Bay Area catching on to Tu BAv, Jewish holiday of love

It was the summer of 1978, and Tsipi Gabai, age 21 and newly married, went to a music festival on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

“I’ll never forget that evening,” said Gabai, now the rabbi at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito. “They invited famous singers and musicians to sing all about love and peace… People were selling roses and flowers and wine… Outside on the beach people were dancing. It was packed.”

Revelers at a Tu B’Av White Party thrown by Zehut Photo/Courtesy Miryum Mochkin Depiction of a historical celebration in Israel Photo/Creative Commons

The crowd was celebrating a minor Jewish holiday that had only recently become popular in Israel, and that is still little known outside of it: Tu B’Av, or the Jewish holiday of love.

On this day in ancient Israel, it is said, young women would wear white and dance in the vineyards during the full moon to attract men. Interest in Tu B’Av was revived in fits and starts in 20th-century Israel, driven early on by a Zionist desire to reconnect with the land even before Israel was a state. Young pioneers celebrated in vineyards where women would dance and wear white, and Tel Aviv residents held Tu B’Av parties in the 1920s and ’30s. Later, annual music festivals became popular and cemented the holiday in the cultural landscape.

“It was part of a larger phenomenon of reclaiming,” said Rachel Brodie, a Berkeley-based Jewish educator and former chief Jewish officer of the JCC of San Francisco.

Today the holiday is considered propitious for engagements and marriages and is celebrated as a kind of Jewish Valentine’s Day. It falls on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, this year starting at sundown on Aug. 18.

Gabai grew up in a traditional Sephardic family in the north of Israel, and Tu B’Av was familiar to her from an early age, with four of her eight siblings married on the holiday. She recalls her rabbi father running around officiating three or four weddings on Tu B’Av every year (later, two of Gabai’s own children would choose the holiday for their weddings).

“I remember people fighting for that day to get married,” said Gabai, whose father would have to turn down requests, explaining to disappointed couples: “I cannot run from Haifa to Tel Aviv on the same evening.”

Tu B’Av celebrants dance at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet in 1944. photo/courtesy ofra brill

But what struck Gabai at the festival in 1978 was the fact that the people celebrating Tu B’Av were secular, not religious. “When I grew up, people were encouraged to do acts of lovingkindness and mitzvot on Tu B’Av. It was a day for engagement,” said Gabai. “It was incredible to see secular people celebrate this holiday with roses and flowers.”

What Gabai observed nearly 40 years ago has picked up in recent decades. Today in Israel, restaurants and bars are packed on Tu B’Av, which has been fully embraced by nonobservant Jews. People give chocolates and flowers to their sweethearts, and wedding venues are booked well in advance. Yet outside of Israel, the holiday remains virtually unknown.

That obscurity hasn’t stopped some American Jewish organizations from experimenting with Tu B’Av celebrations to build connections with the Jewish community. In the Bay Area, visitors to the JCC of San Francisco will be able to request custom poems written on the spot by a poet sitting at a typewriter in the atrium at the third annual “Tu B’Av Poetry Pop-Up.” On Russian Hill, Zehut, a young adult program sponsored by North Beach Chabad, will hold its fourth annual garden White Party, which last year drew more than 150 white-clad attendees. Congregation Beth David in Saratoga will mark Tu B’Av for the second year in a row, this time with a “That’s the Power of Love!” party with food, drinks, learning and a film screening. For the first time, InterfaithFamily will hold a Tu B’Av bar night for couples along the Embarcadero in San Francisco and Big Tent Judaism will hold a Love Story Slam in a Petaluma café where attendees will get five minutes to share their own love stories, both touching and cringeworthy.

Elana and Yehuda Gabai (brother of Rabbi Tsipi Gabai) celebrate their wedding on Tu B’Av in 1979. photo/courtesy rabbi tsipi gabai

“There are no rituals involved, so that makes it immediately accessible,” said Rabbi Peretz Mochkin of North Beach Chabad.

The textual basis of Tu B’Av is so sparse that it lends itself to wide interpretation. What does seem clear is that it is a historic day of joy that, in celebrating love, emphasizes relationships, marriages and the creation of families. The contemporary practices are influenced by Valentine’s Day traditions, but unlike that February holiday, Tu B’Av has the advantage of falling in the summer, when lovers may be tempted to linger outside on long, warm nights.

“For the secular community, it doesn’t really have a lot of restrictions like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach,” Gabai said. No special meals or synagogue trips are expected; there are no prohibitions on work or travel. “It’s a day to love, a day of simcha, a day of joy.”

