Changing My Attitude on Yom HaShoah

My latest post on the Times of Israel….

Today marks my eighth Yom HaShoah since I moved to Israel.  I don’t have any recollection of at least six of them.  To me, Yom Hazikaron is the “big siren” and Yom Hashoah is the lesser one.  I never decided to feel this way but in a country where it sometimes feels like you can never escape the Holocaust, that it’s part of our ethos, and when we have both the Israeli and the international remembrance day to focus on, it has been hard for me to find the right level of caring and emotion when Yom HaShoah comes around.

After visiting Yad Vashem several times over the years, a time would come when I’d wait for my group in the cafe at the end.  Or if a survivor came to speak to a conference I was staffing, I’d find a convenient reason to leave the room and work on something else.  After all, I’d heard survivors before.  I’d visited Yad Vashem.  Can anyone really question my commitment to the Jewish people and how deeply I have internalized the biggest tragedy to befall the Jewish people, at least in the last 2000 years?

I decided this past week that maybe it was time for an attitude change.  A few days ago, I started reading “My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit.  When laying out the case for Zionism, he tells the stories of a few Holocaust survivors who eventually made their way to Israel.  One Lithuanian boy named Erik was taken from his home and thrown into the ghetto.  To make a long story short, he was smuggled out of a sweatshop in a sack, lived in secrecy in a tiny room barely big enough to move, lost all of his extended family, watched his parents suffer, escaped and traveled from country to country to country throughout Europe, living a lifetime’s worth of nightmares as a child before eventually arriving in Palestine.  That man is now known as Aharon Barak, former head of Israel’s Supreme Court and one of the country’s most brilliant legal minds.  How many more influential figures have helped build and mold this country, their tortured pasts completely unbeknownst to so many of us?

Last night, I attended a Yom HaShoah ceremony in Tel Aviv sponsored by the Israel Forever Foundation, Nefesh B’Nefesh, and Adopt-a-Safta, a cause committed to providing support for so many survivors in Israel who are living a life of poverty and loneliness.  Reading the stories of Aharon Barak and many others touched me and made me realize that I cannot enjoy the miracle of living in this country without recognizing the unspeakable tragedies that the victims of the Holocaust experienced.

With apologies for the light-hearted reference, there is an episode of “Seinfeld” where Jerry reveals an intimate detail to George and then tells him he’s not in the mood to tell the full story.  George says to Jerry, “You’re not in the mood? Well you get in the mood!”  I have spent the last few years not in the mood to hear more about the Holocaust than I had to.  Before I heard the testimony last night from survivor Zeni Rosenstein, I told myself, “you’re not in the mood?  Well, you get in the mood.”  It’s not pleasant to hear about the Holocaust.  Boo hoo, too damn bad.  The survivors may have survived, but they have to carry the hellish memories with them every day.  If I “have” to sit through yet another testimonial, so be it.  If experiencing some discomfort is the price I have to pay for my freedom as a human being and Jew, I am the luckiest man in the world.

May the souls of the victims be bound in the bond of everlasting life.

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  1. Yitzhak April 29, 2014 at 10:13 am #

    I appreciate this post Benji. As someone descended from Jews forced to convert to Catholicism, I began exploring my Jewish heritage in February of 2011, but it wasn’t until my visit to Germany in May of 2011 that I became truly earnest about being a Jew, becoming a Jew, marrying Jewish and bringing future Jewish generations into the world.

    The Jewish heritage is more precious than rubies. It is precious for its law, its compassion and its ethics, for its enlightened attitude towards those of other faiths, its commitment to environmentalism and justice, for its proactive stance in improving the world to bring about redemption, and for its belief that men and women, too, can create the world along with Hashem, and that this creative process has not stopped. It is precious because of what it demands in the conduct of the individual, that he be master of himself and subordinate to none else save G-d alone. The fact that the Jewish heritage has been so nearly threatened or extinguished so many times means that it’s our jobs as Jews to preserve, protect and perpetuate it- not to dilute it as I see so many Jews doing out of sheer ignorance, laziness, convenience or apathy.

    I realized this more forcefully in Germany: Germany has always been a land of paradox for the Jews. It was a great center of medieval Jewish learning, and the site of the Jewish Enlightenment, allowing German Jews to attain a degree of wealth, culture and education that was unparalleled in Europe. But all the achievements of German Jewry seem like a tragicomic prelude to what followed. The real, physical, visible evidence of the Holocaust, which as an American I had not seen before, made me convinced that I could best honor their deaths by leading a life that was as Jewish as possible. I am needed as a good Jew and hopefully, G-d willing, a great Jew. I hope to convert to Judaism, fill my life with Torah and mitzvos, and G-d willing come to study in an Israeli yeshiva. May the victims rest in peace, may the survivors find peace, and may the lives of their descendants be filled with Jewish learning.

  2. Yitzhak April 29, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    P.S. I typed my last name into a Holocaust victims database once, and it came up with pages and pages of people. This was on the same day a prospective Gentile mate and I had quarreled. A devout Christian, this person wanted to impart their ways to our future children. I had insisted on raising any of my future children Jewish, and that same day, found the database with the list of names. The person and I parted not long after.. I do not think this was accidental.

  3. Benji April 29, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    Hi Yitzhak-powerful stuff. Thanks for reading.

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