For many years, I and many other people I know have had trouble commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel. I can't bear to view the official state ceremonies on television, broadcast from Yad Vashem, with all their clichés and us-against-the-world ideology. I could not face the idea of our Prime Minister obsessively lecturing us again, the citizens of Israel, and the world, about the dangers of Iran.
This is why I was gratified to discover a new way last night in Jerusalem.
For the past three years an amazing group of researchers, artists, curators, historians, brain scientists, scholars and psychoanalysts have been dealing with the question of "What is memory, 70 years later?" as part of a group at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, a prestigious research and action institute in the heart of Jerusalem. Not only has this group organized an amazing new exhibition -- currently on display in the beautiful new Polonsky building at Van Leer -- but they also planned and organized a new way to commemorate the Holocaust in a special ceremony which they call "Gathering", which took place in an experimental form in 10 communities throughout Israel.
Since I am a Library Fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute this year, I was invited to attend the opening program of the exhibit last night and heard Michal Govrin speak. Herself the child of a Holocaust survivor, she is the moving force behind this new group. Both orally and in the brochure describing this exhibit, Ms. Govrin explained why it is vital for us to deal with this question of memory in a new way:
The memory of the Holocaust is usually perceived as a single, pre-formulated collective message in which the elements of victimization have become increasingly prominent. We turn the tables on this perception and argue that memory is a personal choice with a multiplicity of expressions, a conscious act of involvement that leads to commitment.
The idea behind a new way of commemorating the Holocaust was to form intimate commemoration circles in which people could share their memories, experiences and voices in a new format.
My wife, Amy, and I participated in one of these commemoration circles at Kehillat Zion, a relatively new Jewish community in Jerusalem, affiliated with the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, led by a charismatic and sensitive woman rabbi by the name of Tamar Elad-Applebaum, whom I have come to admire and respect greatly during the past year (I have attended Shabbat morning worship services with my children and grandchildren several times at this community). We gathered together -- a small group of about 25 people -- in the Community Center in the neighborhood of Baka, in Jerusalem, not far from where we live, to experience this new ceremony first-hand.
Both of us were moved profoundly with the simplicity, depth and personal method and messages of this commemoration ceremony.
First of all, we were all asked to introduce ourselves by our first names. After some initial readings, we were asked to each share a bit about our family roots and whether members of our families perished in the Holocaust. We were a very mixed group. Many of us were descendants from Polish and Russian and other European grandparents and great-grandparents, but there were also people from Greece, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Morocco. All of us had a direct or indirect connection to the Shoah -- we all had lost family members or knew about family members who somehow suffered from Nazism -- but we could not all name names since in many cases our parents and grandparents hid this from us.
In addition to reading and listening to many beautiful and meaningful passages from contemporary authors, we were each given an opportunity to light a candle in memory of a family member who perished in the Holocaust. One man, from Argentina (whose parents were originally from Poland), lit a candle for all those for whom no one remains to light a candle for them.
We ended the ceremony in another personal way. It was called Kima, Hebrew for "Rising Up". Not the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising this time, but a personal getting-up, reminiscent of how Jews get up at the end of Shiva, the end of the seven days of mourning after a member of one's family has died. This was a metaphorical way of reminding us, according to Rabbi Tamar, that "we are all still in the process of mourning." Each person in the circle stood up individually and then took the hand of the person next to him or her and helped him or her get up from mourning. When we were all standing, we recited the mourners' prayer, known as the Kaddish (Hebrew for "Sanctification") together.
At the very end, when we were all standing together, we were guided to read silently a series of questions that should be on our mind on this day, such as:
How can memory encompass the rupture that irrevocably changed all the diasporas and all the ethnic groups of the Jewish people? What are the many facets of trauma? How can we remember without succumbing to victimization? How can we remember individually, here and now? How should we relate to displays of racism in our own behavior and in our own environment? (and more...)
I left with these and many more questions in my mind. The moment of silence -- with all those questions to think about -- affected me deeply. I felt for the first time in a long time that I had a personal relationship to this terrible tragedy in Jewish History. I was able to commemorate it without flags or military symbols, in a way that connected me to the rich diversity of my people. At the same time, I was catalyzed to be mindful of the existential necessity of the state of Israel, without which many more thousands of Jews would have perished at the hands of the Nazis.