Tisha B’Av and the Spirit of Chayim’s Violin

Very rarely would a person walk the streets of Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av (the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av) and hear the sweet Kabbalat Shabbat niggun (melody) of:

Zamru Adonai b’kinor, b’kinor v’kol zimrah.

“Praise Adonai with harp, with harp and voice of song.”

Psalm 98

Yet from under an open tent on the outdoor grounds of a nature museum in Jerusalem, these words wafted gently over a mourning city.  On Tisha B’Av, we commemorate the many calamanities that befell our people, especially aching over the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.  A week ago, I sat on cushions in this large open tent and listened to the chanting of Eicha (Lamentations) interspersed with modern poetry.  Afterward, I raised my voice with others in the singing of kinot (dirges).  The vivid images of the destruction of Jerusalem and the brokenness of the people who dwelled there inspired those around me to share spontaneous reflections and meditations on shattered souls.  An older man shared a story that his uncle once told him when he was a boy.

His uncle and father grew up in a small town on the outskirts of Russia.  Like many others, his uncle and father spent the latter part of the war in the camps.  They returned to their town after the war only to find their homes occupied by others who lived in their houses, cooked in their kitchens, but did not dream their same dreams.  Though it was difficult, the Jews of the town tried to make a life for themselves there again.  After a year of trying, they gave up and boarded a train to the west.  Before leaving, a man named Chayim returned to his former home and retrieved from a hidden spot his violin.

On the crowded train, people lost their patience easily.  When Chayim began to play his violin, he nearly got thrown off the train.  Yet, Chayim paid no heed to their jeers.  He played the the lullabies that put him to bed as a baby, the melodies of his youth, the zmirot (festive songs) of Shabbat. Slowly, slowly people began to hum along.  As he played song after song, zimrah after zimrah, the people from the village let loose full throat, singing the songs they had learned from their parents, and grandparents and great grandparents. They relived their shabbos dinners, their mornings in shul, the sweetness and pain of their lives.  They sang and they sang as the train approached the west losing themselves in the sweet and piercing songs of our people.

Then, without warning, Chayim smashed his violin, shattering it into pieces. When they reached the west, Chayim departed the train, never to be heard from again.

The man telling his uncle’s story cleared his throat and then told us his uncle’s last piece of advice:

We must find the pieces of life’s broken violin and continue to sing.

Many moments of silence followed this story.  After several minutes passed, the voice of a teenage girl began to sing quietly…

Zamru Adonai b’kinor, b’kinor v’kol zimrah.

Then more and more people joined…

Praise Adonai with harp, with harp and voice of song.

Soon, on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the spirit of Chayim- wherever he may be (and wherever he may be, may he be resting in peace) heard the songs of his childhood gently filling the streets of Jerusalem.

This past Shabbat, I sang these words again.  This time, in a room full of hundreds of Jews, we sang the words in a round, lifting our voices, piecing back a small part of Chayim’s violin.