Yom Hashoah Thoughts

Re-entry from Israel to New York is always a surreal experience for me. Where I live in central Queens is one of the most densely populated Jewish areas in the United States. There is little Jewish that is lacking here. Outside of Israel, there are very few, if any, places in the United States where you can get quite as many Israeli products as my greater neighborhood, But after spending ten days in Jerusalem, I am reminded of just how much New York is not Israel.

In my posting last week, I referenced the fact that every bus in Israel had a “Chag Pesach Sameach” sign that alternated electronically with the number and route of the bus. Something about that struck me as so significant– so wonderful– but it took me until the advent of Yom Hashoah this week to grasp just what it was.

Even inanimate objects in Israel operate within a holistically Jewish frame of reference. There are no “religious buses” or “non-religious” buses in Israel (I know all too well about the separate seating controversies on Israel’s buses in certain neighborhoods, but please, not now; not during the week of Yom Hashoah). There are just buses. But even the buses are, as it were, Jewish on some level. They and their operators reach over and above the incredible divides in Israeli society and extend holiday greetings to their riders. And no one had to work too hard to decipher the message. It was Pesach, and it seemed to me that the entire country, as an organic entity, got the message, regardless of whether religious or secular. For whatever reason, that little reality struck this visiting Diaspora Jew as charming, and- dare I say it- heart warming. You don’t hear many people referring to anything in Israel these days as “heart warming,” but for me, buses saying Chag Sameach was heart warming.

When a country can celebrate together like that, then it follows logically that it can remember together as well. That is exactly what happens in Israel on Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial day for her fallen soldiers. When the siren wails to mark the observance of those days, the country comes to a standstill- a literal standstill- and it remembers together. If you’ve never seen that happen, you should put it on your list of things you have to do in this lifetime. Watching Israelis stop in their tracks on city streets, or in their cars on the highway, get out of them and stand at attention as they focus their thoughts on the traumatic loss that has given depth and immeasurable richness of meaning to Israel’s very existence… it is a remarkable thing to witness. It will bring an existential chill to your innermost being.

We can, and do, lament what Israel’s “lacks” are, and the myriad challenges that it faces. But what it does well, it does spectacularly well. And in celebrating and remembering as a community, Israel fulfills its promise as a Jewish homeland.

For all that my neck of the proverbial woods is as Jewish as it gets, and I have everything from my choice of places to eat great kosher food to a staggering choice of options of Jewish shopping, culture, and anything else Jewish you might think of, one thing that we’re not all that good at here in New York is the “together” aspect of Jewish living. We do little as an organic whole. For reasons ostensibly religious but largely political, putting the Jews of New York together for any reason remains a task that can try the most resolute of souls. All too often, we have to look for “neutral venues” and parve agendas, lest our presence in the other’s institutions or synagogues imply, God forbid, that we recognize and appreciate their worth, even if we “do Judaism differently.”

It is easy for us to look at Israel and see the flaws in her struggling, still emerging society. We all do it– myself included. But during this week of Yom Hashoah, as we remember those Jews who were exterminated regardless of ideological label and level of belief or practice, we would do well to be cognizant of how hard it is for us to grieve appropriately together (or, for that matter, celebrate together when the situation warrants) because of the walls that we have erected between those Jews who are like us and those who are the “other.”

The Shoah taught us all many lessons, all painful. Remembering those awful years, and what they took from us, should bring us all to a greater appreciation of the fundamental unity of the Jewish people. In death, we were indistinguishable from each other to our enemies. How wonderful it would be if, in life, we could see each other the same way…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.