Thinking about women and food on Tisha B'Av
This Tuesday marked Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. Tisha B’Av is a Jewish fast day marking the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but over the years, it has come to serve as a symbolic day of mourning for tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people over the course of history. As is befitting for a text-loving people, Tisha B’Av provides many opportunities to recount stories of anti-Semitism and loss, particularly through the reading of elegies, or mournful laments, which are called kinnot. They include not only descriptions of the Temple’s destruction, but also a focus on other historical times of loss for the Jews, including periods from the Crusades to the Holocaust.
So why a post about Tisha B’Av on the JWA blog? For starters, women’s bodies are closely connected to the poetry of the kinnot. The most famous – the scroll of Eicha – uses characteristics of womanhood as a metaphor for the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Jerusalem is assigned a female gender, and the story of her destruction includes devastating metaphors that involve motherhood, widowhood and violence against women. For example, in the opening sentence of Eicha, Jerusalem’s isolation and solitariness is mourned, and the author of the text writes, “How is she become like a widow.” Later in the same chapter, the author mourns that he who might provide comfort is far away, and that the children of Jerusalem are desolate.
However, thinking about women’s bodies on Tisha B’Av extends beyond the poetry of Eicha. The defining aspect of ritual practice on Tisha B’Av is fasting, and many observant Jews abstain from all food and drink for 25 hours. Lots of Tisha B’Av programs (like this one in my area!) ask participants to bring food donations for local food banks to acknowledge that while some have the choice to fast in recognition of this day of mourning, many folks, Jews included, don’t have such an option. This brings us back to women: In many homes, providing food and drink to a family is a woman’s responsibility. Even as I type this, I can smell the banana bread that my mother and sister are baking in anticipation of the fast’s end! Women do much of the grocery-buying, food-budgeting, cooking, baking, and serving in our homes, and it is frequently (though not always) women who worry when there is not enough food to feed a family.
Women’s relationship to food is complicated in more ways than one, as this documentary about Orthodox teens and eating disorders clearly shows. Food is an intense component of our lives, and it accompanies many of our major celebrations. Perhaps Tisha B’Av is also an opportunity to think about how women’s lives are affected by lack when it comes to food – lack of time to eat it, lack of resources to access it, and lack of support in creating healthy connections with it.
Leora Jackson lives in Toronto, where she is writing her MA thesis in Gender Studies at Queen's University.