By Rivy Poupko Kletenik, Jewish Sound Columnist
I can barely contain myself. I just read the article by Paul Greenberg, “Holocaust Day Again” — posted all over the Internet. It is revolting on so many levels. Here is what he writes:
Another year, another Holocaust Day — just as there’s another Earth Day, Groundhog Day, Tax Day, Valentine’s Day…you name it. It had to happen to the Holocaust, too. It’s become a Day.
It’s a familiar transformation — from the unique to the annual, from enormity into class assignment. It’s the standard modern metamorphosis: Awe gives way to routine, shock to ceremony, the monstrous to the mundane, the horror to lectures about it.
Is there any better way to reduce the unique to the ordinary than to make it a Day? It’s the essence of modernization: trivialization. When was Holocaust Day — Sunday, Monday? I forget.
Please, please tell me you agree and please respond!
It’s awful. Every bit of it. It is incredible that he places Holocaust Day in the same company as Earth Day, Groundhog Day, tax day, Valentine’s Day — not with the Ninth of Av, the 10th of Tevet, or the 17th of Tammuz — Jewish memorial days and fast days that also come around year in and year out. Though Yom HaShoah is a modern and very recent innovation, the adding of special days to mark tragedies is an accepted and traditional practice in Judaism.
Greenberg advocates silence as an alternative. Silence has its value. Most Yom HaShoah observances usually include a moment of silence. In the case of Israel it comes with the sounding of a siren. There is deep veracity to the Jewish custom of meeting tragedy with quietness. Aaron assumed a mantle of silence at the death of his two sons. In my mind, however, the Holocaust and quiet are at dramatic odds with each other. The Holocaust unfolded with a deadly silence as the world stood by.
Let there be noise, Paul Greenberg. Let there be tumult, abundant clamor, a deafening, deafening uproar. Paul Greenberg, let their story be told. This is who we are and what is expected of us: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will speak to you, your elders, and they will tell you” — our Torah exhorts us clearly not to remain quiet.
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, professor of Jewish History at Columbia University and Stroum Lecturer here in Seattle in 1982, developed ideas of memory in his lectures that then became the book, “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.” There he writes: “It was ancient Israel that first assigned a decisive significance to history and thus forged a new world-view…. Only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.”
For us, for the Jewish people, memory is a moral imperative, an obligation, one of our holy noble mitzvot. As per our responsibility on seder night: In order that you shall remember the day when you came out from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.
To be sure, we are told a remarkable 36 times we to remember the Exodus from Egypt — to remember in fact, not once a year but every day of our life. This memory is demonstrated in ritual and in speech, mezuzah, tefillin, Shabbat and reciting the Shema twice a day. It is also seen in our embracing of the lofty, principled, ethical standards of being kind to the stranger, loving the other, and being honest and upright in business. Our memory of the Exodus is connected to and drives us to action.
There is reason for memory. There is purpose to daily recalling and reaffirming the Exodus. Paul Greenberg, what were you thinking when you wrote, “But all that is so… yesterday.”
“To be moved by the Holocaust is passé — if it is possible at all by now. It embarrasses some of us, and bores more of us. It has become just another ceremony, just another Day, if we notice it at all. Making something dutiful can make it forgettable.”
We have never stopped being moved by the Exodus. It is our very duty that has stirred our people to embrace the moral imperative. Remembering the past and speaking of it leads us to ethical behaviors. The declaring of it every day, its being embedded in our life is what essentializes it.
And then there is Pesach night — one of those “days” that Greenberg finds so counterproductive. On Passover — our obligation to remember expands to “telling,” to Sipur Yeztiat Mizrayim. This we do at our seder with our family gathered round with symbolic foods, and set actions, prayers, rituals and songs. We hold a cup of wine in hand as we express gratitude for salvation and pray that God bring justice to the world. We sit at a table and we encourage our children to ask questions, to articulate their concerns, to be curious about our story. Would Greenberg call for this to be eliminated as well?
Seder night is closer to Yom HaShoah than most would imagine. When our children ask, “mah nishtanah halailah hazeh,” “Why is this night different from all other nights?” they are asking why is this darkness so very dark? Though sweet in the mouths of babes it cuts to the quick.
Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches that this question is far from simple, it is the complicated and painful question of Theodicy: “Mother and Father why have our people been made to endure so much suffering? Why is this night so dark and so long?”
Elie Wiesel writes in his Passover Hagaddah:
Every year when he reached this place in the text the celebrated Rabbi Levi Yischak of Berdichev would stop to meditate. After a long silence he would cry out, “God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, the fourth son who does not even know how to ask the question, that is me, Levi Yischak, If I knew how to ask questions I would ask You these questions, Read them in my heart Almighty God they are waiting for you there. I do not know why we suffer and endure all the exiles of the world.
We put our arms around our children, we hold them close, we point to the ritual foods on our table, and we tell our story. The more we speak, the more praiseworthy.
Celebrated Israeli poet Leah Goldberg, who was born in Lithuania in 1911 and came to Israel in 1935, tells the story of Egypt in an ironic way related specifically to the Shoah. After famously distancing herself from creating any works about the Holocaust, she broke her word and wrote a single poem about those dark years. A poem cycle based on the Four Sons form the Passover Hagaddah;In reverse order, the child who cannot ask comes first and his question is lengthy. The wise child comes last with but few lines. The Holocaust gives voice to the child who cannot ask and quiets the former wise child. But none are silent;
The one who does not know how to ask said:
time, too, my father, this time, too,
my soul, returned from Hell,
From wrath and indignation.
Because words are insufficient to depict the Hell
Because death has no idiom,
And I, who do not know how to ask,
Am tongue-tied sevenfold.
Because I was commanded to wander on long roads —
No joy, no tranquility, no rest.
Because I was commanded to look at the torment of babies
To pass over the dead bodies of infants.
Because they beat my eyes with horsewhips
And commanded me to open my eyes
Snake whispers crept toward my nights
Not to sleep, not to dream, not to forget.
And I did not know, was the guilt mine,
Did I betray, did I misuse —
I am not wicked, not smart, not even simple,
And for this reason, I asked no questions.
Though it is painful and complicated we cannot desist from the telling. Paul Greenberg? To speak of expressions of and memorials for the Holocaust as an industry is insulting. It is our deep obligation to remember, to give voice and to make much noise — if some instances resonate more than others, so be it. Let us err on the side of too much rather than too little.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail at email@example.com.