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Too much Holocaust?

The Shoah should not be the only subject taught, but the 'ethics of memory' demand we continue to focus on it

A congregant approached me a few years ago to relate the following anecdote. Following Kol Nidre, she overheard a young couple talking outside our synagogue. The man remarked to his companion: “you see! The Holocaust is all they ever speak about”. While mention of the Holocaust figured only tangentially in my sermon, the young man felt even a brief reference to the Holocaust confirmed his view about contemporary Judaism. So he told his girlfriend that he is bored with a dark and dated Judaism of “too much Holocaust”.

This man is not the only critic of how the Jewish community speaks about the Holocaust. The Holocaust is manipulated to advance the political agendas. To the left, the Holocaust is an argument for Jews to be sensitive to the plight of the Palestinians; to the right, it is a reason for Jews to be constantly vigilant in defending themselves. And these two examples are just the tip of the iceberg; Holocaust analogies are so common there is an oft quoted rule known as “Godwin’s law”, that as a heated discussion progresses, “the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1″.

Too much Holocaust can also undermine Judaism. Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald has argued that “obsessing over the Holocaust is exacting a great price. It is killing America’s Jews”. He notes that “more than a quarter of the books published on Jewish themes today concern the Holocaust. Jews who have never opened a Bible, have broad expertise in Holocaust studies”. Tragically, Buchwald is right. My experience is that it is not unusual to find Jewish high school students who can readily recite the names of multiple concentration camps, but fumble when asked for the names of the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Most community Jewish high schools spend far more time teaching about the Holocaust than teaching Mishnah and Talmud (if those subjects are taught at all). The March of the Living is remarkably inspiring, but it should never be considered a substitute for a complete Jewish education.

Certainly, Holocaust memory has been misused. So people like the young man in my synagogue argue that there is too much Holocaust, and it’s time to turn the page. But they’re wrong.

Even though I am the son of a survivor, and my grandfather died on a death march, I used to play down the Holocaust as well. Early in my career I was idealistic, and I focused exclusively on the positive and uplifting; needless to say, the Holocaust is a very depressing subject. Chance had it that my current synagogue is populated with a large percentage of survivors. My relationships and conversations with them changed the way I thought. I now recognize that my Jewish identity was lacking because I had ignored the Holocaust. Yes, I was a rabbi; but I had sealed myself off from the history of my own people. Judaism demands what Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik calls “an ethics of memory.” As the next generation, our obligation is to remember. If over one third of our community were murdered just 70 years ago, we must remember them; and if young Jews won’t remember them, who will?

There will always be questions about how to remember, and certainly teaching the Holocaust doesn’t excuse schools that fail at basic Jewish education. And yes, memory has boundaries. The Talmud, which devotes multiple pages to Jewish mourning rituals, notes that mourning too much can be a vice as well. When do we reach the point of “too much Holocaust”? I cannot say; but my gut tells me most of the time we aren’t anywhere near that point. In a contemporary society of “buffered selves” (to use Charles Taylor’s term), where identity is constructed in a way that doesn’t see ties to community and history as decisive, too much historical memory is usually not a hazard.

At the same time, I must admit I have become quite passionate about the Holocaust in recent years, and yes, I do mention the Holocaust often in my speeches and in my articles. You would too, if you met some of the people I’ve met, people like Paul.

Paul passed away in 2006. A survivor of eight concentration camps, Paul lost a dear older brother and several other members of his family during the war. Despite enormous danger, he joined a minyan in one of the concentration camps. After the war, he built a family and career, and never wavered from his beliefs. In one instance, he refused to cave into racism, and insisted on renting an apartment to a black family. He lived the rest of his life like a true survivor, a man who maintained his values, his dignity, and his tradition despite enduring profound loss and suffering.

Paul had held onto, as a cherished possession, the concentration camp uniform he was liberated in.

On the day of his funeral, on top of the casket, was the threadbare striped shirt and pants, the ragged uniform of a concentration camp inmate.

I won’t forget Paul. And I won’t forget what his uniform represents; his suffering, determination, and faith.

Is this too much? No. To remember any less would be too little.

About the Author
Chaim Steinmetz is senior rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. Rabbi Steinmetz has been a congregational Rabbi for over 20 years, and has previously served pulpits in Montreal, Quebec and Mount Vernon, New York.
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