All of Israel just came to a standstill for 2 minutes just now. I was in my room changing, pulling up my pants when the sirens went off. The music was playing, but as soon as I heard the sirens, I dropped my pants and pressed mute on the computer. 2 minutes of united silence to remember those massacred in the Shoah – hearing the cars slow down, hearing the voices on the street mute. Nothing but silence as your mind goes automatically to the 6 million. It was eerie and sad and powerful all at once. Today is Yom haShoah – all of Israel remembers. It’s moments like this that reminds how privileged we are to be living in a Jewish state on the heels of one of the most traumatic events in our history. It’s moments like this that remind that the 6 million didn’t die in vain. We’re still going strong. We’re still alive…
Today is Yom HaShoah. It is, at once, a most profound day: a day of mourning, a day of hope; a day to remember and reflect, and a day to look forward and look beyond. On this day we, collectively, as a nation, remember those whose lives were brutally extinguished at the hands of barbarians – not just Jews who suffered under the Nazis, but all Jews who were persecuted from time immemorial: from the ancient Hebrews in Egypt all the way down through the generations to modern Israelis today. HaShem warned us, quite correctly, that in every generation they shall rise up against us – and even the most casual skimmer of Jewish history will be able to attest to the fulfillment of this prophecy. I find it to be particularly poignant that the State of Israel chose this day – so close on the heels of that holiday which excitedly celebrates our freedom from Egypt – to remember that though we are a free nation, we are still plagued by those who hate us and seek our destruction. Pesach compels us to celebrate that we are a free nation; Yom haShoah comes a few days later to remind us that the struggle for freedom is an on-going one.
I came to Israel at this particular time for a number of reasons. One, I simply missed it. I just missed being in Israel with all my heart and soul – and so, I needed to be back. I needed be back in haAretz, because, sadly to say, as much as I love Trinidad & Tobago, and as much as I love the Jewish community there, there is simply no outlet for a modern Orthodox adherent to channel his yiddishkeit. But I chose this particular point in time – during Pesach – to be here because I missed the religiousness of this powerful chag. Yes, I knew Yom haShoah, YomhaAtzmaut, et al. were to follow quickly on the heels of Pesach, but they weren’t my main focuses for being here now – but, as with all things in life, these “by-product” Days (particularly Yom haShoah) have managed in a very subtle and wily way to affect me just as profoundly as the magnificent holiday of Pesach.
I am a convert – and a proud one at that. Insomuch as I chose Judaism, Judaism chose me – we found each other through the conduit of a loving, merciful and wonderful God. In the religious community – particularly in Israel – I am never identified as the convert, per se. People here are more aware of the halacha surrounding this sensitive issue and – even if they peg me as a ger or not (I’ve gotten numerous quizzical questions in Israel like “Temani?” “Cochin?” I’ve even gotten, once, when I was wearing a cap and looking particularly dark “Beta Israel?” – which is all very hilarious. I once ran into a group of Indian Jews one Shabbat and they were so excited to see me, just as much as I was to see them. They were visibly disappointed that I wasn’t an Indian Jew of their community – but when I told them I was from Trinidad & Tobago, the men in the group lit up with questions about Brian Lara and whether I knew him) they never make me feel uncomfortable about it. In Trinidad, however, where the community has such a loose understanding of the religious aspect of Judaism, I’ve been introduced as “the convert”, and I’ve heard a man (whose own Jewish ancestry is very vague and questionable) make the comment that there are only a few “real Jews” in Trinidad and then the rest are converts such as myself; a statement which rests on the assumption that I, and the rest of the Jewish-Trinidadian population, am and are not “real”, whereas he is. It’s hurtful, but I don’t hold it against anyone in Trinidad for thinking along those lines because Judaism in it’s spiritual/religious form, sadly, has no root in my home country, and the simplistic religious understanding that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, regardless of where he/she came from, will probably never be understood halachically there.
The reason I bring this up at this juncture is to connect the thoughts which are running amok in my head as a result of this day: Yom haShoah. The fact remains that, until mashiach comes, in every generation they will rise up against us. Yes, us. Wherever I may choose to live in life – be it Trinidad, or back to England, or back to Israel, or perhaps even the States – I will be branded a “Jew”, with all the negative connotations that word conjures up in the mind of the antisemitic. I have chosen a path which will lead my children, and their children, and their children after that, into certain heartache, pain and, dare I say it?, death. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of the matriarch, “Rachel weeping for her children” – and wherever she may be, Rachel has wept a lot, for her children has suffered and continue to live under the threat of continued suffering. My children will be part of Rachel’s progeny – some of them may stay within the garden of Judaism, some may choose to leave – who knows what the future holds?, but the fact is, that, some of them will remain Jews in perpetuity, and, they will have to live with the national, ancient remembrance of heartache and sorrow that this day signifies. There are times, particularly on days like today, or days when I read of the existential threats Jewish people in Israel and in the diaspora face, and I falter within myself and feel like crying. My commitment and steadfastness to the religion of Avraham is unwavering and unquestionable – but this is my choice that I made for me. What of my kids and their kids? I’m pulling them into a place where there will be the very real possibility of much suffering.
But then – I give them a gift unlike any other which I can give to them. The thing that many people fail to realize is that when we, converts and born-Jews alike, choose a life of derech haTorah, we are not making a decision which affects just us in our solitary lives. We make a decision which will reverberate through the generations which will follow us. Yes, my kids – as Jews, be they Israelis or whatever – will have to face unspeakable horrors which I can’t predict (but I hope and pray, these horrors will never come), but my kids will have a gift: they will be part of Israel. They will mourn on Yom haShoah and Tisha b’Av and all the other mourning days – but they will celebrate on Pesach, they will feel their hearts lift when the Israeli flag flies proudly on YomhaAtzmaut, they will banter in midrashim, they will enjoy the culinary pleasures of being shomer kashrut, they will fight to defend their faith, their people and their land: my children will follow the faith that I have chosen – and they will understand that it’s the best inheritance I could have given to them.
Yom haShoah has relevance to our lives today as Jews. The Holocaust may have happened 60+ years ago, but the evil which fueled it is finding ever-new, ever-ingenius ways to try to attack us. The founders of the modern State were wise to place the national Day of Holocaust Remembrance smack dab in the middle of the end of Pesach, and then the beginning of Yom haAtzmaut next week. The Jewish story is one of rebirth and the fight for life wherever death faces us.
As I stood quietly for the two minutes when the sirens sounded, I focused my thoughts on the victims of the Nazi regime. I let my mind think of those faces I have seen in pictures whose sunken eyes and skeletal frames are forever burned into my memory. I thought of them and wept and I spent the two minutes praying for them – hoping that they have found peace wherever they may be. The two minutes went by in this way and then, at the end, when it was over, when the people started to walk again and the cars started to drive again, I was forcefully reminded: life goes on. Judaic life has continued, despite the better efforts of evil. Israel was born – the Jewish population in the world is steadily increasing and nearing the peak it was prior to World War 2.
As long as God lives – we will live.
Never forget the Holocaust – and, never forget there is a future.