What do you expect on Yom HaShoah? But it didn’t begin that way. In truth, it was a simcha of diametric opposites.
The anticipation of a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) brit is caught up with the stress of balancing the somber time of the Tz’firah (siren) with the celebration of the new baby. When I first met the parents a week ago, this was a balance they were trying to navigate. Yom HaShoah is marked by a Tz’firah at 10:00 AM on the dot. The siren lasts a for two minutes, and everyone stands quietly at attention. Even drivers on the highway stop and stand next to their cars to honor those we lost in the Holocaust. Needless to say, that would put a heavy damper on a festive occasion. The parents decided to start at 8:30 AM in the hopes of being basically finished by the time the horn sounded. Best laid plans.
The event began, as many do, with delays of one or another — this time, they were mostly mine. At the meeting, the parents mentioned that the event would be at one shul in our neighborhood. Almost halfway there, by foot, I realized they had changed the location. Now it was going to be tight to get there on time. Once I was rerouted and I had nearly arrived, Google Maps tripped me up by giving me the wrong location, thus setting me back even more.
When I finally arrived, I was relieved to see that the leader of the morning service was praying from the only spot in the room that I could do the Brit, so I had to wait until the minyan was finished. As the prayers came to a close, I rushed to set up as quickly as possible. As you could imagine, my stress level was pretty high. We were getting closer and closer to 10:00 AM.
But an amazing thing happened as the ceremony began. I always sing nigunim (wordless tunes) to fill the empty spaces of the Brit Milah. It both adds an additional spiritual element to the event, as well as puts people at ease in an inherently tense situation. Some of the singing I’ve experience from congregations in the past has been weak, at best. Some of the signing has been just me. But not this time. I felt one with the group. The acoustics were amazing and everyone was singing. It was very moving.
When the ceremony came to a close the mother turned to me and said “I’d like to speak now.” Usually I would have insisted that she feed the baby right away because it’s the first way to calm him down after the procedure, but something told me to let her go. She began to tell us about the meaning of her son’s name, saying, “I wasn’t going to speak, but I found myself writing yesterday.”
Within 15 months, she and her husband had lost 3 grandparents. The mother found out that she was pregnant the day her Zayde was admitted to the hospital with a stroke, two weeks before he would pass away. It was very very early to tell people, but the parents agreed that they needed to tell him. As he began to slip away, the most coherent thoughts he shared were about how excited he was about the baby. “He would have been so thrilled to know he was a boy.”
Her Zayde was born to a religious family in Romania in 1924, one of seven children. He was 16 when he was sent to Auschwitz. During the next four years he survived several forced labor camps and a death march to Czechoslovakia, before being liberated in Buchenwald by the US army.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what the number on my grandfather’s arm stood for, or when I didn’t know that I am named for his mother and sister, both whom murdered by the Nazis. And I can remember how special it was for him and my Bubbie the day I showed them my Israeli passport.”
“There’s something about this moment, the blend of the Tz’firah of remembrance with the joy of our new baby’s arrival into the world, that feels so perfectly Zayde. A party to celebrate the continuation of life, and a moment to remember those who couldn’t be here to celebrate it.”
Moments later the Tz’firah sounded. You could hear a pin drop. So even though they tried to run away from it, things worked out the way the were supposed to. May her Zayde’s memory be for a blessing.
Hayim Leiter is a Mohel for the greater Jerusalem area and the Shoel U’meishiv at Pardes. He can be reached at safterhabrit.com