The original reference to Tu B’Av is in the Mishnah, dating to the second century and attributed to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel: “There were no happier days for the people of Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Jerusalem go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards.”

Rabbi Tsipi Gabai

“It’s the Jewish Sadie Hawkins Day,” said Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad in Berkeley. “That’s when the girls chase the boys.”

Well, not chase, exactly. But the line from the Mishnah referring to a joyful Tu B’Av commonly has been understood to describe a bucolic courtship ritual. By dancing to attract men, women weren’t exactly putting themselves in the driver’s seat, but they were taking an active role in finding a match. They wore white not just to connote simplicity and purity, but to place themselves on an equal plane.

“It wasn’t just that the women wore white, it was that they borrowed each other’s clothes,” explains Brodie. “You’d reduce the possibility of [men] being influenced by someone’s economic status.”

Of course, the other holiday when Jews traditionally wear white is Yom Kippur, which seems to have a puzzling connection to Tu B’Av. Most Jews today wouldn’t use the word “happy” to describe Yom Kippur, yet apparently in ancient times the two days were considered the happiest of the year.

Girls dancing on Tu B’Av in pre-state Israel, 1921 photo/wikipedia

“Yom Kippur has an association with us as heaviness, but the truth is it’s often romanticized as a spiritually elevated day,” said Rabbi David Kasher, rabbinic educator at Kevah, an organization that helps people establish independent Jewish learning groups. “Yom Kippur is supposed to be a spiritual union: reuniting with God. Tu B’Av is a physical union: two people.”

The later writers of the Talmud seemed to be not quite sure what Tu B’Av signified, but they suggested it could be the day that members of the tribe of Benjamin were again allowed to marry members of the other tribes of Israel after the brutal civil war detailed in the Book of Judges. Thus, the romantic unions signify the reconciliation of the Jewish people.

Tu B’Av falls just six days after Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple and other tragedies. Tisha B’Av is preceded by three weeks of mourning, during which weddings are prohibited. It is considered the saddest day of the Jewish year.

“The worst day of the year is the ninth of Av, and the nicest day of the year is just a few days later,” Ferris said. “It’s a balance. How do you go from the depths of despair” to the happiest day of the year, he asked.

“Tu B’Av is the first date after the mourning period that you can leverage to party and celebrate love,” said Ravit Baer, deputy consul general at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, who grew up in Israel. “Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of Jerusalem. According to Midrash, the destruction of Jerusalem happened because of hatred for no reason. They say, ‘Then we need to love without reason.’ ”

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris

The celebration is said to date from the Second Temple period. The first-century Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus describes Tu B’Av as a day when offerings were brought to the Temple. But the holiday largely fell out of observance for the next two millennia; the only thing that set the day apart was a small modification to the sequence of daily prayers.

Now it’s as busy as Valentine’s Day, with couples getting each other gifts and going to parties and on dates.

“It’s a secular holiday where people aren’t obligated to go to synagogue or have a family dinner,” said    Katja Edelman, spokes­­­­­person for the Israeli Consulate, who will be hosting a Tu B’Av-themed Shabbat dinner for friends in her San Francisco apartment this year. “It’s definitely just a holiday where you really feel it in the atmosphere when you’re walking down the street [in Israel]. You see men carrying flowers.”

For American couples who sometimes feel on the outside of Jewish life, such as intermarried couples, Tu B’Av can be particularly inviting, said Rabbi Mychal Copeland, director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area. That’s because neither partner in the relationship knows much about it. “I love it when interfaith couples can be on equal footing,” she said.

Plus, she added, the Jewish community often focuses only on the problems with interfaith relationships. Holding an interfaith Tu B’Av celebration is a chance to celebrate the love that two people have found in each other. Copeland has planned a meetup for interfaith couples at the Cupid’s arrow sculpture on the Embarcadero where they will talk about the holiday, then continue the celebration at a nearby bar.

Though Tu B’Av’s lack of outward religiosity makes it feel like a lighter holiday, love is no trivial business.

“It’s hope and renewal and rebuilding and creating a Jewish life together,” said Judith Gottesman, a modern-day Jewish matchmaker based in the Bay Area. “There’s a Jewish idea that everyone has a match out there.”

 Said Ferris: “One of the holiest things is to cause two people, two halves of the same soul, to come together again.”

For a listing of Bay Area Tu B’Av events, see this week’s Calendar.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.