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Our ancient memory

Thank you to Babylonia, Spain, America, and so many more, who made sure we were never truly alone in the world
Illustrative. Survivors in Dachau greet their American liberators. (Source: USHMM)
Illustrative. Survivors in Dachau greet their American liberators. (Source: USHMM)

When we commemorate days like Tisha B’Av on the calendar, we often go into it with a feeling of being hassled — of being jarringly interrupted by the inconvenient obligation to mourn a past we never really knew, a lifestyle we never had.

When the rabbis of yore were sitting in their relatively safe and prospering yeshivot of Babylonia, the trauma was still very present — many of them refugees themselves from the land of Judea, renamed Palestina. It was the first effort to Never Forget. They and the rabbis still living in Israel outlined the proper observance of a day that integrated personal suffering, so that foreboding of the discomfort of the day and the relief of it passing could become seared into the eternal memory of their children and all future generations of Jewry.

Their children would never know for themselves the trepidation that led up to the destruction of the Temples and the destruction of Judaism’s original land-based design, but they would know the personal dread of anticipating caffeine headaches and unquenched thirst on a long summer day. They would never know the pain of watching their brethren fall to the Romans while revolting alongside a failed messianic figure and his rabbinic advocate, but they might shed a tear while reading Eicha and some of the gratuitously gory kinot that seek to imprint themselves on the mind’s eye. Nor would they know the relief of becoming a people resurrected in a new land, with a new portable form of their religion to serve as a lifeboat between the dead past and the living, infinitely adaptable future — but they would know the relief of the first sips of juice and nibbles of cake after the fast breaks.

That last one I might have to tweak. They did, and forever would know, that feeling of relief. Because if ever there was a refrain that repeats itself throughout Jewish history — it’s the opposite end of the pendulum swing that we focus on this day and on many others throughout the Jewish calendar. It’s the thing that stood for us every time they sought to destroy us; the thing that happened right after all that devastation. That’s right, it’s the next safe haven.

Let’s not talk about motivation at the moment. Let’s not talk about a selfish desire to have financial gain by inviting us savvy Jews into their midst. Let us, for once, not be cynical and suspicious. And let us acknowledge and thank the nations that allowed our lifeboats safe harbor for however long they did. Because as we all know deep down, they very easily could have let us die out and remain buried in the world’s ancient past.

If we can forgive and accept G-d’s dual natures, and keep our relationship open and trusting of the divine being who is both capable of immensely coldhearted neglect and brutality, and to also acknowledge that the very same divine being is also capable of immense kindness and opportunities to thrive, how can we not recognize that same duality among our fellow human beings of the world?

Follow me on this. We say that G-d saved us from their hands. But, in truth, it was not just G-d. It was human beings like Cyrus, Alexander the Great, Washington, Napoleon, Churchill, Truman… human beings capable of farther reaching visions for humanity and the world at large, which we got to be a part of. And get this — it was even the Babylonians. Later on. Long after they destroyed the First Temple, those same people were the safe haven that incubated the Babylonian Talmud’s Rabbinic Judaism — the form of Judaism that successfully adapted our ancient religion into one that focused on key aspects of interpersonal responsibility and divine, specific ritual to keep us connected to G-d and to each other… living within the borders of our religion as though they were the borders of a geographic land.

Seriously, thank you, Babylonia. Thank you for having been human beings capable of nuance and thus evolving in your treatment of other groups. Where would we be without your latter day kindness?

Thank you Spain, for granting us a Golden Age while under Muslim rule, and while your Christian leadership in the north still tolerated a people that it truly believed killed its god (…us). Thank you England, New World explorers, Italian Renaissance-Era city states, and Ottomans for giving us a place to go when that era of mostly peace had passed. Thank you Poland for providing a land for Judaism to thrive for centuries when Western European nations had their fill of our wanting to be repaid for the loans we gave them.

Thank you, America, thank you so so so much for never declaring a national religion when the vast majority of your revolutionary soldiers and all of your constitutional framers lived with the conviction that christ was king and could have easily imposed that belief on others. Thank you, Napoleonic France and Enlightenment-Era Germany for allowing us to step out of the darkness of the shtetyl and the ghetto, and into the light of your finest universities, salons and concert halls, and what’s more — to contribute. Thank you again, Ottomans, for allowing the suffering Jewish masses of Russia’s Pale of Settlement to travel to the desolate land of Palestine and to simply live a life of their own design, as well as attempt to revive the land and put into action their secular ideologies of equal contribution — a modern utopian messianism of its own sort. Thank you, Switzerland for allowing a bunch of noisy international Jews to gather in Basel and dream a national homeland into being. Thank you Lord Balfour for listening to the ramblings of one of those pushy Jews and adopting a deeply unpopular stance. Thank you again, America, for crossing an ocean and saving us from complete annihilation in the fires of the crematoria.

You arrived just in time for me to exist.

We do exist. Now. In the year 2018. We are the only people as ancient as we are to exist today. And though our memory is ancient, and therefore stubborn, we must jog it every so often. Let us not just remember the refrains of trauma and despair. Let us remember that at the end of every one of those times, there were GOYIM, yes, Goyim, somewhere, that actively wanted us to live. That actively made sure we would. We were never, ever, truly alone in the world. Be it them, or G-d through them.

So how can we not appreciate and realize when it is our turn to ensure the same for others? That it is our obligation to? It should not be difficult for the Jewish people to recognize when things have gone relatively well for them and still are. But it clearly genuinely is.

Perhaps our inward-facing fixation on our losses and our experiential ritualization of mourning for so much of the year might have something to do with our not recognizing a new reality and stabilizing it while we can by reaching out to those around us. We do not realize nearly enough when we are in a position to celebrate our situation in an outward facing way. What I mean by that is when we can, and therefore must, pay it forward. We are connected to the rest of humanity and always have been. They have both punished us and saved us. Just like G-d.

So I ask my fellow stubborn, ancient brethren what it is you all think we can we do between this Tisha B’av and the next to actively respond to the nuances of our ever-evolving, living relationship with the rest of humanity.

Shall we begin by making sure that the most vulnerable people right here next to us in America (believe it or not, it’s not us this time) are not thrust out of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave in the dead of the night? That they not be ripped apart from their children, family and friends — thrown back into countries that can offer them no life? Let’s take a cue from that national nickname, tap into that ancient memory, and begin to think, to plan, to reach out, and to act.

About the Author
Ariella Newberger is an educator living in New York City. She is a traditionally observant Jew committed to a Judaism informed by feminism and awareness of its social responsibility towards all humanity.
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