I was barely off the plane in San Francisco after two glorious weeks celebrating Passover with family and friends when I opened my schedule to discover that Yom HaShoah was only days away.
A moment of confession: while I have always felt connected to this day and to those who lost their lives, I have never been able to fully connect to the rituals of commemoration. When I was a child, my family never spoke a word about the Shoah. They never confirmed if we lost family (in fact, quite the opposite — we were told that we didn’t anyone in the war. This statement has never been challenged nor refuted, and it sounds ludicrous to me today). As an 11-year-old religious school student, I was “that kid” that had to stay home on the two days the program dealt with Shoah studies. My parents didn’t see any reason why I should be traumatized by irrelevant, ancient history.
This year, more than any other year in my life, Yom HaShoah feels entirely personal and quite pertinent.
The surge of anti-Semitic acts in the United States leaves us unable to escape the reality of our current political climate. We are still reeling from the recent tragedies at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh and Chabad of Poway; the episodes of hatred against our people have been growing in quantity and severity. My circles of friends and colleagues speak quietly about a subtle shift in attitudes toward Jews in the diaspora. While I have not changed my normative behavior, I fear it is only a matter of time before I feel compelled to do so.
What we are experiencing in the US now is serious. And dangerous. And so very sad.
During my university studies in the mid-1980s, I remember reading a book by Charles Silberman called A Certain People. Silberman contends that my generation did not experience or understand anti-Semitism in the way that my parents’ and my grandparents’ generation did. He wrote, “Despite pockets of discrimination, almost every occupation and position in American society is open to American Jews, compared to the situation in the 1930s when widespread and virulent antisemitism caused Jews to hide their identity…”
As one who grew up in the deep south, who was forced to contend with ignorance and not-so-subtle, anti-Semitic innuendo throughout my childhood, I was deeply offended. I proceeded to write a paper disagreeing with his premise. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote and how I defended my position, but I’m certain that I would wince if I were to find that paper today.
Only now, in this precarious time, do I understand how correct Silberman was in his assertion. As an 18-year-old university student, my meager understanding of anti-Semitism was superficial and anecdotal.
My current home synagogue sent out a notification last week to prepare the congregation for an impending strengthening of our temple’s security practices:
“The Board of Trustees recently approved the deployment of armed security for all Friday evening and Shabbat morning services, as well as during other significant temple events. The Security Task Force is actively collaborating with the police department and other experts to ensure that we are doing all the right things while still being a warm and welcoming community.”
I’m a Jewish professional. I’ve worked/lived/loved/existed in the Jewish community for most of my life. And yet, I can’t help but wonder: am I safe when I walk into the multitude of Jewish institutions where I work and visit? Are my children at risk when I send them to Jewish events?
How many more signs do we need in order to understand that we are dealing with a shift in culture that should be uncomfortably familiar to us as a people?
As we move through these hours of Yom HaShoah, I am at a loss. We repeat our yearly mantra: Never Again. Yet there are signs all around us that we are free-falling into an era of Again.
Sitting in my home in the States while my bed is still warm in Hertzliya, I am reminiscing about the Yom HaShoah I experienced in 2013 while on sabbatical in Israel.
On that day, I wrote:
“The truth is that there is no country in the world that can commemorate Yom HaShoah as they do in Israel. It is almost unfair to expect otherwise. There are too many personal connections, too many horrifying stories. For a few days before the actual commemoration until the day of the remembrance, most television and radio programs are dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Shoah. The country becomes quiet — and not just when the siren sounds at 10:00 AM. The lines of separation among different factions soften. People listen to the stories, immerse themselves in the pain and the terror of the concentration camps and gas chambers, and remember the profound and infinite losses of the six million Jews who perished.
“In the States, commemorating Yom HaShoah feels much more remote. Yellow candles are distributed to congregants by mail, but few remember to light them.
“On a Sunday that falls closest to the date, a memorial event is offered. It begins, and it ends. The majority of the Jewish community does not attend, and there is no communal pressure for them to do so. A small percentage of American Jewry chooses to include itself in communal events, but most tend to marginalize the day. Simply put: in America, we have to opt-in.
“Not so in Israel. There is no ability to opt-out. We purposely surround ourselves with the stories, the sirens, and the sadness. Music on the radio is intentionally programmed to create a national sense of loss and sorrow. Almost immediately following our Pesach celebration of freedom, we plunge into the reminiscence of modern-day tragedy. Our hearts move from the Shoah to Yom HaZikaron, the day of memory. Finally, as we reach the true celebration of Yom HaAtzma’ut, we are simply One.”
Today, in 2019, no one has the ability to opt out. We’ve all been drafted into this fight; a fight for the right to practice our religion in whatever way brings us closer to our community and our Creator, to gather in synagogues and public places for simchot and sorrows, and to bring light… true, pure light… to ourselves and to all nations.