Posts Tagged 'Yom HaShoa'

Sweet Sweet Candy: A Thought for Yom HaShoah

Recently I was talking with my dear friend Rabbi Seth Braunstein about our synagogue’s Women’s Prayer group. They were having an issue in that the children were demanding to have a Candy Lady there, just as we have Chaim,our beloved Candy Man, in the regular service. The question was if the new Candy Lady should get the candy from Chaim Ezra. Why would Chaim Ezra pay for their candy?

Image result for dum dum lollipops

In thinking about this question I reflected back to a blog I posted back in 2011. There I wrote:

Our 7-year-old son, Yadid, recently went to the dentist who informed us that he has three cavities. My first response to the news was to cut the volume of candy in his diet. But how can I deprive him the experience of getting that lollipop from the “candy man” in our synagogue on Shabbat? The “candy man” is Chaim Ezra.  He is a saintly elderly man who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the forest.

My wife and I have chosen to not tell our children about the Holocaust until they are older. Too often our community has chosen to teach the Holocaust as an expedient educational route.  It takes a lot less time to teach someone how Jews died then how to live Jewishly.  My wife and I choose not to teach the latter partly because we don’t see the added value of educating our young children about anti-Semitism.  Why would I want my children to know anything accept for the sweetness of Jewish life?

For someone like Chaim Ezra who has tasted the bitterness of true hatred in his life, I cannot imagine denying him the joy of bringing joy to the next generation. We live in a time of tremendous freedom. While the Holocaust will always be in our memory, as the years pass there will fewer and fewer survivors. I often worry that our youngest, Emunah, might not have memories of knowing a survivor.

In commemoration of Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Remembrance day, I encourage everyone to introduce their children to a survivor and find a new way to make Jewish life sweet. And it can never hurt to brush. ( Saidtomyself.com April 29, 2011)

Eight years later we all feel blessed to have Chaim Ezra in our lives. It seems like just yesterday, but that 7 year old is now 15. And instead of my insecurity about Emunah having a relationship with him, Libi has taken her place as our youngest. I do get special joy of bringing her to synagogue to get a lollipop from the Candy Man. And as I reflect on today being Yom HaShoah, I look back at this post and ask myself, “How naïve was I?” From Pittsburgh to Poway and from Christchurch to Sri Lanka, we are regularly discussing Antisemitism and other acts of terrorism that have become the new normal. As sad as I am for our society and my children to witness the reemergence of this hatred and heightened levels of terrorism in our world, I have a different level of sadness for Chaim Ezra. While no one should experience such hatred in their lives, knowing what Chaim Ezra has gone through it is excruciating that he has to do it again. Were all of those times we said, “Never Again”, just platitudes?

We commemorate Yom HaShoah on the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We choose to create memory around our fighting back. At this moment I feel particularly moved by the words of Rabbi Yisroel  Goldstein the Rabbi of Chabad of Poway. He said, “I guarantee you, we will not be intimidated or deterred by terror. Terror will not win.” We need to dig in deep and do the real work of making sure that hate and terror never beat out our love and devotion. While we need to teach about the Holocaust and Antisemitism, we cannot allow terror to fool us into taking the expedient educational route.  In his eulogy for Lori Gilbert-Kaye Rabbi Goldstein quoted the Rebbe and said, “Victims live in the past, but survivors live in the future.”  While we need to reinvest in safety and security in our community, we cannot cower in fear or let that investment replace investing in the joy of living Jewishly.

With that I return to the question that Rav Seth shared with me. Why would this Holocaust survivor want to pay for all of the candy? As it turns out, Chaim Ezra pays for the candy with money he gets from German reparations.

