Black. Black. Black. Everywhere I look, I see black. Black coats. Black shoes. Black beards. Black peyos (side curls). Black prayer books. Black streimels. The contrast of black against the natural beige of the cobblestone streets is a scene for the most cinematic films. Every day I hear the shuffling feet of Torah students and scholars rushing to synagogue or yeshiva. Sometimes when I am lucky, I witness one of them bellowing the cries of his prayers in the midst of the hills overlooking the valley, prostrating himself before his God.
When I first arrived in Tzfat, I called it Anatevka: the city reminded me so much of Fiddler on the Roof. The entire town revolves around Shabbat. Everything shuts down on Shabbat. There is one cheese maker, one candle maker, one bread maker, one butcher, and hundreds of artists, Torah scholars and mystics. Even though I fell in love with this town when I first visited (more than 20 years ago!), I kept wondering why my soul was so drawn to this mountainside town encircling the cemetery of the righteous and the hills of the glorious.
This morning, as I ascended the stairs on Messiah alley to the Street of Bar Yochai (the name of a great Jewish sage), I realized why my soul yearned to travel here after spending one week with the Zen Peacemakers (led by Roshis Bernie and Eve Glassman) for a five-day meditation at Auschwitz.
This community of Tzfat, perhaps more than any other, provides a glimpse of how the Jews must have lived in Germany, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe prior to World War II. This mystical city, with its endless stairways weaving up and down the mountain like an asymmetrical tapestry, symbolizes the infinite subtleties and twists of the Holocaust. Here, I witness the life that was so brutally destroyed in the Holocaust and simultaneously, witness the life that was davka (in spite of) resurrected in modern day. And it is in this moment, I don’t know which emotion will take hold of me more, the emotion of blazing terror or Chasidic joy for they both ripple through my veins as colliding forces. Just like the spiraling of the steep stone steps, the Holocaust symbolizes humanity’s capacity to rise and fall.
This is why keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive is so important. We can never forget the devastation that occurred to an innocent race of people. The books burned. The families destroyed. The prayers silenced. The heartbeats shaken. The breathing choked. The possibilities vanished. And we cannot ignore the resilience of those survivors who stone by stone, page by page, step by step, tear by tear, sweat by sweat, memory by memory, prayer by prayer, rebuilt their lives to thrive all over the world, especially in Israel.
We witness this to realize that no matter how many destructive forces are out there in the world, we humans can rebuild anything from ashes. And this is exactly what the Jewish people did after the Holocaust. Built fruit orchards and groves from ashes. Built centers for learning and community from ashes. Built integration of cultures from ashes. Built the latest technologies from ashes. Built cities and industries from ashes. Grew vineyards from ashes. Sculpted art from ashes. Raised children from ashes.
When the Western winds of Germany or Poland brush by the wailing wall (of the Kotel), these winds still carry the dust of destruction, but as these ashes touch the golden stones of Jerusalem, they transform into seeds of creation, turning darkness into light.
In Remembrance of the Six Million Jews, Three Million Poles, Gypsies, disabled, and other political prisoners of war who were brutally massacred in the Holocaust.
Written on January 27, 2013.