A fruit store in the north end of Tel Aviv. The shop owner’s son is at the register. He’s Mizrachi, speaks in guttural Hebrew — vowels formed deep in the throat, similar to Arabic. He’s ringing up my fruit.
There’s an older couple behind me speaking German. The Mizrachi, let’s call him Dudu, is speaking in Hebrew, to somebody else, I imagine. I don’t know, I’m staring at my phone.
Then Dudu says, or rather yells, “Nachon?” I look up, “Ani Tzodek?” [Am I right?”]
“Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were talking to me. What did you say?” I respond in Hebrew.
“The sound of it repulses me,” he says.
Instantly, I know what he’s referring to. I interrupt him before he can finish the thought. What if the German couple understands Hebrew?
“It sometimes jars me too,” I respond, thinking back to when I sat on a train leaving Berlin and German security guards stood on the platform shouting in German.
“Look at me,” Dudu says, pointing to the color of his skin. “It’s not like Hannah Senesh is my aunt. I don’t have grandparents who were killed. But I’m part of the Jewish people. The Holocaust is my history.”
I went to Jewish day school in the 1980s and Holocaust education in those days, at least in my school, was raw and primitive. It consisted of a two word curriculum: “Never Forget.” Teachers broke that down to a one word lesson plan: “Terrify.” There was no image too gruesome, no survivor testimony too horrid, and no present day anti-Semitic incident that wasn’t a harbinger of a second and final Holocaust. The Nazis were already in Skokie.
Growing up, Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — was so overpowering, it would take weeks for me to stop seeing everyday items as Holocaust artifacts. Trees as the forests where some Jews hid; berries as what those Jews foraged to survive in the forests; oatmeal as the mush served in the camps; canned foods in the cabinet as discarded Zyklon B.
In those days, March of the Living was a new initiative and I could not fathom how anybody could survive a visit to Auschwitz without a mental collapse. That’s why, they told me, the trip to Poland is followed immediately by a trip to Israel for Yom Ha’azmaut. The transcendental high of Israel’s independence assuages the crushing darkness of Poland.
The Israeli high school curriculum today very often includes a trip to Auschwitz and other areas of Poland. But in contrast to March of the Living participants, when Israeli students return from Poland, they return to their daily lives at home. Upon touching down in Israel, do they experience the same awe at the existence of the state as students visiting from the Diaspora? Is it possible to fully appreciate a homeland one has never lived without?
Today, my family and I live in Israel. Here, for better or worse, Yom HaShoah, seems to take a back seat in significance to Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day, which, one week later, honors fallen soldiers and victims of terror.
On both days, a siren blares and traffic stops. Both days, the radio plays sad music and schools and synagogues hold commemorative ceremonies. Yet, Yom HaZikaron penetrates the national mood in a way that Yom HaShoah does not.
I have discussed this difference with some Israeli Ashkenazi friends who, notwithstanding Dudu’s example, speculate that Yom HaShoah feels less weighty because half of Israel’s population — the Sephardim/Mizrachim — do not relate as closely to it since the Holocaust did not reach their communities of origin.
Or perhaps in a time when Israeli soldiers, citizens and tourists are targets of near daily terrorist attacks, Yom HaZikaron feels like a funeral at a fresh grave to Yom HaShoah’s memorial of events in a distant past. Or maybe Yom HaZikaron is more easily observed? We can digest the meaning of one or even several lives. But six million remains impossible to grasp.
I’ve heard some suggest that Yom HaZikaron maintains public morale for the long slog of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we ask families to send their children to the army we must show them how much we as a society values their sacrifice.
The Israeli public does indeed, deeply appreciate the sacrifice. There is not another day of the year on which the country is more united than on Yom HaZikaron. On every other day, however, the Israeli public seems hopelessly divided. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict grinds on and Israel finds itself increasingly isolated in the world.
Precisely because it is removed from the politics of the day, Yom HaShoah can give the Israeli public a macro perspective that Yom HaZikaron cannot. To delve into the emotions of Yom HaShoah is to see Israel as it is seen in the Diaspora — as a continuing aspiration with limitless possibilities for good in a dark world. It is to recognize the shared fate of Jewish Israelis and the Jews in the Diaspora, and a chance for Israelis to find some reprieve in that from their daily isolation. When visiting a Jewish house of mourning it is customary to bless the mourners with “finding comfort among the mourners’ of Zion.” Yom HaShoah is an opportunity for the mourners in Zion to find comfort among the mourners in Jewish communities the world over.
There are some good reasons why Yom HaZikaron in Israel is observed with more visceral reverence than Yom HaShoah. But Yom HaShoah does not speak any less to Israel’s survival. Israel depends on a strong Jewish Diaspora, just as the Diaspora depends on a strong Israel.