I brought in this Pesach by asking myself what I am enslaved by metaphorically. I can place myself in the shoes of a slave in Egypt when I think of my own self-doubt as the chains that bind my spirit. But this thought experiment was intensified with the tragic murder of one of my classmates on the lightrail on Friday afternoon.
I didn’t know her very well, but I was in shock. I found myself obsessing and trying to imagine the details of her day. I knew she woke up in a dorm room that looked exactly like mine and walked down the path I always take to the light rail. I continued my day imagining her. I looked at myself in the mirror as I got dressed and felt angry at myself for the weight I’d gained eating shwarma and falafel during my time in Israel. Did she also waste thoughts and energy thinking about the way her body looked? I thought about texting a boy I miss but I didn’t because I felt like some social standard told me I shouldn’t tell him how I feel. Did she spend her months here missing someone who will never know how she felt? Did she also feel disappointed when her Instagram post got less likes than her friends? Did she also feel anxious whenever she spoke in class? Did she also get into dumb arguments with her family? Did she waste her months here watching Netflix instead of exploring this country we love? She didn’t.
I can’t know about her inner thoughts, but other classmates and professors have said she didn’t waste her time in front of a television. She explored and experienced, traveling alone to take advantage of this place with an inspiring commitment. She was compassionate, allowing the wild cats of Israel to become almost domesticated in her dorm. She was standing where she was standing on the light rail because she stood up to give her seat to a mother and child. Every year I reflect on the same metaphors I’m enslaved to: technology, self-consciousness, society’s standards of beauty. But Hannah Bladon’s murder has reminded me how high the the stakes are.
As this Chag Pesach comes to a close, I find myself thinking about the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar is a circular one, with events and experiences falling in line with those of our ancestors. But this process of remembering is not a passive thought exercise. I’m thinking about the way we are commanded to say “I was a slave in Egypt,” reliving the trauma of slavery every year. We don’t say “my ancestors were slaves in Egypt. Thank you God for allowing me to be born free”. I’ve been thinking about the cyclical memory of Jews. Every day in my Politics in the Middle East class that we devoted to Egypt, I found myself thinking about the ten plagues and how those horrible people threw my baby brothers into the Nile. I kept forgetting that Sisi was not Pharoah. When I hear the German language, my first memory is of all the Holocaust movies I’ve seen. I’m still mad at these countries and the people in them for what they did to my ancestors — to me.
I am not alone in this; Jewish ritual highlights memory. Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in his novel Everything is Illuminated, “Jews have six senses: touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing, and memory…The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins…when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain”. Jewish collective memory is not a dedication to learning history, but to constantly living life through the lens of the shadow of the past. The practice of Jewish collective memory involves a ritual of costuming present experiences in the cloaks of the past. The same way Jews inherit memory, they also inherit trauma that seeps into every aspect of their lives. We continue to practice imagining the present in the context of the past which continually reinforces the feeling of living with their ancestors on their shoulders. Jewish traditions practice and enforce this idea of collective memory; a memory bank full of every traumatic experience of every Jew since the time of Avraham. Jewish thought is governed by collective memory and inherited trauma. There is a lot that is beautiful in remembering and honoring, but this can be dangerous, especially when put in context of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. We relive the first and second intifadas every time an innocent person is stabbed. We don’t just mourn the victim, we mourn all the victims each time this happens. This obsession with memory rubs the saltwater of the Pesach seder in our wounds every single time. We can never heal. We can never trust. We can never move on. We can never make peace if we see each past enemy as the perpetrator of crimes committed against us.
This was not a politically motivated act of terrorism. Hannah’s murderer suffered from mental health issues and was not given the help he needed. Instead of responding with exponential anger, we must respond with compassion. We must fight to provide all residents with the help and resources they need rather than responding with violence and hatred. We must recognize the difference between this incident and the countless other murders that have taken place in Jerusalem. We must remember her and seize the opportunities life offers in her name.
May Hannah Bladon’s memory be a blessing, may we begin to heal from this crime and all the others committed against us, and may we release ourselves from the shackles that bind us.