Grieving and Growing

by Lane Schnell / July 26, 2023

In this essay, Lane Schnell reflects on the parallels between Tisha B’Av and Germany’s Schicksalstag, or Fate Day, ultimately asking: How can we mourn purposefully?

Left: Francesco Hayez's Destruction of the Temple of Israel. Right: The fall of the Berlin Wall by Arthur bon Moltke

Left: Francesco Hayez’s “Destruction of the Temple of Israel.” Right: The fall of the Berlin Wall, photographed by Arthur bon Moltke.

In my hometown, every incoming middle-schooler had to pick a foreign language to study. From a list of Spanish, French, and German, I picked German, partially to honor my family’s heritage and partially to avoid the crowds that flocked to the other two options. Most of the class was spent on vocabulary and grammar exercises, but every few weeks we’d do a project on German history. 

Most of these units covered familiar topics like Otto von Bismarck or the Cold War, but one of them introduced me to a less well-known, yet no less crucial, part of German history: Schicksalstag, or Fate Day. Several decisive moments in German history have occurred on November 9th, the most famous and most recent being the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Other significant November 9th events include Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogroms carried out by the Nazi party against Jewish communities, and the 1918 announcement of Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication, which ended the German monarchy. Schicksalstag has never been made an official holiday — many people have reservations about making it one, for reasons I’ll get into — but most Germans acknowledge the gravity of the day.

When I began my Jewish education, I noticed oddly specific similarities between the holiday of Tisha b’Av and the German Schicksalstag. Both Tisha b’Av and Schicksalstag commemorate five culturally significant historical events, and both days fall on the ninth day of their respective months.

Tisha b’Av (literally “ninth of Av”) is the culmination of a season of mourning that begins three weeks prior and intensifies on the first of the Hebrew month of Av. Historically, Jews recited poems of lamentation, avoided pleasurable foods and activities, and, for the day itself, fasted from sundown on the eighth until nightfall on the ninth. For modern American Jews like me, these customs can seem out of place for the season. My summer is usually filled with barbecues, baseball games, family vacations, and, most importantly, no school.

The Mishna gives us five calamities to mark: the loss of faith among the Israelites after hearing the reports of the spies Moses sent into the land of Israel, the destruction of the First Temple, the destruction of the Second Temple, the Roman crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt, and the razing of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by the Roman governor. Later rabbinical authorities added events of their own times to the remembrances. The 1290 expulsion of Jews from England, the 1492 expulsion from Spain, and the 1942 liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto all also happened on or around Tisha b’Av. When we stop drinking, singing, and dancing, Jews are not just mourning a lost relative or a community member; we are mourning lost generations, lost holy sites, and lost ways of life.

This is where, at least conventionally, Tisha b’Av and Schicksalstag diverge. Tisha b’Av is solely a sorrowful occasion, where we lament the historical destruction and repeated suffering our communities have experienced in an effort to validate the struggles of our ancestors. Schicksalstag is more of a mixed bag. Bad or good, the events that Schicksalstag marks are moments of upheaval in German history. They permanently changed the social fabric, legal structure, and political landscape of the country, in both horrifying and inspiring ways. The 1923 Beer Hall Putsch paved the way for the Nazis’ rise to power. The overthrow of the monarchy marked the beginning of the first democracy in German history. Schicksalstag has no prescribed rituals of mourning, nor celebratory traditions. It is, instead, a time to contemplate uncertainty and opportunity, for both the nation and the individual.

I submit that we bring this expansive mindset to Tisha b’Av. Our mourning should not be only for mourning’s sake, which can trap us in feelings of bitterness and grievance; in acknowledging that something important has been lost, we must also welcome the opportunity to rebuild. Whether we have lost our Temples, our communities, or ourselves, we have reached a hinge point, full of possibilities, where we can transform our grief into more sustainable things.

As the late Rabbi Harold Kushner said, “Grit your teeth and let it hurt. Don’t deny it, don’t be overwhelmed by it. It will not last forever. One day, the pain will be gone and you will still be there.” For our own health and growth, we have to live both beyond and with our grief. If we allow ourselves to be swallowed whole by it, there will be no time in our lives to outlive it.

I don’t mean for this idea to override the customs surrounding Tisha b’Av. Our sages teach that we should not hold joyous life cycle events, like weddings, during the Three Weeks, because it is akin to discussing happy matters in a house of mourning (which upsets the deceased there, since they cannot participate in the conversation). Taking time and space to grieve is important and healthy, especially for civilization-wide losses. 

In fact, this is an area where Schicksalstag can actually learn from Tisha b’Av. There have been long-standing debates in German society as to whether November 9 should be made a national holiday. Some feel that acknowledging the day celebrates its more horrific events, like Kristallnacht, while others, like German historian Wolfgang Niess, believe making the day a holiday is an important part of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the German cultural process of coming to terms with the country’s past). He argues that establishing Schicksalstag as a national holiday doesn’t have to make it a wholly joyous event, and points out that the former East Germany took the day to both celebrate the 1918 establishment of German democracy and remember the victims of the 1938 pogrom.

The now-reunified government’s policy of generally ignoring the day altogether erases not only the triumph of overthrowing the monarchy, but also dismisses the suffering of those who survived — and those who did not survive — Kristallnacht. There is no time dedicated to mourning, and no pre-fabricated mechanisms by which to express one’s grief.

Still, our grief should not overwhelm us. It should inspire us to be more dedicated to our Jewish practices and communities, to bring even more happiness and light into our lives in the rest of the year. When an individual dies, we’re often reminded that tomorrow is never promised; the same is true on a cultural level. Jewish continuity is not a guarantee, so we ought to live more Jewishly today, in the here and now. This is a way to bring the hopes and dreams of Jews of centuries past to fruition—who often could not be openly joyous in their Jewishness— not an effort to criticize them. Mourning acknowledges their loss—a loss we’ve inherited—but renewed discussion about the beauty of our people and our resilience prevents Jewish history from being reduced to suffering and misery.

If the traditional Tisha b’Av fast doesn’t resonate with you, or isn’t feasible, this shift in mindset could open up new practices to honor the day. Instead of (or in addition to) abstaining from food, or spending the day in mournful prayer, take the day to contemplate your cultural and spiritual roots. Who were your ancestors? What did they go through, good and bad? How can you honor their sacrifices in the year ahead? The same questions can be asked by and of our communities as a whole.

The prohibitions that our sages created for this season (no shaving, swimming, eating meat, etc.) always seemed to me like a meaningless list of burdens that interrupt daily life. But after digging a little deeper, I think of these restrictions as a means to a meaningful end. Because they are an atypical set of behaviors, they force us to both act and think differently than we would normally, which allows us to open our minds for the reflection and contemplation that we don’t always make time for during the rest of the year. However, these material customs can be foregone if we exercise enough mental discipline to make space for all this mourning and reflection. So whether you fast and pray; or sit, read, and think; I hope that it brings you closer to your own Jewishness in the coming year, remembering that your people are rooted in resilience.

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