Sex, Joy, and Sisterhood – Ancient Jerusalem, Modern Alleghenies

 Tu B'Av Across Millennia: By Avi Katz

Click on this graphic, to expand and enjoy it. It is by Avi Katz of the Jerusalem Report,  where it illustrated an essay of mine on the healing of trauma. Like the poem of Steve Kovit that I quote below, it transports the erotic joy of the mid-summer full moon beyond all seas and across millennia.

How do we recover from collective trauma? What is the place of joy, the erotic, and social solidarity in letting us absorb and grow past our suffering?

Tonight, Monday night August 15, 2011,  in the Western calendar, begins what was in the ancient Jewish calendar a joyful festival celebrating sexuality.

The Mishna (a second-century outline of Jewish practice), reports that on the full-moon day of the mid-summer month of Av, there was a healing from the  day (the 9th of Av) of grief for the trauma of Destruction of the Temple The healing came on the seventh day after the mourning –a kind of Shabbat, or the end of the grief of shiva. 

  What could this ancient festival teach us today, as we seek to recover from the traumas of 9/11, the Naqba, the Holocaust, and many other profound shocks to our varied societies and even to the Earth?

The Mishna (Taanit 4:8) says:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, There were no holidays for Israel as great as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur.  For on them the daughters of Jerusalem would go forth in white garments they borrowed from each other, so as not to embarrass young women who could not afford dresses of rich finery. … And the daughters of Jerusalem would go forth and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? "Young man, lift up your eyes and see whom you choose for yourself.”

Recently I came across an American poem that echoed that wonder-filled festival. After its text, you will find below some additional thoughts about the Fifteenth of Av.


By Steve Kovit

Where the swollen Monongahela
Washes the Alleghenies
Wind perfumes the air with fine pollen
& butterflies flicker among the vines
& birds
abandoning all modesty
sing of paradise
in the cool branches.
Here young girls
Whirl about on the hillside,
Their summer dresses
Billowing out
Like colorful petals.
Shortly, young men will join them
& they will shriek with delight
& chase each other
& dance
& couple
by couple vanish
into the swaying field
where honey-bees feast
on the bells
of delicate flowers.

This day of joy and Eros, woven of the loving relationships that made sure the poor would not be embarrassed or the rich made arrogant, according to the Mishna echoes the moment in the Song of Songs that was  “the day of the gladness of the heart. " And that day, they said, was the day of the rebuilding of the Temple. So the 15th of Av was a way to heal the traumatic wounding they mourned upon the 9th.

On the full moon of Av some dozen years ago, my beloved Rabbi Phyllis Berman taught about the numbering of the day. If we were using the conventional Jewish numbering system for “15,” we might use the letters that make “YH” – 10 + 5. But these two letters make up one of the most sacred Names of God. So Jewish practice masked these numbers by counting instead “TU, 9+6.”

If only, Phyllis taught, we had the courage to say that on every full moon, “Yah,” the Breath of Life, is fully visible, audible, touchable, tastable!  In every breath, in every kiss.

Tonight and tomorrow, amongst wild woods and flowers, from Jerusalem to the Alleghenies, across millennia, the erotic fruitfulness of Humankind is reborn. Six months from tonight, on Yah B’Shvat, the Rebirth-Day of the Trees, the erotic fruitfulness is reborn of that Tree Whose roots are in Heaven and whose fruits are – us. And all the world.


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