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The Real Hannah Senesh: Honoring a Jewish Hero

The Real Hannah Senesh: Honoring a Jewish Hero

It was 70 years ago this week, according to the Hebrew calendar, that a young Jewish girl named Hannah Senesh was executed by firing squad by the Hungarian-Nazi police force. She had been captured after parachuting into Europe with a group of Jewish paratroopers of the Haganah who were sent to rescue Jews from the Nazi war machine.

At the age of 23, Hannah Senesh became an epic and heroic figure largely due to the letters, poems, and diary entries she left behind, exposing to the world her deepest thoughts and feelings. Not long after her death, one poem that she had composed during a walk from her kibbutz, Sdot Yam, to the ancient Roman ruins of the port city of Caesarea (one kilometer to the north) became her most famous. Known to most as "Eli, Eli," the poem "Halikha LeKesariya (A Walk to Caesarea)" was set to music by David Zehavi and proceeded to be prominently featured at virtually every memorial ceremony for the Holocaust and for Israel’s fallen – deliberately linking the two to forge a linear narrative in the young Israeli psyche.

The classical Zionist narrative claimed Senesh as one of its own – total assimilation only to find redemption in her aliyah to the Land of Israel (then Palestine) – but we now know that there is much more to her story than previously understood.

Just as the great Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl’s own upbringing (in the same city as Senesh) begs a deeper inquiry into the struggles of living a both Jewish and modern life, and that the Dreyfus trial was for him a tipping point rather than a great awakening, so too must we dig a bit deeper into Senesh’s own spiritual and evolving Jewish identity. On September 18, 1936, a teenaged Hannah Senesh wrote:

I’m not quite clear just how I stand: synagogue, religion, the question of God. About the last and most difficult question I am the least disturbed. I believe in God – even if I can’t express just how. Actually I’m relatively clear on the subject of religion, too, because Judaism fits in best with my way of thinking. But the trouble with the synagogue is that I don’t find it at all important, and I don’t feel it to be a spiritual necessity; I can pray equally at home.

Later on November 2, 1940, she continued this sentiment by saying:

I was never able to pray in the usual manner, by rote, and even now neither can nor want to. But the dialogue man holds with his Creator…is what I, too, have found. I see the sincere, inner link, even if it comes through struggle within myself and through some doubt.

From reading her diary, we learn that her Jewish identity was much more complicated than often presented. Her struggle with belief, faith, prayer, and observance lead us to appreciate a deeper and more complex outlook on her life, challenging the classic Zionist narrative. Senesh reflected in her life on what many of us may be searching for today. Her worldview and outlook on Israel and Judaism is one that can resonate with those struggling to find the balance between our national, ethnic, and religious identities. For many Israelis, the discovery that she was not definitively secular, and that she struggled deeply with personal religiosity, may come as a shock. But it is also a welcome call to say that it’s okay to question, to have a grey area, and that there are many ways to be religious. Our Reform movement in Israel is ready right now to engage such seekers; to offer meaning to those for whom the polarizing dichotomy between “secular” and “religious” no longer answers their needs. Based on Senesh’s example, this struggle has been occupying the minds of Zionists and young people for many decades.

While many of Senesh’s writings were published and now feature prominently in Israeli and Diaspora ceremonies and liturgy, one amazing discovery came to light only two years ago. Sixty-eight years after it was written, the poem "Hora L’Bat Golah (Hora to a Daughter of the Exile)" was discovered in a drawer. Senesh wrote the poem in 1943 while she was being trained for her mission to parachute behind enemy lines. Translated by Elie Leshem, it reads:

A hora, roaring, tempestuous, blazes around me
With the mystery of rhythm, gladdening and forging,
It tugs at my body and heart
The foot marches, the back quivers, the song is ignited, a searing chorus
Dance and song, a wordless prayer,
Hail to the future, hail to creation

But then a figure flutters before my eyes
My arm has escaped my friends’ embrace
My heart spurns the tempestuous singing,
Far and near it consumes me whole

Blue eyes
Such a bewildered glance
A sad silence and a stubborn mouth
The stillness grows in me I remain standing
Alone, in a crowd of a hundred, her and I

The Hebrew version of the song composed for this poem is embedded below.

On this 70th anniversary of her death, communities across Israel and throughout the Israeli Reform Movement will mark her life and contributions - and I encourage North American Reform congregations to do the same. Let’s dedicate time to highlight the person she was and the legacy and challenges she left for all of us. This Shabbat, sing "Eli, Eli," not in a somber, mournful tenor, but in a celebratory and upbeat tone, because this is a prayer offering thanks and praise for life’s natural wonders that should never cease. On the 70th anniversary of this important hero, let us re-examine her life, her hashkafa (outlook and personal philosophy), and her contribution to Jewish life.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism and the executive director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg
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