A month and a half ago on Purim we read about our salvation from another genocide in the Persian Empire. There we we read on Purim: 
As the days when the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month that was reversed for them Mi’Yagon l’Simcha – from grief to joy and from mourning to a festive day-to make them days of feasting and joy, and sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:22)
There is a special profound feeling that comes from a reversal of sadness into happiness. Chaim Ezra and all of our survivors deserve this kind of sweetness in their lives. We all have a lot of work to do to ensure that we can reverse all of the grief of this last year into joy. We need this for ourselves and our children. And I still think it could not hurt to brush.
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The Sorrow to Joy Story

In the Mishna we learn:

In every generation a person must regard himself as though he personally had gone out of Egypt, as it is said: “And you shall tell your son in that day, saying: ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.’” Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, honor, bless, extol, and adore God Who performed all these miracles for our ancestors and us; He brought us forth from bondage into freedom, from sorrow into joy, from mourning into festivity, from darkness into great light, and from servitude into redemption. Therefore let us say before God, Hallelujah! (Pesachim 10:5)

This paradigm of “from sorrow into joy” frames many different stories of Passover.  In Egypt we were in bondage and suffering in servitude and then we were redeemed. That speaks of our physical bondage, but we also talk about our spiritual slavery being idolaters, the son of Terach.  Throughout history we have retold and reformed the motif of “from sorrow into joy” to see ourselves anew as though we had gone into and out of Egypt. Depending on which story of “from sorrow into joy” we want to tell, we start and end our story in different spots.

As move from Passover toward Shavuot, we have some noted moments along the way. Next week we will have Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut. This is clearly a close connection between this story of “from sorrow into joy.” We go from Memorial Day to Independence day. But where does the commemoration of Yom HaShoah from this past week fit in to the “from sorrow into joy” plot line?

There is really nothing redeeming about the Holocaust, it is just bad, pure sorrow. Where is the joy? It is true that the State of Israel chose to commemorate the Holocaust on a day connected to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, while changes the story from being lamb to slaughter into people who nobly fought back. Still you could not categorize that as joy.  The Holocaust is a baseline of complete moral depravity. Broadly speaking you can break Jews into two groups. While they both say “Never Again”, one group says this cannot happen again to the Jewish people and the other group say this kind of horror cannot happen to anyone. While both are noble and true, it seems that we are all to often forced to pick particularism to the exclusion of universalism or visa versa.

For the people who are in the particularism camp the sorrow of being powerless in the Holocaust is met with the joy we celebrate on Yom HaAtzmaut. There is no doubt the story of the Modern State of Israel is amazing, but we are left dealing with the peril of having power. For the people who are in the universalism camp the sorrow of the Holocaust is every bit as true, but how does this story end? Sadly, as of late, some people in this group do not tell the story of Yom HaAtzmaut as one of joy. I have no idea how the universal story which has so much sorrow will ever end with joy. We cannot afford to wait for a distant messianic era. We need to keep working for freedom, joy,  festivity, great light, and redemption for all. If we learned nothing else from the Mishna in Pesachim, our story “from sorrow into joy” can hold many different voice if we just take the time to listen and tell these stories to each other with a whole heart.

Listening To Survivors: Shemini and Yom HaShoa

Just about a week ago we celebrated our salvation at the division of the Red Sea with the concluding days of Passover. There we were witness to God’s miracles and the death of other people’s children. Our response was to sing songs. The Gemara says:

The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?’ (Sanhedrin 37)

Here we see God silencing the angels for their callous behavior. The death of the Egyptians seems to be a moment for silence, or at the least not a time for singing. By implication this Gemara is teaching us a lesson of compassion. If this is true for our enemy, we can only imagine the appropriate response for  the death of a friend or a loved one.

As a parent the voice of God admonishing the angels stings. It is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:

Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. What can we learn from Aaron’s deafening silence?

With Yom HaShoa being commemorated this past week, I am shocked as to the tremendous amount of literature still being written about the Holocaust. All of these years later, we cannot even imagine slowing down on that topic. I am not saying we should silence, forget, or deny history for a moment the atrocities of the Holocaust. The opposite is true. There is a certain urgency now more than ever to tell those stories. Sadly we are in the waning years of having survivors in our community. We need them to share their stories before they are gone.

While we need to hear their stories about how they survived near death, it is even more important to learn how they lived. My friend Rav Josh Feigelson recently pointed out:

The 2013 Pew Research Center survey of American Jews found that 73 percent of respondents said that “remembering the Holocaust” was “essential to being Jewish,” the highest item on a list that included “leading an ethical/moral life,” “caring about Israel,” “observing Jewish law,” and “eating traditional Jewish foods,” among others.

