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Sharing the Human Experience of Holocaust Remembrance Day

Sharing the Human Experience of Holocaust Remembrance Day

Group of small yellow candles; flames of background candles are slightly out of focus

Two weeks ago, I watched an interview with a high school student from Parkland, Florida, on television. She described sitting in a Holocaust studies class, hearing the gun shots in the hall, being barricaded in the classroom, huddling with classmates in fear for their lives. My brain and my heart can’t process this tragic confluence of subject matter and experience. If I offer any response, it’s to keep that unimaginable image with me as a motivator to become more involved and concerned about preventing gun violence.

It’s that same kind of thinking I bring to Yom HaShoah, which begins this evening at sundown. For me, it’s neither a day of study nor cognitive processing; rather, it’s about surfacing and recalling the vastness of evil, destruction, and genocide perpetrated on the Jewish people, summed up in the word Holocaust. To make this singular day of ceremony and reflection meaningful, there must be ways it informs our decisions as Jews and human beings all year long.

Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, captures for me the challenges inherent in doing so. Even with his closeness to the Shoah – he fled Nazi Germany for Palestine as young child with his family in 1935 – Amichai understands the difficulties of relating to the Holocaust. In this poem, sixth in a series of short poems entitled, “I Wasn’t One of the Six Million: And What Is My Life Span? Open Closed Open,” found in this collection of his poems, he underscores the seeming impossibility of relating to an event neither he nor most of us experienced:

I wasn’t one of the six million who died in the Shoah,
I wasn’t even among the survivors.
And I wasn’t one of the six hundred thousand who went out of Egypt.

In the poem’s opening lines, I hear Amichai saying “no” to Rabban Gamliel, who just two weeks ago exhorted us at the Passover seder to see ourselves as if we ourselves had left Egypt. Yet, while these first lines appear to absolve us of responsibility, Amichai knows he and we can carry on within a Jewish historical consciousness:

No, I was not in that number, though I still have the fire and the smoke
within me, pillars of fire and pillars of smoke that guide me
by night and by day. I still have inside me the mad search
for emergency exits…

While this type of consciousness is a powerful shaper of identity, it is not predictive of attitudinal outcomes. Jews across the religious and political spectrum express the Shoah’s message for our time differently – not unlike the way Americans of varying stripes display a variety of responses to gun violence. We are prone to portray all these disagreements as evidence of the polarization that keeps us from effecting change.

Yom HaShoah could be an antidote to polarization. We need days like this when we can take a step back and share the human experience about what historical memory preserves. As an outcome of this emotional sharing, Yehuda Amichai describes what coming together across difference might look like in the very next poem (the seventh and last) in this collection:

I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment
millions of human beings are standing at crossroads
and intersections, in jungles and deserts,
showing each other where to turn, what the right way is,
which direction. They explain exactly where to go,
what is the quickest way to get there, when to stop
and ask again.

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the director of Israel engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.  His prior experience in re-thinking Israel engagement comes from work on innovative initiatives in the North American program of the Jewish Agency for Israel.  

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald
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