Contemplating Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)
It’s never a happy holiday. There are no feasts, or prayers of happiness, or triangular cookies. It lacks the Zionist appeal of Israel Independence Day, and while solemn like Yom Kippur, Yom Hashoah pales in comparison.
Part of it was the last-minute time switch, delaying the beginning of the ceremony by 45 minutes. People who got there “on time” found themselves locked out. Only by running into each other on the street did five of us manage to figure out what happened. Then the speaker showed up with her husband. Add two to the grand total of attendees. By the time the program at my local synagogue started, I could count the number of people using the digits on both hands and only one foot. Five toes left over for stragglers, I thought.
As I sat there, listening to a Holocaust survivor (although she defines survivor as someone who lived through the war in Europe; since she and her family escaped in 1939, her self-definition included only the word “refugee”) speak about her experience and about the newly opened wing at Battery Park’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, I became immensely sad. Appropriate because of the day, for certain. But my sadness went deeper than the older woman’s words, or the intensity of the experience she related. In this same synagogue space, we had packed the building for Purim, with people standing around socializing, eating and drinking for hours. Even without refreshments, Tisha B’Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple, was standing-room only. What was different about Yom Hashoah? Was it less important? Would anyone of the people who were for some reason missing from this gathering say that 6 million Jews dead and countless others emotionally and physically scarred makes no impact on my generation?
Of course not. In this event’s case, there was confusion, a distinct lack of planning ahead, and not enough attention paid to marketing and promotion. But it’s also that the holiday reminds us all of questions we don’t like to ask ourselves, and situations we hope we never experience.
Revisiting this particular period in our past forces us to confront issues of life and death. What’s so important to us today that we would die before we gave it up? If we had to offer up one person to certain death to save the lives of many, could we do that? If we had to leave our loved ones and go into hiding, would we survive? Which of our neighbors could we depend on for support and who would help us in our insurrection against the government, albeit an injust one? How far are we willing to compromise our Judaism and our connections to our family, when it comes down to self-preservation?
To consider such questions takes us, the younger generation that has no memory of a world without Israel, back to a time when the place of Jews in the world was unstable and constantly being challenged. Without a Jewish homeland to provide refuge to the oppressed, we were subject to whatever laws the reigning government imposed. Jews couldn’t be out at night after a certain time; benches were reserved for Aryan use only; people subsisted on rationed food and were limited to movement within the cramped walls of a ghetto; the old, the infirm, the mentally challenged were deemed unfit for society and gassed as an official government program. For us, these situations exist only in history books, and for a few of us, in the stories told us by our parents and grandparents. But any such experience personally related is already one to two generations removed, and memories grow fainter by the day.
Why should we revisit that time, when we live free today? We prefer to think about the daily indignities of our trivial lives. Professionally, experiencing crises of direction and job prospects, promotions and terminations, or sometimes just stagnation. Scraping together enough money to pay our $1200 rents for a very small corner of ridiculously overpriced New York real estate. If single, worrying that we’re going to spend our lives alone. If coupled, worrying that we won’t be able to pay for college for our born or unborn children. We hurry and worry, fret and flit, to and fro trying to make our lives better. It’s not that we don’t have time to care—we just don’t always make the time to care. We’re too wrapped up in ourselves. We try to focus on the tasks that seem manageable. Things this large—genocide, life and death choices, persecution on a large scale—seem so far from our current or future experience.
But a few months ago, an actor arrived on the horizon bearing his gift unto the world, a film that would, he claimed, “accurately” depict the Passion of Jesus. Because I haven’t seen the movie, I refuse to comment on whether this film encourages anti-Semitism. But even if it’s a “mood enhancer” of a movie, where audience bring in their own prejudices and emerge with their pre-existing beliefs stronger, that’s something we need to have on our radar.
Although you’ll be glad to know that, according to a recent poll, a solid majority (60 percent) of Americans believe that the Jews were not guilty of killing Jesus, you’ll note this leaves a large number of people whose views are different from that 60 percent of well-wishers. “Currently,” the report states, “34 percent of those under age 30, and 42 percent of blacks, say they feel Jews were responsible for Christ’s death, up substantially from 1997 ([when the numbers were] 10 and 21 percent respectively).” The survey also notes that “A relatively large proportion of people who have seen the movie (36 percent) feel Jews were responsible for Christ’s death.” (Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, national survey of 1,703 Americans, conducted March 17-21, and released April 2, 2004: http://people-press.org/reports/print.php3?PageID=806).
36 percent is not a huge number. (This born-and-bred math genius notes that it’s “not even half.”) But it’s something. And it’s significant. And I found the fact that only fifteen people showed up for the Yom Hashoah event at my synagogue to be extremely upsetting.
We wish survivors of the Holocaust long life. We hope and wish that they will be with us for a very long time. But we need to face facts: generations pass. And there exists the danger that we might someday be lulled into believing that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, and that Israel will always be there as our backup plan. But the reality is that we can only depend on our current society’s stability if we try to keep corruptive influences in check. This can mean launching a Jooglebomb, a web endeavor designed to ensure that Google’s first references to Jews are not anti-Semitic (see www.jewschool.com/2004_03_01_archive.php#107951205677851436 for more on the Jooglebomb), or insisting that interfaith dialogues flourish in our community. Or mobilizing our friends and acquaintances to attend local commemorations, to display to our contemporaries and the aging generation that remembrance is important to us. If a poor attendance is expected, better to band together with other community organizations for meaningful and accessible programs, which can be attended by anyone, and where the sheer presence of a crowd will bring unity and comfort.
My synagogue also participated in the JCC of Manhattan’s program, held at Congregation Ansche Chesed, in which community members met to read names throughout the night and into the morning. My synagogue’s slot was sometime in the area of 4 am. So I didn’t go.
I felt guilty, because staying up was such a small thing to do, on the scale of things. But I had done it before and found it a solitary, awkward, exhausting experience. My experience was one of dozens of reasons not to go again, and those reasons, logic (my job) and physical needs (recovery from a weekend of bad allergies) won. While the organizers of that event are to be commended for creating a distinctive and memorable happening, they also need to be aware that most people cannot stay up in vigil to chant the names of the dead, even but once a year. Meaningful alternatives need to be provided. We have the luxury to do things on a timeline that is convenient, and convenience—united with interest and marketing—is the key to attendance. Only a well-attended event, where participants can connect with the community, will serve to reinforce the value of memory and strengthen our vigilance against the perpetrators of hatred and racism.
So, I didn’t go to the reading of the names. Even if I was one of fifteen at the synagogue event, at least I was actively remembering and communing with a few people who felt my sadness and felt similarly about the importance of strengthening memory. But if you’re anything like me, a Jew who is connected to both institutional and personal spirituality in some form, then you, in some way, take those names around with you every day. The Holocaust is alive for us, not in an experiential way, but on the level of our national consciousness. We have been to museums, seen the films, heard the testimonies of survivors. Some of us, despite the Gen-X indifference with which we are often unfairly saddled, have written books on the subject.
On Yom Hashoah, we hear millions of names recited, and whether or not we are in the embrace of community, we connect with the untenable nature of our own circumstances. It’s just that community makes the sadness, the loss, the instability, a little more manageable.