Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba

 

 

Those words trigger a Jewish instinct; we stand to attention and know just what to do, like some sort of ancient reflex to join in mourning, whether out of sorrow or as strangers, side by side.

 

The structure of the Kaddish-prayer is beautiful, and it reflects how we as Jews relate to death and mourning. We let the mourners speak of their sorrow but we interrupt them, interject as to say, “you are not alone”. We prop the mourner up when he cannot stand for himself and when his voice breaks we pick up, letting him know that if he goes silent we are here to carry the tune.

 

I never really understood the kaddish, not until last night. Last night I sat in a kitchen, holding a mother who had just buried her child and I heard the men praying net door and I could hear how they carried the father, answered him in the way we know how, telling him that he would never be abandoned. What I before had found repetitive was now meditative and meaningful and before the man with the broken voice is even done asking for God to reveal his majesty in our time he is interrupted by a loving unison

 

Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach
l’alam ul’almei almaya

 

And at this point, I start to cry.

 

I cry because these are no longer words, but a prayer over my dear friend Sara, who was buried just as she had turned 18. I learned of her death as I was walking home from dinner in downtown Tel Aviv and I remember very little of the rest of that night, except the cold feel of the apartment floor as I failed to get up from it, hours after hours on end. I scrolled through my phone in search of pictures of her until I got to my favorite – one where she is braiding my hair in my kitchen while we rummage through my mother’s old jewelry box. We were talking about life and love and Sara told me that she was impatient to get out there, into the world that was eagerly awaiting her, so that she could fulfill her two dreams; curing epilepsy and moving to New York to become a famous actress.

 

Out of the mouth of anyone else those would have sounded like pipe dreams, but for Sara they were anything but. She walked into a room and she was noticed, and more importantly – she truly noticed you. Always helping, always giving, seemingly unaware of the beauty she possessed. At the end of that night I gave Sara a Magen David-pendant I loved but never ever wore, knowing I could never pull it off. The stones and gold would outshine me, but on her it looked just right, as if it hung around her neck not to rival but enhance her perfect Jewish beauty.

 

As we sit there at the shiva, I want to tell her mother what I am thinking, but I seem to have lost all my words. Nothing comes out, expect tears and a silent wailing, and I realize that these rituals are not just for the family, but also just as much for us.

 

It is hard to be close to pain, as humans we have an instinct to fear the things we cannot change and avoid a hurt we cannot diminish, and just as the mourner has an instinct to hide and stay away we who love them are paralyzed with all the things we cannot do to ease their pain.

 

So we are forced to sit in the unimaginable, stay in that pain and we finish each other’s sentences just to show that we are there. We cry together and we are silent together, we remember and we talk and we refuse to give way to the loneliness and darkness that threatens with its presence, just outside that door. Seeing what I saw and feeling what I felt yesterday I now think that this is one of the ultimate strengths of our Jewish existence – how we show up for each other and stay there, despite and through the hurt, and that the darkest parts of life are neither skirted nor ignored.

 

We say that the memory of a loved one should be a blessing, but with Sara it is so much more than that. I envied the confidence with which she walked through life and the beauty and largeness with which she lived it, inch by glorious inch, and I know that this is true for everyone who came into her life. Her entire being was a bracha, not just the memory of what she was, and having lost her far too soon I owe it to myself and to her to live bigger and truer and fuller – just as Sara would have if she got the chance.

 

When we as Jews enter the Temple Mount we turn right and walk counter-clockwise, except for when we have suffered a heartbreak or loss. When we hurt we turn left and walk clockwise, so that we bump into other people, directly facing them, open to their questions and comfort. Our traditions teach us not be alone, but to be radically brave and emotionally confrontational.

 

We are the chosen people but also a people who make choices, and we choose to come together as the world does its best to rip our hearts apart. For this I am thankful now, in midst of pain and anger; I am thankful to be Jewish and with that to never truly be alone.

 

Sara. I know you never got to see your name in lights but you will see your life live on through all of us who now owe your memory a blessing. I promise you that I will do my best to care for those you love the way you did, with compassion and humility, and dare to use red lipstick even when I’m feeling down.

 

You are loved, and you are remembered, from here to all eternity.

 

V’imru: Amen.

“Jewish dignity and honor must be protected in all circumstances. The seeds of Jewish destruction lie in passively enabling the enemy to humiliate us. Only when the enemy succeeds in turning the spirit of the Jew into dust and ashes in life, can he turn the Jew into dust and ashes in death.” – Menachem Begin

As I dropped off my 6-year-old son at school the other day, I was called aside by his teacher. Apparently there had been an “incident”, as she put it, when my son had refused to participate in the annual Saint Lucia celebration; him saying that “we don’t do stuff like that in my family”. He had, after some negotiation, agreed to sit in the room with his peers as long as he could wear his blazer, his nice shirt, and his new tie and did not have to dress up in Christmas gear like the other kids.