If we are blessed to hear their stories we need to hear their whole story. As Rav Josh pointed out we, “unwittingly brought about a Jewish self-image in which Auschwitz is not just on par with Sinai, but comes to displace it.”  We need humility and inner fortitude to hear the faint voice of Sinai. It takes a moment to learn how Jews have died, it takes a lifetime to learn how we should live.

In conclusion I want to point out the difference between what we want and what they the survivors need. We want them to talk, but do they want to talk? Aaron was silent at the death of his children. Surely we are humbled by the presence of survivors. We are here to listen to anything they want to tell us.  We need to need to  give them that time and space to speak, even if they like Aaron want to be quiet.

Is He Ready?

Is he ready?Adina and I had a talk this Shabbat regarding Yadid. We want all of our children to grow up with a deep sense of self-worth and knowing that they are loved, but we know that eventually they will need to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust. Joyous Judaism is our purpose for living, but we know that Jewish history has not been all peaches and cream. But when do we tell them?

We both feel that we are witnessing a strange race. Our children are growing up so quickly, but maybe no quickly enough. We know that the number of Holocaust survivors who can share their first hand experience is dwindling, but will our child be old enough to remember the experience of hearing their stories?  Yadid recently turned ten and we know that they started dealing with the Holocaust in his school, so we decided he should go to a community-wide event last night in New Rochelle in commemoration of Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura (the Jewish/Israeli Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day). At first he did not want to go to hear the survivors, but when I woke him on Sunday morning he was resolved to go. Adina took him last night and as of last night I thought it was the right choice.

Later last night he had a nightmare. It made me question our choice. What is the benefit of giving a child a legacy of nightmares? But then with more consideration I still think we were right. Just a few week’s ago we told our children to take drops of wine from our Passover cup to commemorate the plagues. Having his joy limited one day will hopefully make him appreciate the joy he gets to experience all year. Years from now I hope he comes to remember his first hand account of survivors who live with joy  and freedom in the face of the worst the world could offer. There is so much to celebrate.

Maybe I started with the wrong question. It is not if he is ready. I just had him read this post and he told me that nightmares are not always a bad thing. He said, ” Nightmares can help and they cannot not help. They sometimes help you focus on what you should be working on.” Clearly he is ready. The real question is if Adina and I are ready to have him grow up and be a proud Jewish man.

Bully Proof

Yesterday I took my boys to an hour and a half class at a local synagogue entitled “Bully Proof”. It was taught by Taekwondo instructor Master Edwards. It was part of whole day Festival of Kindness in commemoration of the Holocaust. Master Edwards started by explaining the basic power dynamics of bullying. He went on to equip the children with some simple techniques to evade getting bullied. He asked them to affirm the comments that people say about them and then leave, laugh it off and leave, and finally to say “ Stop” and leave. To practice their responses Master Edwards brought some 12 year-olds to play the role of the bully. I was listening attentively to what the “bully” said to Yishama. First he commented on his large head of hair, then his large colorful Bukharin Kippah, and then of course his Tzitzit. While Yishama did exactly what he was supposed to do with great aplomb, I was deeply saddened.

What have I done to my children? Bullies feed on difference, singling out people who look or act different from themselves or the larger society. Have I marked my children to be bullied? What have I done to this poor little 6-year-old with a Jew-fro, huge colorful head coverings, and the flowing strings coming out of his pants? And yes, the fact that it is Yom HaShoah was sitting heavy in my consciousness.

Master Edwards ended the session by inviting each child to come up to the front, make a proclamation about themselves, and breaking a board with their fist. Each child came up and affirmed something deep about who they are and who they aspire to be. One said I am important, another said I am extraordinary, another I am significant, and yet another said I am magnificent. When it came time to Yishama to make his affirmation he came up and said, “I am a Robot.” Master Edwards asked him to say something meaningful about himself. Without missing a beat Yishama responded, “I am Jewish” and broke the board.

