Sunday, July 18, 2010

931. Is nisht

For some reason today I thought about a phrase that permeated my youth--I can't recall exactly who said, it, or when, but probably everyone, all the time: "So, is nisht." I never learned to speak Yiddish, but when I was a child most of the people taller than me did, so I'm left with a sort of sense memory of many words. Perhaps it was a shortened version of "nisht gerferlach", "not so bad". I remember it meaning something like today's "Whatever...", a sigh of resignation acknowledging that life isn't perfect, but it's time to close the last chapter with a resilient thwack of the pages and move on. Or, in the words of my cousin Bunny z"l, "You do what you do."

It's very hot. It's been very hot for weeks, turning most New Yorkers, including myself, into boiling, inert, annoyed people. So, is nisht. Yesterday at services the rabbi reflected on his longstanding curiosity about why far more people come to services on Tisha be-Av*, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, than Yom Ha'atzma'ut, one of the most joyous. Why does mourning come easier than celebrating our greatest modern miracle? He quoted from Aviva Zornberg's latest book, The Murmuring Deep, and (I am simplifying radically) her observations on the psychological aftermath of being "the chosen people." Why us? Are we worthy? Did we really deserve to survive all the unspeakable tragedies that befell us? And what of the ones not chosen--where do our responsibilities to those others begin and end? Biblical characters grappled with these questions (i.e., were neurotic) long before Freud put names to the problems, and we continue to do so. One way is by seeking out opportunities, such as Tisha be-Av, to relive our pain, which is more familiar to us than our triumphs. In doing so, we remind our still-incredulous selves that we really did survive.

As he spoke, I thought of my more immediate struggle with a similar concept, my postponed stem cell donation. Why was I chosen? No reason at all, most likely. It just happened, one of many great random acts of the universe. But if that's how God works,maybe the same is true of the Jewish people--there is no great plan, and we were chosen just because. We are bound to do our job as good Jews nevertheless. It is a baffling and unsatisfying answer, usually the case when trying to apply logic to theology. What really counts is how we react to this knowledge. This unknown woman has already taught me about patience, and living in the moment (and enhanced the coffers of JDate, eHarmony, and a couple of local coffee shops and bars in the process). I hope I may one day return the favor, and can only pray that knowing I remain in the wings will help her find hope and strength.

(Bracha bat Sarah has also helped me gain the smallest bit of insight into the suffering of families of those at war. How to ever relax, or stay sane, when you don't know if your loved one will return? I've never even met this woman, but whether she will live or die is always in my consciousness.)

So, is nisht, it remains above 90 degrees everywhere in the U.S. (except, I hope and pray, Alaska), and I continue to work too hard and take a few breaks during the day to practice my upcoming trope triple play (chapter 4 of Eikha tomorrow night; the Torah reading on Tuesday morning; haftarah at Tuesday Minha). I didn't set out to be such an active participant in Tisha be-Av, but it just sort of happened after a few years of saying yes whenever the cantor needed someone to chant. Maybe there's a greater reason behind it, who knows, and I am learning something that I will one day understand.

* Which I grew up pronouncing "Tish Above"--maybe that's the Yiddish way--only to learn in the last few years that it's properly called "Teesh-ah-bay-Av." Which feels a little too modern on my tongue, and elicits stares from Jewish friends who don't go to my synagogue, so I usually compromise somewhere in between the two.

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