Thursday, April 15, 2010

Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day and yet I’m still wasting time. Here in Israel Yom Hashoah has a different prominence than it does in the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Most obviously, here the day is a state holiday. Instead of small and little known gatherings, commemorations are large, obvious, and in your face. Even if one wanted to, one couldn’t avoid the powerful mood of the day, perhaps most symbolized by the two minute siren sounded during the mid morning, during which all activities stop and everyone stands in silence to remember. Rowdy classrooms are muted, businesses take a break, and the highway traffic halts as drivers get out of their cars to stand. This is a truly powerful sight.

However, the biggest difference is not the most obvious one. Perhaps Yair Lapid said it best when he said that he fears anti-Semites and neo-Nazis as a humanist, and not a personal issue. While Diaspora Jews, even in America, still live with some fear or inferiority in the back of their head, no matter how well it may be tucked away – because we are a minority, because we know someone who was affected by anti-Semitism in our community, or for whatever other reasons, our Israeli counterparts are confident and fearless. This entirely transforms the mentality of the day. In America we tell a narrative obsessed with the numbers, with the loss, and with how we can avoid our own victimhood in the future. We are still defensive and passive. Yes, we recall the heroism and bravery of Jews and Righteous Gentiles alike who stood up, but Yom Hashoah becomes a dreary repetition of facts; part of the uniquely Diaspora narrative that we must never be completely comfortable. In my experience Diaspora Jewry is engaged not in remembrance, but instead in “not forgetting.” We are told to battle those rhetorically who deny the Holocaust (similarly to how we are told to combat those who deny Israel’s right to exist.) But, I’ve learned a new way to practice this day in Israel this year. Abba Kovner says, “Build a monument, not of marble or granite, but of actions.” Israelis that I’ve encountered, living in the self-determinist Jewish state, take this sentence to heart today. In a society where the information battle is non-existent we must not only retell the stories of bravery, sorrow, misery, and transcendent pride, but we must also embody that on a daily basis.

Cars stop on the highway in Bat Yam to stand for the Yom Hashoah Siren
(Photo taken by Aaron Beer)

There are projects and good deeds that can be a memorial for the fallen and an act of defiance towards those who would have us not here. They range from projects directly related to the Holocaust, like helping feed the 200,000 Survivors still living in Israel, many too old and decrepit to support themselves, to general societal improvements like beautifying our country by picking up some of the thousands of cigarette butts and Bamba wrappers lying on the streets. The point though, is that we must internalize the lessons of the Holocaust and improve the world around us to show how truly fortunate we are. This is arguably the most Jewish form of practice – creating a ritual around an idea or ideal – and this ritual of Tikun Olam (improving the world) is the ultimate Jewish action.

Yet I’ve still checked facebook four times today and fed no one but my own flat-mates. With the Pesach Holiday break and the transition between cities we have all gotten too lazy and apathetic in Garin Tzedek, and no one more than me. But in fact this Spring season, from Passover, also known as Z’man Chiruteinu (the time of our freedom), to Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, is ripe with a theme that should be inspiring us. Not only does the Exodus from Egypt and Israeli-style Yom Ha’shoah, based on rebuilding after a genocide, directly correlate to the struggle of the Sudanese as well as it does to our own Jewish historical narrative, it speaks to the exact reasons we started this enterprise. We want to rebuild another people and be the “righteous among the nations” for another people. We want to release ourselves from the bonds of typical Western narcissism and reach a higher level. We want to celebrate our Jewish autonomy like Israelis do; not by combating our would-be enemies, but by helping those like and unlike us, by truly being a light unto the nations. I hope that we can concretely do this by not only repeating what we have done up until now this year, but by challenging ourselves to focus on how we can better REMEMBER the Holocaust, and not just “not forget” until the end of Year Course and throughout the remainder of our lives. Because Yom Hashoah is a day of mourning, but it doesn’t have to be only morbid, it can also be a genesis. That is what commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel has taught me.

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