Blog Yisham Board

On the way home I asked him what it meant to affirm that he is Jewish. Being Jewish did not mean what I had feared it might have meant. Yishama responded, “It means that I have confidence.” Today is not just a day to remember the Holocaust, it is Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”. We should never forget the martyrs and the heroes. It is critical to remember how we lived as Jews with honor and pride, not just how we died. I have confidence that Yishama is “bully proof” and a hero for me.

Listening for Silence

Just a few days ago we celebrated our salvation at the division of the Red Sea with the concluding days of Passover. There we were witness to God’s miracles and the death of other people’s children. Our response was to sing a song. The Gemara says:

The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?’ (Sanhedrin 37)

Here we see God silencing the angels for their callous behavior. By implication this Gemara is teaching us a lesson in compassion. There seems to be moments for silence, or at the least not singing. If this is true for our enemy, we can only imagine the response for a friend of a loved one.

As a parent it is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:

Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. What can we learn from Aaron’s deafening silence?

With Yom HaShoa being commemorated this past week, I am shocked as to the tremendous amount of literature still being written about the Holocaust. All of these years later, we cannot even imagine slowing down on that topic. I am not saying we should forget or deny history for a moment. The opposite is true. There is a certain urgency now more than ever to tell the story. We are in the waning years of keeping the holy company of survivors in our community. We need them to share their stories before they are gone. The only things I wanted ask is what do they the survivors want? We want them to talk, but do they want to talk? Aaron was silent at the death of his children. Surely we are humbled by their presence. We are here to listen to anything the survivors want to tell us. We need to need to  give them that time and space, even if they like Aaron want to be quiet. We can try to drown our sorrows, but never our memories.

Always End It

A few days before Passover I was talking with Yadid and Yishama at dinner about school.  I am not sure how it came up or even what it means for a 5-year-0ld, but it became apparent that Yishama had been fighting on the bus.  I immediately launch into one of  my Opa‘s maxims. As my grandfather Alfred Katz was reported to say, ” You never start a fight, but you always end it.” This was a conversation I have had a number of times with Yadid, but I realized that I had not yet shared this pearl of wisdom with Yishama. So I went on to explain who my mother’s father was. I tread carefully in that I have not wanted to tell my children too much about the Holocaust. I tell Yishama, that as the story goes, during WWII my Opa bought a farm in Venlo just across the German boarder in the Netherlands. He would drive a wagon back and forth over the boarder smuggling Jewish children under the hay out of German to  safety. As I am telling the story Yadid and I trade knowing glances teeming with pride of our lineage.

I want my children to understand that we never start fights. It is just something we do not do. But that does not mean that we are to be treated as a shmata– rag.  We cannot let ourselves get pushed around. Jews are not destined to be the doormat of history. When the situation calls for it we need to be ready to risk our own safety and security to stand up for those who need our help. We must be brave enough to end fights. But even in those situations we need to know when to call it quits and move on.

I have very few memories of my Opa. I think I was about Yadid’s age when he passed away. From every thing I have ever learned about him Alfred  Katz was a noble, wise,  and loved man. I would have loved to learn about the children he saved. I would have loved to hear from him what compelled him to be so brave. I also would have loved to learn when he knew that it was time to move on.  I feel that much of my life I have spent striving to live up to his example.  I also know that I would not be alive if he had not made that choice to leave when he did.

So a few days later we were at the Seder.  With a little help from me and his cousins Yishama got up and asked the Four Questions. And then with a little push from me he asked his Oma a fifth question. What did his great-grandfather do during the War? On Passover we commemorate the redemption of our people from Slavery. We were led to freedom by a man (Moses) who had escaped being killed as a child because his sister (Miriam) hid  him away in an ark of hay. There we were, descendents of Alfred Katz, realizing our own redemption by paying tribute to a man who quietly saved children’s lives.

Tonight we  commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For most of us this is a commemoration of the horror of the Nazi effort to exterminate 12 million people. Or worse it is day in which we are reminded how our people were led like lambs to slaughter. But that is not the real story of the day. This day is the 69th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Today’s story is the story of our standing up for ourselves. Freedom will never be given, it needs to be taken. In the spirit of Mordechai Anielewicz and in words of my Opa today we can say, “You never start a fight, but you always end it.” Over the course of my children’s lives I look forward to see where they take today’s and my Opa’s  lesson.


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