Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel.

.יום הזכרון לשואה ולגבורה בארץ

Last night and today were Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day). In Israel, this day is called "Memorial Day for Holocaust and Heroism" or Yom Hazikaron l'Shoah ul'gvurah. The commemoration day was inaugurated in 1951 in Israel, and it took decades for widespread Diaspora communities to regularly honor the day. Originally (and until about 20 years ago), this day focused much more on the "Heroism" than the "Holocaust" in Israel. The Jewish resistance fighters (partisans) were the center of attention, and for decades, they were featured prominently in Yom Hashoah ceremonies. Only in recent years (as partisan fighters have died and Israeli society has changed) have Israelis come to associate more with the victims of the Holocaust. Over the last 24 hours, the Yom Hashoah Jessica and I have experienced have been focused on the victims of Nazi aggression and the role that Israel has to play in the story.

Every year, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, puts on a ceremony for Yom Hashoah that is televised throughout the country (and almost universally watched among Jewish families). HUC was fortunate to receive tickets, so Jessica and I were able to attend the event in person.

We arrived two hours early, expecting large crowds and wanting good seats. We were very impressed with the ease with which we made it through the numerous security checks and to our seats. One of my classmates remarked today how meaningful it was that, for once, Israelis weren't being pushy. People seemed more patient last night, more sensitive.

The ceremony itself was very interesting, especially as this was an avowedly secular, state-sponsored commemoration. The army featured prominently, placed sequentially beside two statues in the Warsaw Ghetto Courtyard of Yad Vashem, thus effectively displaying a progression of "Jews on the Marching to their Deaths" to "Partisan Fighters" to "Soldiers of Israel Defending the People of Israel." Throughout the ceremony, this was the message: The Holocaust was a planned tragedy, and Israel was the closest thing to a "happy ending" that the Jews could hope for. Moreover, there are still people today who would plan a Holocaust against the Jews, and the State of Israel is the only thing that can prevent that.

This was the message that struck me the most. Both Israel's President (Shimon Peres) and its Prime Minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) included a healthy dose of politics in their speeches. Each of them condemned the World Conference against Racism, which is being boycotted by 10 nations (the US, Israel, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, and New Zealand) because of its heavy anti-Zionist message. They also cited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran as a critical threat against the Jewish people and called on the world to discredit him. (The same night, Ahmadinejad gave a speech at this conference so anti-Israel and anti-Jewish that at least 30 nations' representatives walked out.) Of course, they spoke about the tragedy of the Holocaust with force, condemning "Nazi Germans and their helpers" for the crimes they committed against the Jewish people. But the message rang loud and clear: the State of Israel is the only entity that exists to protect Jews against the possibility of another Holocaust.

In addition to these speeches, the former Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, Meir Lau, gave a moving account of his own experience during the Holocaust, and a letter written by a child killed during the war was recited by an FSU-born Israeli actress. The singer Achinoam Nini (known outside of Israel as Noa) performed several pieces, as did an Israeli girls' choir (all of whom sang beautifully). The chief cantor of the Army sang a version of El Malei Rachamim (traditionally a prayer of comfort but used here as a dirge of mourning), the current Chief Sephardi Rabbi read a Psalm, and the current Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi led the Mourner's Kaddish.

The most powerful part of the ceremony for me (perhaps because it is most similar to what I'm used to) was the lighting of the six torches. Each torch was lit by a survivor (or two, in the case of the pair of twins) whose story was narrated and displayed via video. Many of the stories were of children separated from parents, forced to live in a ghetto or concentration camp, or of children who managed to escape the worst by virtue of Righteous Gentiles or partisan fighters. Each of the six stories was very Zionist, describing an early and ardent commitment to the Land of Israel that was able to be fulfilled. Although the Zionist component stood out, the rest of the story narration was similar to other Yom Hashoah events I've attended.

