Singles event Ancient festival of Tu BAv still eludes definition

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During the Second Temple period, a young Jewish maiden would celebrate Tu B'Av by dancing in a white frock through the groves outside Jerusalem in a brazen hunt for her beshert (soulmate).

Bay Area Jews — men and women — more recently have observed the Jewish version of Valentine's Day with singles picnics and even an outdoor memorial service for deceased rock legend Jerry Garcia.

This year, about 100 people marked the holiday with Frisbee games, volleyball and other leisure activities in a sunny meadow at Golden Gate Park last Sunday.

Some preferred to read in the shade of evergreens while others tie-dyed T-shirts, got their faces painted and shmoozed into the late hours of the afternoon.

In keeping with the holiday's romantic tradition, representatives of a new Internet matchmaking service, Yenta, gave demonstrations of their online love software on a laptop computer.

As there are no inroads to the information superhighway in Golden Gate Park, the matchmakers were forced to use a wireless modem to connect patrons to Jews as far away as Israel and Australia. No matches were reported.

Many regular attendees of the San Francisco Tu B'Av celebration — dubbed Barefoot in the Park — noted its variety of formats over the years. This year, organizers expanded on that tradition by including new faces. While it is still advertised as a singles event, co-sponsors Simcha and Congregations Sha'ar Zahav and Sherith Israel more recently have encouraged families and couples to join in.

Perhaps for that reason, many on Sunday were unaware that they were at a singles event.

Among those were three women, a couple and a single, who sat in the grass and chatted among themselves while waiting for dance music performed by the Israeli singer Misha.

One of the women, who wished not to be named, said she frequents events featuring live Jewish music and had agreed to meet her friends at Sunday's festival. Her friend, Stephanie Grodt of San Francisco, said she anticipated a family day with activities for children.

Lounging on a blanket nearby, the Kim and Richard Brandt family chuckled at the notion that the event was planned for singles. They had been looking forward to a community picnic in the park.

Said Marc Feder, who came with his girlfriend, Pam Klores, to play volleyball, "I call it `Jews in the park.'"

Barefoot in the Park "is a nice way to hang out…in the park. I've always come with my friends."

And Deborah Winstein, an employee of the Marin Jewish Community Center, said it's a good way to meet people in the Jewish community, "where you're not pressured to get dressed up and put on a false show."

The ancients also had an array of ideas about the celebration and origins of Tu B'Av.

By some accounts the holiday marked the beginning of the wine harvest in ancient Israel. Many celebrated by bringing kindling wood to the Temple altar.

The Talmud gives six other events that might have something to do with celebration on the 15th day of Av:

*It was the only time of year that tribes were allowed to intermarry.

*The Benjamites were readmitted into the community.

*It was a day for remembering the Israelites who died in the Sinai Desert for delivering a false report about spies to Moses (Numbers 14:32).

*Tu B'Av marked the last king of the Israelite kingdom.

*The Romans permitted the burial of the soldiers who fell in the defense of Bar Kochba's last stronghold.

*It was on Tu B'Av that the practice of chopping wood for the Temple was stopped because the sun was no longer strong enough to dry it.

Joked Sha'ar Zahav congregant Joe Hample, "How that got translated into the lovers' holiday, I don't know."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.