I’ve been called a witness to history recently. Although the fact is true in a way—I was working in Berlin when the Wall fell, so I have first-hand memories of those breathtaking times—it sounded funny as it made me feel old: the German word “Zeitzeuge” is normally used for witnesses of a much more distant past, namely for survivors of the Nazi Regime.
Now, one may say, that’s just a funny linguistic slip, but here is the thing: It was November 9, the very day that connects the word as it was meant with the use it normally has. The day that symbolizes both, Germany’s greatest miracle of freedom and one of its darkest, disgraceful nights.
Last Sunday’s beautiful celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall after a year of a frightening rise of anti-Semitism made me think about our commemoration and celebration culture. How can those two historical events be honored appropriately, grateful for the freedom we fought for and for the freedom we were given despite historical crimes? How can we put anniversaries in perspective, giving each one its proper weight? Israel is the place to learn about that.
The Jewish tradition has plenty of holidays; they structure the year (as the Christian ones do), and alternate serious commemoration with cheerful celebration. I like all of them. I even like Pesach which many of my observant friends find a hard week to live through—while I enjoy the different food that underlines the freedom: freedom from slavery and freedom of choice. It is a palatable commemoration of the price we often have to pay on the way to freedom: Charoset, Gefilte fish, Matzah brei—all of them as special as they are tasty for me.
The holiday I like most though is not one of the long ones with elaborate rituals of food and song. The day that touches me most, beyond all others and beyond words, is Yom haShoah v’haGvura, the Holocaust Memorial Day. It sets off a couple of commemoration days, interrupting the party mood of Purim and the serious, but joyful Pessach rituals around which you can already feel spring taking over the land with power. That morning, on Yom haShoah v’haGvura, a siren stops the land. And everything stops. Cars stop in the middle of the street, even on the highway; busses stop and the passengers get up for a minute of silent commemoration; the couples kissing on benches at busy junctions stop and stand up, their heads bent. Everybody must have lost someone in the Holocaust; it is not the distant past many people in Europe wish to think it was.
A week later, Yom haZicharon, Israeli Memorial Day, remembers those fallen in recent wars and terror; and the siren rings for a minute at night and again in the morning, two minutes long.
I have been part of a minute’s silence in Germany on many occasions, but this is different. It creates a country that acknowledges deeply the sacrifices brought by many so that we may live, drive a car, kiss a loved one on a park bench. Nobody, not last night’s partygoers, nor unruly teenagers, not even the careless guys roaming the beach for today’s new blonde, will move during those one or two minutes. This is the only country I know that is able to hold its breath, to have nothing more important to do than to honor the dead.
The very next day, but only then, after Memorial Day, is the Independence Day celebrated with joy.
Almost a year later, Purim arrives, my other favorite: a day or two (depending on where you are) to put out your music box on the street and invite all the neighborhood down to party; to walk to school and to the supermarket in funny costumes (and to church of course too: I don’t know how our pastor could deliver his sermon that day to all the cows, witches, Zorros, Minnie mice, and overdressed angels without cracking up continuously); to dance crazier than a drunk carnival partyer in Cologne, even with little alcohol (most Israelis don’t drink much). It celebrates the victory over anti-Semitic pogrom schemes in ancient Persia in all exuberance possible, including sweet pastries and wine. This holiday actually commands you to drink so much that you can’t discern friend from enemy in the end.
Whichever way you reach that state of mind, through alcohol, dancing to loud music, or sweating under a heavy wig of purple curls in the high spring sun for half a day—I deem it a most happy state of being.
And both of these holidays observed, Yom haShoah and Purim, each in its own right and as a symbol for others throughout the year—together, they form a whole. This balanced respect to the past, to the catastrophe of near extinction and the miracle of new freedom, creates a true future. A difficult one, as we see every day, but one worth working, and partying, and holding our breath for.