A Tishah B’Av Exploration
Essay and Photography by Judah S. Harris
Tishah B’Av the world over is observed through fasting, expressions of mourning, the reading of Megillas Eichah, and the recitation of the Kinnos.
In our times, at least, communities and individuals have often supplemented these activities with additional experiences, hoping to communicate added meaning and relevancy to a day that has been with us for so long. I remember in the early ’90s photographing the annual torch-lit procession that takes place the night of Tishah B’Av at Camp Morasha in Lake Como, Pennsylvania; I’ve attended day-long learning programs in Brooklyn and some of the other boroughs; I’ve sat together with others in air-conditioned synagogue halls and multi-purpose rooms watching films (often taped interviews) produced especially for the day.
One Tishah B’Av afternoon in the late ’80s, just a few years after I had graduated from college, I decided I would wander around parts of Harlem and look at the structures that used to be synagogues. My grandfather was born in Harlem in 1900. As a young child and then a young man, Harold Harris attended Congregation Ohab Zedek at an earlier location, north of where it is today. Its full name was First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek, and Yossele Rosenblatt, as he always liked to mention, was the esteemed cantor.
My grandfather would proudly volunteer that information in the 1920s and 1930s during countless job interviews, when asked at some later stage of the meeting, after his credentials had been readily confirmed: “And, Mr. Harris, what church do you attend?” His response was always: “I belong to Congregation Ohab Zedek. Yossele Rosenblatt is the cantor . . .” I heard from him this story numerous times, along with the same ending sentence: “I’m sorry, Mr. Harris, but we don’t hire Jews.”
Decades later, I walked through Harlem on many Shabbosos and yomim tovim—probably more than 100 times over a number of years—trekking from my apartment in Washington Heights, where I was then living, to the Upper West Side, sometimes three miles, sometimes five, and sometimes doubling that with a return trip. I even organized a final Rosh Hashanah minyan at a shul on 157th Street. This also took place in the late ’80s and was thoroughly inspired by my Tishah B’Av afternoon walk to see the synagogues that once were. I wrote an eloquent message and papered the walls of Yeshiva University’s main campus with photocopied signs inviting students to be a part of the last synagogue in Harlem’s very last minyan. In actuality, the synagogue was just outside the boundaries of Harlem, two blocks north of the Hamilton Heights-Washington Heights border. It also wasn’t the very last synagogue in Harlem, but it was the southernmost of what’s referred to as Northern Manhattan. It had held on the longest and now with nearly zero congregants the shul was closing its doors for good.
Indeed, Harlem still has one active synagogue, which has received some nice press attention for just that reason, and which I have frequented on many occasions. The Old Broadway Synagogue, located a block east of the intersection of Broadway and 125th Street, is in fact the last remaining synagogue in Harlem and a reminder of a time, as coined in the title of one comprehensive book on the subject, “When Harlem Was Jewish.” The heyday was during the first two decades of the 1900s, and towards the latter part of this period the Jewish population, derived from the many who had emigrated from the Lower East Side, reached as high as 178,000. But as the Jewish migration away from Harlem began and quickly grew, relocating to locales such as the Bronx, Brooklyn, and the Upper West Side just to the south, the synagogues relocated too. Over the short span of nine years, the population dropped to only 5,000 Jews by the year 1930. For Jews, Harlem was over, and the houses of worship were abandoned. As any Tishah B’Av afternoon walk similar to mine will reveal, many former synagogues are now churches, some are empty, and some, whose large buildings are no longer existent, have been replaced by other constructions.
Visiting the places where synagogues once stood, where Jewish communities once thrived, can be one way of internalizing the meaning of Tishah B’Av, especially if the structures—their exterior architecture and Hebrew inscriptions—still remain visible but the life within them does not. Each of our synagogues in all the generations has been a “mikdash me’at,” a smaller version, a model of sorts of the Temples that stood once in Jerusalem. Tishah B’Av mourns the destruction of the Temples, and as the Talmud says, it is “a day of crying for the generations” that also laments the other calamities and trials of Jewish history. The Temple functioned then as a concrete sign of G‑d’s presence, of His relationship with the Jewish people, and its destruction continues to suggest His absence, even as we’ve grown well accustomed to the long exile.
