Holocaust Guilt

No one ever said it.

My parents never said it. My rabbi never said it. My Hebrew school teachers never said it.

At least, they never said it explicitly.

But they said it.

“You have to be Jewish and marry Jewish and stay Jewish. Why? Because six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.”

I get it. I understand the sentiment. But what does one thing have to do with the other?

It’s like those parents who say, “Finish your vegetables. Don’t you know that children are starving in Africa?”

It’s a guilt trip. Starving children – a tragedy – doesn’t explain why eating vegetables is important. It makes me feel bad. Maybe I’ll eat my vegetables. But I probably won’t.

The Holocaust – also a tragedy – doesn’t explain why I should do anything Jewish. It makes me feel bad. But feeling bad has nothing to do with important decisions about my identity. It’s unrelated. The Holocaust is important to study and understand. It is important to talk about. It is important to remember. But the Holocaust isn’t a reason to be Jewish.

You – your identity – takes years to develop. Your influences include your family and where you grew up. They include your school, friends, teachers, and heroes. They include your favorite bands, books, movies, and TV shows. They include your synagogue, rabbis, Hebrew school, and what your parents said about them. And you – how you identify – is dependent upon you, your temperament, your biases, and how you perceive yourself from within that complex web of influences.

If you grew up in a world where being Jewish was a priority – and your parents, teachers, rabbis, and friends lived it and believed it and supported it – chances are you have a strong Jewish identity. If they paid lip service to it, your identity probably isn’t as strong. If it was your cultural heritage – but no different from being Italian, Irish, or whatever – that is probably how you identify as well.

But unless you are the children of survivors, most likely the Holocaust has very little, if anything, to do with you or how you identify as a Jew. The Holocaust is not a reason to be Jewish. It isn’t a reason to go to Hebrew school, or have a Bar Mitzvah, or marry another Jew, or have Jewish children.

It isn’t.

And harping on it – again and again and again – is not helpful or conducive. It’s a guilt trip. It’s condescending. It doesn’t mean anything. Not really.

The Jewish establishment – synagogues, federations, youth groups, schools – of every denomination, flavor, and affiliation are guilty of peddling Holocaust guilt. It comes up all the time; in speeches, in programing, on Israel trips, at fundraising dinners, at public events. And although I doubt it’s anyone’s intention to shame or coerce, the cumulative effect is just that. “You can’t let Hitler win.

And it has to stop.

It is great to be Jewish. If you know that, you know that because you asked questions and thought about it and studied it and internalized it. You are proud to be Jewish. You know why you are proud to be Jewish. You are informed and aware. You should be. You should love it.

And that pride, that awareness, that love, that should be your message.

Communicate that message to the next generation. Live it. It should ooze from your pores. It should be palpable. It should be on your lips. It should be your essence.

If you care about Jewish continuity, the Jewish people, or the Jewish future your job is to demonstrate the relevance of being Jewish. Talk about what’s important. Talk about your passions; identity, heritage, religion, Israel, Israelis, aliyah. Whatever you want. Make your point. Inspire. Empower. Live it.

And believe it.

Being Jewish isn’t a burden. It isn’t a problem. It isn’t hard to be a Jew. We’ve been through hell. So what? We’re still here. And look at what we’ve done. Look at what we’ve achieved. Look at who we are.

We need to talk about the Holocaust. It is an important topic. It is an essential event in our history. We need to talk about it a lot. We need to remember it. (And – full disclosure – I support Holocaust education. I’ve brought groups to the camps, led seminars, and interviewed survivors.) But we need to keep it in perspective. It isn’t why we’re Jewish.

We’re Jewish because being Jewish is great.

About the Author
Tzvi Gluckin is an author and musician. He currently serves as the director of Vechulai, an innovative Jewish think tank located in Boston.