made it there...even though I only had the pleasure on a yom chol, it's a place I didn't want to miss.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Jul 28, 2004 6:35:06 PM

again, you words are erudite and clear (yes i know that was redundant, and repetitive.) Tisha B'Av is just not the same here. One more reason for me to move there, I guess. Although, I fervently hope that next year there is no Tisha B'av.
enjoy the caffeine!

Posted by: Faye | Jul 29, 2004 2:08:49 AM

Tanya... I wouldn't call it 'ignorance'... there are plenty of places here in Israel that I've never heard of or visited. And as far as Herodyon itself... the pictures don't begin to do it justice.

Mademoiselle A... I should probably check with you before I go anywhere... it seems you've been to every nook and cranny of this beautiful country! Remind me again why you aren't living here?!

Faye... if you are serious about moving here, don't make the mistake that we did. Just pack you stuff and move. Inertia is a terrible thing.

Posted by: David | Jul 29, 2004 8:53:00 AM

The pictures are beautiful.
I find, that here in the States, we are so very removed from the destruction of the Temple, that it is very difficult to properly mourn it. The only way I can induce some emotion is by conjuring up images based on Eicha and the Kinnos. I envy you Israelis for being able to be where it happened, and to see the remains of the glory that once was.

Posted by: Moshe Y. Gluck | Jul 29, 2004 10:36:03 AM

Herodian was one of the first archeological sites we visited as college students way back in '73.

The one thing about Israel that always give me chills is the amount of history that is underfoot at all times. I still remember the spine tingle I got the first time I stood on those Roman era paving blocks in the Cardo in Jerusalem or the first time I visited Megiddo with the Jezreel Valley stretching out ahead, the site of numerous battles between the Egyptians and Assyrians, or when I dug in Beersheva. I did pottery restoration there and when my thumb slipped into the dent that the original potter made while making the storage jar, some 2000 years ago, I nearly freaked out.

Time for another cuppa!

Posted by: jennifer | Jul 29, 2004 10:48:21 AM

I fervently hope that next year there is no Tisha B'av.

Sorry to be clueless again, but what does that mean? Does Tisha B'Av go away when the Temple is rebuilt? Or am I on the wrong track?

Posted by: Tanya | Jul 29, 2004 7:04:46 PM

Moshe... you are right, except for the tense. I prefer to say, "That glory that is, and will be".

Thanks for stopping by!

Jennifer... I got chills reading your post. Whenever I am walking around any of the ruins in the Judean desert near our home, I like to pick up some of the many pottery shards from the ground and picture the potter... the person who used it last... the person who broke it, etc.

Tanya... Don't feel bad. Even the great sages aren't in perfect agreement about things like this. But many people are of the opinion that once the Messiah comes, Tisha B'Av will become a happy holiday instead of a day of mourning. I like the idea.

Posted by: David | Jul 29, 2004 9:15:04 PM

not inertia, severe lack of funds resulting from a divorce. However, B"H things are looking up, and G-D willing either next year or the year after I will really be able to call the Holy Land home.

Posted by: Faye | Jul 30, 2004 2:42:26 AM

You are very right!
I stand corrected.

Posted by: Moshe Y. Gluck | Jul 30, 2004 4:58:28 AM

A wonderfully moving post...thank you for sharing so that those of us who could not be there felt like we were.

Posted by: celestial blue | Jul 31, 2004 9:58:54 PM

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