On Yom Kippur, we ask “Who by fire?” Sadly, this year at Tisha B’Av we already know who: the 19 firefighters who perished in Arizona on June 30.
“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement.
Unknowingly, the governor connected me to the mood of the ninth of Av, the Jewish day of mourning that begins this year on the evening of Monday, July 15. I find myself reflecting on those who gave their lives so that others would not die or lose their homes in fire.
Tisha B’Av marks a day on which we are supposed to connect with pain and loss. It’s a day to wail about how the awful happened and why.
The flames from the destruction of the First and Second Temples, as well as other tragedies that we remember on Tisha B’Av, seem so distant until a story of flames and heroism burns a connecting path.
All but one of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hot-shots, an elite firefighting crew trained in wildfire suppression, died in an effort to protect a subdivision near the small town of Yarnell. None of the victims were Jewish, yet their loss and the mourning of their loved ones cannot help but remind us at this time of year of those Jews who died in flames.
The Arizona Forestry Division reported that the Yarnell Hill fire started from a lighting strike, not, as in much of Jewish history, from the torch of a conquering army or a homicidal mob. Yet the result is the same: Wives are without husbands, children without fathers, parents without sons.
Some 30 miles away from Yarnell, where many of the memorials to the firefighters have been held, is Prescott, Ariz., a city with Jews in its present and its past. According to the University of Arizona’s Southwest Jewish Archives, in 1928, the Ku Klux Klan marched past the M. Goldwater store, owned by Michael Goldwater (Goldwasser), who was presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s Jewish great-grandfather.
Today there is a congregation in Prescott, Temple B’rith Shalom, where Rabbi Jessica Rosenthal was planning to hold a memorial service to honor those who had been killed or injured in the blaze. Unfortunately, memorial services and mourning are aspects of life with which we have too much experience.
On Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, we have customs that connect us to tragedy. Traditionally, we do not eat, drink or bathe; there is no sex; and as a sign of mourning we do not wear leather, which is considered a sign of luxury. In some communities during services, the worshippers sit on the floor or on low stools and recite prayers in a subdued voice.
On Tisha B’Av, we also chant Eicha, a dirge that in part poetically and painfully captures the fall of Jerusalem. Filled with phrases such as, “their faces are blacker than soot,” it conjures up images of flames. Eicha is dense with anguish and in places it is difficult to follow. But as I reread it recently, after following the stories of the firefighters’ wives, those who lost husbands and the fathers of their children, phrases that once made little sense began to pop from the page, helping me to connect to their loss:
“Panic and pitfall are our lot
Death and destruction.
My eyes shed streams of water
Over the ruin of my poor people.”
Reading Eicha, which in Hebrew means “how,” who could not but think of how these men died protecting their community? “None survived or escaped,” the text says. In Eicha we also find the words, “Why have you forgotten us utterly” and “pour out your hearts like water.”
Transporting the agony of Eicha to Arizona were the words of Patricia Huston, who is married to a member of a different Interagency Hotshot crew. She wrote a few days after the tragedy on the Wildland Firefighter’s Wives blog, “The poor wives who were greeted by a uniformed official knocking on their door last night. I can’t even imagine.”
Huston also wrote a Hotshot Firefighters Prayer. It closes this way:
“For if this day on the line,
I should lose my life,
Lord, bless my Hotshot Crew,
my children and my WIFE.”
Perhaps in prescient conversation, Eicha responds, “Our dancing has turned into mourning.” But closing on words of hope it ends, “Renew our days as of old.”