We’re able today to visit the place where the Temple, the grandest of synagogues, once stood. In fact we can do so any day, whereas our parents or our grandparents, or great-grandparents, who lived prior to 1967, could not have had that opportunity even once. We’re all familiar with the euphoria that surrounded the unification of Jerusalem, the capture of the Temple Mount during the Six Day War; Mordechai Gur’s declaration that “the Temple mount is in our hands”; the sounding of the shofar; the recitation of the blessing of Shehecheyanu. But today the actual site of the destroyed Temple is a place almost too alive to truly feel the destruction and abandonment—I’ve found, at least. During the daytime it’s often bustling with people of all types, ringing with the sounds of prayer and conversation and nearby traffic. It’s a destination now and familiarity has softened its impact. In our times, the Kotel must be one of the most iconic of Jewish images, its looming presence, the strength and size of its stone, and even the knowledge that we are gazing at only a smaller section of the total expanse of the Western Wall.
I was more moved, admittedly, when I took a tour once of the archaeological excavations along the Southern Wall. The guide pointed out the stairs that led up to the Temple mount via Hulda’s Gate, commenting that these were the stairs that the people of Israel used when being oleh regel, visiting the Temple during the appointed holidays. For me, these stairs made it all the more real. It was a sunny day, the sounds of the crowds and the noises of the buses and cars, though recessed, could still be heard in the distance, but the steps that led up to the Temple mount, I thought, contained more of the narrative. There was a time when tens of thousands, even more, came to Jerusalem . . . to a Temple that was functioning, a combination of the miraculous and, as we know from ample descriptions, of the glorious. It was all so long ago, and some have the custom in the synagogue the night of Tishah B’Av to announce the number of years that have passed since the destruction of the Second Temple almost 2000 years ago.
In the synagogue a number of years ago on the Shabbos before Tishah B’Av, the rabbi spoke. He expressed the wish that this sorrowful day, which would fall on a Thursday, would in fact be transformed into a holiday, a day of celebration. This Thursday? I thought. Five days from now. Really? And yet an essential belief of Judaism is that we actively await the redemption. We believe it will yet come, and we wait for it each day. As listed by the Rambam (Maimonides), this basic tenet is understood to mean that each and every day we are hopeful of the redemption that G‑d will bring to the Jewish people “at the appropriate time.” And no matter in which generation it actually does occur, the entire nation, past and present, will benefit. We are all connected to the destiny of the Jewish people; each Jew is a necessary point on the continuum of Jewish history.
Indeed, this essential belief of awaiting the redemption conveys that just as Judaism as a religion is dynamic and not static, so too our history. There is more in store for us as a people, for sure, and also for the world at large. Much remains unresolved, as we well know. To believe in the imminent redemption is to feel a desire today for a closer relationship with G‑d. It’s to feel each day the absence of His presence, and like a child awaiting the return of a parent, who runs to the window to peek out from time to time, to know that something is missing, something is not complete. That year, Thursday was mighty soon, and this year, a Tuesday, is the same. But what about the question that faithful Jews probably wonder about on multiple occasions: “Will the Temple actually be rebuilt in my lifetime?” “In my lifetime” provides a little more room for opportunity, but it still sounds not much different, and perhaps no less a fantasy than “this Thursday . . . this Tuesday.”
But still the promise: “Those who mourn for Jerusalem will merit to see it in its joy,” says the Talmud (Taanit 30b), basing its assurances on a phrase in the last chapter of Isaiah that encourages all lovers of Jerusalem and all who’ve mourned for her to now rejoice in her revival and her rebirth.
Within the sadness of the Tishah B’Av day coexists a future holiday, a time of rejoicing. Within the mourning and sorrow lives the promise of happiness and of joy. The abandonment feels real, but the trajectory is more so. v
The photographs of Harlem synagogues first appeared in Mishpacha Magazine in August 2011. Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker, and writer. For a chance to study with him, join one of his summer or fall photo workshops. www.judahsharris.com/visit.