Tonight, as Yom Hashoah, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day begins, the country will come to a halt. Restaurants will close, music will stop playing. The people wandering the streets bow their heads slightly, walking to ceremonies where they will light candles and listen to their grandparents’ stories. The first time I was in Israel for Yom Hashoah, I walked around for hours, frustrated at my inability to buy a cup of coffee. As I mused on the irony of depriving Jews of food during a day dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust, I wondered if the day wouldn’t be observed better by my going to a restaurant and considering every bite of food that I enjoyed a personal victory against the Nazis.
Even today, as a religious Jew and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I find Israel’s commemoration of the Holocaust to be shocking. In Judaism, most of our holidays are about affirming and celebrating our survival in the wake of adversity – as the old adage goes, “They tried to kill us. We’re still here. Let’s eat.” Even the 9th of Av, the saddest day on the religious calendar, is followed by the 7 weeks of comfort. The sadness of Yom Hazikaron is followed by the joy Yom Haatzmaut. But on Yom Hashoah, there is no comfort. The day of mourning those who were murdered is not followed by a celebration of our own survival – if anything, the day itself has become a lens to examine ways in which the Holocaust still renders our existence flawed and incomplete.
As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I don’t need a day to remind me of Hitler’s atrocities. My family’s story is infused into every fiber of my being; it is a primary component of my identity, impacting everything from my political views to the way that I store Friday night leftovers in the fridge. It has taken being married to a Jew who is not descended from Holocaust survivors for me to realize just how big the impact is. And as I think about my hypothetical future children, it both delights and frightens me to think that they may not carry this burden – that they might need a day of closed restaurants and supermarkets to force them to remember the Holocaust.
There are some tragedies in life that are so stark, that there is no comfort. There are pains so deep, that the only answer is silence. I fully accept that the Holocaust is such a tragedy, that if there is any day of mourning that is not accompanied by a celebration of our own survival, it must be this. That is why I will stand silently tomorrow when a siren rings throughout the country, and allow myself to cry for the memory of great aunts and uncles I never got to meet, and cousins that were never born. It is also why I am concerned by the growing specter of Holocaust denial, as well as by discourse that seems incapable of speaking about the Holocaust on its own terms, unconnected to political issues of the day. I believe there are profound ethical implications from the Holocaust, but that’s not what Yom Hashoah is about. Yom Hashoah is the one day a year we reserve for simply mourning the tragedy, allowing ourselves to grieve for the lives that were lost. There are other days of the year for channeling that pain into an ethical call to action.
So tomorrow I will mourn, but as Yom Hashoah fades away with the setting sun, perhaps we should celebrate that our very presence on this earth is a type of victory against those who tried to destroy us. And by celebrate, I mean: eat too much ice cream.