I’ve often wondered why Jewish historical commemorations are only one day long in North America. If there’s anything we’ve learned from Jewish history, it’s that it takes more than one day for a community to learn a history lesson. There are halachic reasons for why we celebrate Passover with a seder (two in the Diaspora), yes, but there’s also a wonderful benefit to be gained from the sharing of its story. The same can be said for Hanukkah: eight days of lights and retelling history helps to remind us viscerally of the gift of being Jewish.
That lesson can be carried over into our relationship with other communities as well. This last December, like most Hanukkah seasons in North America (except in Jewish centers like Los Angeles and New York, perhaps), the Festival of Lights was but a blip on the airwaves. A passing greeting on the major radio and TV news networks, a photo of a Chabad hanukkiah from New York; that’s usually about it, when it comes to highlighting a holiday that is celebrated by millions of Americans, and in every state of the Union. I find it no surprise that the meaning of Hanukkah often is confusing to those who don’t celebrate it. It’s not just that the holiday falls so close to Christmas; it’s that it’s message and its remarkable tale is just not heard enough.
This year however, was different. This year, National Public Radio (NPR) which networks with affiliate stations throughout the country, rewrote its yearly coverage of holiday feasts and interesting American traditions to include the stories and origins of Hanukkah. For three days, the deep, rural reaches of Northwest U.S. were filled with stories about the Maccabees, their battles with the Greeks and the miracle of Hanukkah. Thanks to Leonard Nimoy and NPR staff like Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz, Hanukkah, 5775, had three powerful days of prominence in America’s consciousness.
And that led me to wonder what role such sharing has in reducing anti-Semitism, and whether we do ourselves a disservice by not sharing our traditions more directly with others. It’s certainly not a new concept; Chabad has been aiding in that effort for years with its public menorah lightings. But for the most part, Hanukkah is the only commemoration that we are commanded to invite non-Jews to witness. And as I have found, it still takes courage in small, remote communities to burn a hanukkiah in the window where all can see.
The question of how we treat Jewish traditions also ties into how we treat memorial commemorations for the Shoah (Holocaust). Here in North America, the Shoah memorials in January and April are each only one day long and receive limited media coverage. In 1979, the U.S. Congress established an 8-day memorial period in 1979 to coincide with Yom Hashoah. Its existence however, is rarely mentioned outside of school classrooms.
Kristallnacht, whose events actually spanned two days, (Nov. 9 and 10) in 1938, is now generally acknowledged by one night or morning of memorials and lectures. Many Jewish communities no longer host their own memorials.
In contrast, Latin America’s Kristallnacht events were held for a full month this year, from October 30 to November 30. Commemorations took place on three continents in the countries of Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba and Chile. They were attended by dignitaries and heads of states, as well as members and leaders of other faiths. In Uruguay, the event was broadcast live by seven TV stations.
Clearly, one of the reasons these commemorations garnered a more prolonged attendance is that there, the lessons of the Shoah still resonate. Most North Americans no longer live with a sixth-sense of caution as they build their sukkah, or contemplate what will happen if they reveal to their employer that they are Jewish. We are reassured that Kristallnacht commemorations are meant to acknowledge a past many of us don’t remember.
Yet anti-Semitism does still exist in North American communities. It is telling that one of the questions that received the highest response on this year’s Anti-Defamation League survey was “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.” Is it possible that the problem isn’t that the Shoah is discussed too much, but that its lessons aren’t seen as relevant to today’s challenges?
As we approach the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, this January 27, I offer a question:
What do we, as Jews, want the world to gain from annual memorial events like the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah and Kristallnacht?
If the answer is for the global community to better understand and remember the historical events of the past and keep them from reoccurring, then I wonder whether we’re not shortchanging their significance.
If it’s to change minds, transform outlooks, and defeat bigotry and ignorance, then its message must resonate not just with Jews and the Shoah’s descendants, but those who are inclined to think the experiences of a culture they don’t understand won’t impact the world they know.
And to do that, we must share much more than we do today. Combating anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias is all about engaging people. It’s about translating lessons so others can understand viscerally, not historically. It’s about keeping today’s many forms of media, TV, radio, web and word-of-mouth from reducing the Shoah to a sound-bite that future generations can’t feel and understand. The message isn’t about the recounting of experiences from the past. It’s about changing hearts and uniting spirits to ensure that “never again” doesn’t just become a refrain for forgotten history.
Images courtesy of B’nai B’rith International