I'm not surprised that this event was so Zionist. After all, we were in Israel! Perhaps what was most interesting, then, was the negotiation between religious and secular. Of the 80 minute ceremony, probably 15 or 20 minutes was "religious." During those times (as at others), the soldiers stood at attention - and just before the Kaddish was recited, a large number of men in the crowd (including myself) produced and put on a kippah. Of course, only Orthodoxy was represented, but the Kaddish was led with men and women sitting next to each other, and there wasn't a stir when Noa and the choir sang. (Generally, ultra-Orthodox people consider it against Jewish law for men to hear women sing.) There weren't very many ultra-Orthodox people in the crowd, but the Chief Rabbis were both present and "well-behaved." The State respected them and vice versa.

However, the political speeches were definitely a new component for me. I knew to expect them, so I wasn't caught off guard, but before this year, I would never expect Yom Hashoah to be so political. A couple years ago at UVA, the Darfur Week of Conscience ended on Yom Hashoah, and Hillel worked with STAND (Students Taking Action Now: Darfur) to plan a week of programming together. Yom Hashoah itself, though, was (as I recall) reserved for commemoration of the Holocaust. The political message was implicit but not mentioned during Yom Hashoah itself. This event at Yad Vashem was different.

I'm not criticizing, though. This is how they do it publicly in Israel. Anyway, I'm not sure I'd get much out of an official religious ceremony because it would by definition have to be Orthodox. What we experienced last night was engaging, interesting, and very moving for a lot of students. I myself was in a fairly analytical state of mind, so I wasn't emotionally taken by the ceremony, but I understand that it was very powerful.

This morning, HUC sponsored its own Yom Hashoah commemorations, which were fairly different from Yad Vashem's. Our service this morning included what one would expect in a morning service, though we sang less than usual and included readings about the Holocaust. After a half-hour break, we were encouraged to stand in front of HUC for the 10:00 siren, which I'd heard about before coming to Israel.

On Yom Hashoah, at 10:00 in the morning, sirens sound throughout the country with the tacit understanding that people will stop what they are doing for two minutes. In my imagination, the country stopped entirely for this time period, but of course, the reality never lives up to the ideal. At 10:00, as expected, the sirens went off, and the cars stopped in the streets and their drivers got out. One driver honked his horn, though after about 30 seconds, he too decided to stand in the street and pay his respects. Three construction workers across the street were, like us, watching the stopped traffic, though other (presumably Arab) construction workers continued to use their buzz saw inside the building. A driver took advantage of the slowed traffic to pass the stopped cars. For the most part, the area around me became still, but of course, it wasn't as dramatic as I had expected.

Back in the courtyard of HUC was our own Yom Hashoah ceremony. This was more familiar to me with poems, music and song, personal stories, prayers, and a name-reading at the end. There were certainly similarities to the Yad Vashem ceremony (HUC's was designed by Israeli as well as American students), but the Zionist factor was significantly reduced. The ceremony was well planned and powerful, but again, I found myself being too analytical to get carried away. Don't get me wrong - of course I teared up a couple times. But I'm usually much more moved by Yom Hashoah than I was this year.

For the past several years, I've been intimately involved with Hillel's planning of Yom Hashoah's commemoration. I've picked up Holocaust survivors from their hotel, read names of victims at 2:00 in the morning, and helped plan the Week of Conscience mentioned above. Each of these experiences (and more) have been very moving and meaningful to me. But I realize now that very few people (and Jessica is one of them) experienced Yom Hashoah at UVA in this way. Most of the people read names for 15 or 20 minutes and possibly came to an event or the survivor's presentation. This year, I spent about 4 hours directly engaged with Holocaust commemoration (which would usually be considered a lot), but it seemed less powerful to me than before.

One thing I learn from this is that it can be hard to reach someone who didn't participate in the planning of an event. You do what you can do, but the "audience" has to bring itself to the table in order to be affected. I wasn't entirely present, so I didn't get all I could out of Yom Hashoah this year. I will keep this in mind not only for my own commemoration of similar events in the future but also when I'm planning such events.

In conclusion, the past 24 hours have been special, unique, and impactful - but I've learned more about Israel than about the Holocaust. I think that's okay - it is what it is, after all. And yet I find myself wishing for greater eloquence about the depth of the day. Perhaps next year, when I'm not in Jerusalem anymore.

Let me conclude with a poem that I did find moving that was included in HUC's memorial service this morning.