Hearing this, I was proud and amazed at the ease with which my son had affirmed his identity. At 6, he knows who he is and who he is not — and he was willing to stand up to authority in order to stay true to that conviction.

We are approaching Hanukkah. At this time last year, I took some unorthodox action, attempting to change the status quo. I filed for asylum in my own country, citing religious persecution, in order to fight the growing anti-Semitism and demand action from my government. No such action came, nor did it garner any significant reaction from the Jewish community itself.

In the past 12 months, Europe has seen not a mere rise in anti-Semitism, but an explosion in overt hatred: murders in Belgium and France; riots, torched synagogues, and defaced Holocaust memorial sites; and all this alongside a dramatic spike in hate crimes all over the continent. Jews are once again being denied entrance to restaurants, service in stores, and treatment in hospitals. They are even losing their livelihoods for no other reason than that they are Jews.

My asylum case coincided not only with Hanukkah, but also with the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. As I ended up reading both narratives simultaneously I saw one clue to our demise running through these stories of rebellion.

The Germans had planned to destroy the Warsaw ghetto in three days, but the Jewish resistance held out for more than a month. Even after the end of the uprising on May 16, 1943, individual Jews hid out in the ruins of the ghetto and continued attacking Nazi soldiers as they patrolled the area. More than 56,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto were ultimately killed, but that symbolic uprising inspired others from Bialystok to Treblinka and created hope among the dying in German-occupied Europe.

The Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto was fought for and through Jewish dignity. The fought even when they knew they were outnumbered, because they understood that, while the Nazis would ultimately kill them, they still had the choice not to enable their enemy to humiliate them. Perhaps most importantly — unlike the Jews of today — they chose to do so without the backdrop of the Holocaust.

We know what happened. We have already been to the gates of hell. Yet there is no Jewish resistance to the pogroms of our time. Perhaps the reason why lies within that statement itself.

Jewish life in Europe after the Holocaust is often described as a rebirth, but with that the Shoah became our ground zero and our main point of reference as a people, creating a litmus test that deems everything short of death camps as acceptable. If we say that we were reborn, then we accept that what came before was a death and not one of history’s most stunning acts of survival. By the focus on Holocaust remembrance we have engaged in a dangerous forgetfulness that includes most of our history and all of our greatness.

There is no lack of death and destruction in Jewish history, but these are now hailed as examples of Jewish survival. We gather around the table to tell stories of how they tried to kill us, and how we lived; tales of slavery and triumphant freedom. In the case of the Holocaust, the Jews of Europe remember only death, and the days of remembrance focus not on the freedom we took but the freedom we were given. For 70 years we have been uttering the words ‘never again’ as if it was an all-encompassing incantation. While using the Holocaust as the sole comparison, the new and evolved forms of anti-Semitism have been flying well beneath the radar.

Forty men and women from the Treblinka rebellion survived the war, hiding in the woods after fighting the SS guards while on the brink of death. Seventeen Nazi soldiers were killed by the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. During the Auschwitz Sonderkommando revolt in 1944 the prisoners managed to kill 77 Nazis after blowing up a crematorium and attacking the soldiers with makeshift weapons.

These are a few of many stories of Jewish dignity and amazing survival during the Holocaust. These are stories to be told around a table with our children, and they should be told as part of a long history of trials and triumph.

Redefining our relationship to the Shoah is not forgetting, nor is it forgiving. It’s merely choosing not to be defined by the evils of others, but by the strength of ourselves. If we choose to tell stories of our heroes instead of the stories of our captors it does not lessen their responsibility, but it frees us from the legacy they tried to bestow upon us and helps connect us to our own.

It’s a known fact that victims of violence and trauma often stay in that day they were hurt, recreating the moment and thus becoming revictimized over and over again. I fear that the Jews of Europe are in this state of arrested development, unable to mount a resistance to persecution as they are so focused on death that everything resembling survival passes as life.

In a few days, my sons will help me light that first candle and we will remember those who fought for our right to be who we are. We will honor the losses but revel in the victories that were, as we prepare for those to come.

I believe that, while we may not have a future in Europe, we do have a say in our demise. By releasing the bonds of the Shoah, rising up and not enabling further humiliation, we can leave not as clouds or ashes but as doves. If the heroes of Warsaw, Czestochowa, and Treblinka taught us anything, it’s that there is value in fighting even a losing battle — and that Jewish dignity and honor will still matter long after we are gone.