Count Valentine by Dan Butler

By the time you read this, Tisha B'Av will be over...If you're like most people, you went to work and your kids went swimming. So maybe you missed some of the flavor…In any event, this is a story worth hearing…

When I was a kid, we spent our summers on the ancestral farm that my grandfather left my three uncles. I have s stark memory extending back more than three decades of a particular Saturday night which coincided with Tisha B'Av.

The four of us were young. Sunset was late. Our mother had no transportation. Our father was back in the city, keeping the home fires burning. So we stayed in the bungalow on the farm in the woods on a night when we would otherwise have been in synagogue, I guess…

That night, my mother created a memory that has stayed with me ever since. It evokes better than anything else Tisha B’Av - the one day set aside for commemoration, a reminder of all the tragedies in the past, whether they occurred on that date or not - a sort of universal yahrzeit.

The theology of it is heartbreakingly simple; the Jews were nasty to each other. Because of that, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed — a symbol of the spiritual sovereignty they might otherwise have been able to pass on to descendants. When we earn it back, the Messiah will come. As you may have noticed, so far that hasn't happened. Tisha B'Av gives us the opportunity to work on lt.

CAUTION: This philosophical over-simplification is just that. It cannot replace the morally significant truism that as human beings: we ain't never gonna understand much of anything - especially the answer to that most puzzling yet most basic question: WHY?

Anyway, so my mother told us this story that night. In accordance with the rituals of Tisha B‘Av, she turned out the lights, lit candles and seated us on the floor - mourners for all that has befallen the Jews.

It's many years now — blame any inaccuracies on my poor memory:

In 1749, in the community of Vilna, a Polish nobleman named Count Valentine Potocki was so impressed by the Jews he met that he resolved to become one of them. He did
so at a time when converting from Catholicism to Judaism was a capital offense. Without benefit of constitutional rights, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to be burned at the stake – all in one fell swoop.

His royal birth and family connections earned him the opportunity to change his mind and publicly denounce Judaism and his own error. Every time the opportunity was given to him, he refused. On the day scheduled for his execution, when he was asked publicly to recant, he made a statement that went something like this:

"I spent my whole life searching for a bag of pennies. Now that I've found gold and diamonds, you want me to go back to searching for pennies?"
So they burned him at the stake. Publicly.
The way the story goes, one brave Jew disguised as a gentile (this was long before the homogenizing effect of designer clothing)… anyway, this costumed Jew managed to salvage some of the Count's ashes and what was left of one of his fingers. Count Potocki's earthly remains — some ashes and a finger — were buried in the Jewish cemetery in Vilna. According to legend, on that spot, a massive tree grew. For two-hundred years, on Tisha B'Av, the universal yahrzeit, thousands of Vilna's Jews would come to that spot and recite Kaddish
in tribute to that extraordinary convert. In the shade of that great tree.
So I go through every Tisha B'Av thinking of that giant tree. When my mother described it in the late '50's, the world had just witnessed the decimation of Lithuanian and Polish Jewry. There was still Tisha B'Av. There was still Kaddish. Maybe that tree still stood, but the Jews were gone.
Then my mother explained that the ideals of Judaism could survive whatever destructive forces they encountered in each generation. Wherever Jews found themselves. Even in a dark, cottage on a farm in the woods of the Catskill mountains. It would be our job to maintain those ideals.
This Tisha B'Av, I told that story to my children. Maybe you'll tell it to yours.
Them, maybe, just maybe –as cynicism fails me –if we all tell out children that story and pass on that message, there will be no need for our children to tell their children.