Yizkor by Abba Kovner, translated by Jules Harlow

We shall remember our brothers and sisters,
The city houses and the country houses,
The shtetl streets rushing like rivers
And the lonely inn on the country road --
The aged man and the features of his face,
The mother in her kerchief,
The young girl with her braids,
The child,
The people Israel in thousands of communities
Among all the human families,
The entire assembly of Jews
Brought down to slaughter on the soil of Europe
By the Nazi destroyer,
The man who suddenty screamed
And while screaming died,
The woman, clutching her infant to her breast,
Whose arms gave out,
The infant groping for his mother's nipple
Finding it blue and cold.

The feet,
The feet that sought refuge,
Though flight was no longer possible,
And those who made their hands into a fist,
The fist that gripped the iron,
The iron that became the weapon of vision,
Of despair, and of rebellion,
And those, the pure of heart,
Those whose eyes were opened,
Those who risked their lives,
Though they lacked the power to triumph.
We shall remember the day,
The day in its brightness, the sun that rose
Over the bloody conflagration,
The lofty silent heavens.
We shall remember the mounds of dust
Beneath the gardens in bloom.
The living shall remember their dead
For they are forever before us.
Look! Their eyes dart round and about,
Allowing us no peace, no peace,
Until our lives become worthy of their memory.


Jessica said...

Just to add my two cents:

A) I agree with everything you said about last night's ceremony but would like to add that it was strange to me that it felt sort of festive - a beautiful night and we were a group of friends gathering to watch a show - it felt like an outdoor film screening or something, and the dramatic music and film clips added to this such that I felt more like a passive viewer than an active participant - but perhaps this is also due to the foreign-ness of it all and my own interest in being an outsider so that I could analyze and evaluate what was going on.

B) the ceremony last night felt to me quite celebratory for other reasons too - there was very little focus on death and loss. When the torches were lit, the stories that were told were ones of survival. When the Holocaust was spoken of, there was a happy end to the story: the establishment of the state of Israel. In Israel, the Holocaust, to some extent, has a happily ever after, which makes Yom HaShoah less difficult somehow. Did you feel this? What did you think of it?

C) Today when I was at preschool the teachers prepared the students (about two years old) by telling them that a siren was going to sound and everyone was going to stand up, put their head down, be quiet, and think. And then the siren sounded, and everyone stood up and was quiet. The kids started wiggling after a while, but they did a pretty good job of being still, given that they are at the most 3 years old. What do you think of kids who don't yet know what the Holocaust is standing in remembrance of it? What does this remind you of - a religious ceremony? An air raid drill? I will say for me that there was a certain kind of power to it because the theme of last night's ceremony was "children in the Holocaust" - as we were saying because most of the survivors still living were children in the Holocaust - but anyway it was somehow powerful to be commemorating with children, to be surrounded by innocence and to be thinking about the Holocaust...

D) What do you think about Yom HaShoah in general? Often it makes me uncomfortable because in order to feel like I have really commemorated it has to be something so powerful that it fills in me a kind of need for melodramatic self-expression - like the time when I was out all night to take care of the Yom HaShoah happenings with Rachel and it was awful but also a guilty kind of adventure... Also, why just one day - (the same question could be asked I guess on any holiday..) I ask this question in particular as my Yiddish teacher, who is from Riga and I'm sure has family members who were killed in the Holocaust nevermind the subject that he teaches, said today in class that Yom HaShoah doesn't particularly matter to him because every day is Yom HaShoah for him,and every night. Do days like this exist so that we don't have to feel that every day is Yom HaShoah? And is this a good thing?

Elyse Crane said...

It was quite interesting experiencing Yom HaShoah through both your eyes. You both came to this occasion with a lifetime of recognizing this day through a Jewish American perspective - and your comparison of the two cultures is appreciated.

I am surprised to learn about the emphasis on politics and military perspectives during such a day.

Clearly, it seems like the Israelis are seeing through eyes more focused on the many sacrifices that made THEIR home possible - this seems closer to their understanding of loss and grief than the actual Holocaust.

Thanks for your detailed and sensitive observations.

The poem at the end of your blog made me weep.