Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yom Hashoah 5769: In the Presence of Burning Children

I just spent the last hour with my Reut Institute colleagues listening to and sharing stories about our families during the Holocaust; how they survived (or didn’t), how they mustered the strength to rebuilt their lives anew; how these memories (or lack of them) continue to affect us and our identity today.

Part of me feels that in the face of unfathomable evil, the only appropriate response is silence; that written words are unable to capture the enormity of what happened…that as Irving Greenberg says, “no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that is not credible in the presence of burning children."

Yet despite this, I wanted to share an article I wrote in the spring of 2002 regarding different theological responses to the Shoah. It is based on the format of a book called Yosl Rakover Talks to God in which author Zvi Kolitz imagines a moving letter written by Yosl Rakover hours before the Warsaw Ghetto is liquidated by the Nazis. Yet rather than ultimately affirming his faith in his Creator as Yosl does, the article suggests that our understanding of God can not remain the same after such an event.

The article can be accessed here.

Wishing everyone a meaningful Yom Hashoah.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pesach Thoughts 5769: Refugees in a Jewish State

It’s simultaneously strange and uplifting to have lived in a city for years yet still discover new and unexplored places. And while hardly being the Tel Avivian socialite around town, I still felt I had the city pretty much down pat. Yet the Friday before Pesach brought me to Lewinsky Park near the New Central Bus Station in southern Tel Aviv for a ‘refugee seder’ – and forced me to throw yet another illusion out the window.

The seder, organized by Amnesty International and Israel Activisits among others, sought to draw attention to the situation of approximately 17,000 African refugees seeking a safe haven in the Jewish state.

And while I arrived after the music and service had already ended, what struck me was the lack of Israelis in the crowd…and how the park in our first Hebrew city had become transformed into another world, filled with a colourful mix of Eritreans, Sudanese and Thai.

I hadn’t been to the Central Bus Station or the areas surrounding it that much since my year off in Israel a decade ago. To be honest the station is not the most attractive of Tel Aviv’s landmarks – it’s large and disorienting, and ever since I saw the ‘please don’t pee here’ sign in one of the station’s corridors I tried to keep my distance.

But the area also represents something else - the side to our city people don’t (or would rather not) see; the underclass, the stranger in our midst, the other…

Later that evening over dinner, I thought about two extracts from Amos Oz’s beautiful autobiography A Tale of Love and Darkness that are especially pertinent to celebrating the Jewish festival of freedom in our own independent state.

One bears a striking resemblance to Herzl’s Political Zionism (Israel as a safe haven), the second to Ahad Ha’am’s Cultural Zionism (Israel as a spiritual centre);

The first, narrated by Oz’s father, reminds me of Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty (freedom from); the second, by his aunt, is similar to Berlin’s positive liberty (freedom to realize our fundamental purpose).

One describes the meaning of the Hebrew word Chofesh; the second, the term Cherut.

And both discuss situations that state’s establishment sought to alleviate – the consequences of our lack of homelessness.

Then he [my father] told me in a whisper, without once calling me Your Highness or Your Honour, what some hooligans did to him and his brother David in Odessa and what some gentile boys did to him at his Polish school in Vilna, and the girls joined in too, and the next day, when his father, Grandpa Alexander, came to the school to register a complaint, the bullies refused to return the torn trousers but attacked his father, Grandpa, in front of his eyes, forced him down on the paving stones and removed his trousers too in the middle of the playground, and the girls laughed and made dirty jokes, saying that Jews were all so-and-sos, while the teachers watched and said nothing, or maybe they were laughing too.
And still in a voice of darkness with his hand still losing its way in my hair (because he was not used to stroking my hair) my father told me under my blanket in the early hours of the thirtieth of November 1947, ‘Bullies may well bother you in the street or at school some day. They may do it precisely because you are a bit like me. But from now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew and because Jews are so-and-sos. Not that. Never again. From tonight that’s finished here. For ever’

- - - - -

"A thousand times it was hammered in to the head of every Jewish child that we must not irritate them, or hold our heads up, and we must only speak to them quietly, with a smile, so they shouldn’t say we were noisy, and we must always speak to them in good correct Polish, so they couldn’t say we were defiling the language, but we must speak in Polish that was too high, so they couldn’t say we had ambitions above our station and Heaven forbid they should say we had stains on our skirts.

In short, we had to try very hard to make a good impression…You who were born here in Israel can never understand how this constant drip drip distorts all your feelings, how it corrodes your human dignity like rust…"

In many ways, freedom is the ability to live one’s life without fear and without emotional or physical filters.

But it also comes with responsibility.

And I wonder – when we sit down with family and friends for Seder to discuss, sing and be merry - how we can ensure we’re fulfilling our responsibility to those who don’t yet have freedom or independence?

That when we claim that everyone is welcome at our table we don’t close our heart to those invisible thousands who found their way to our shores fleeing the same persecution that we experienced so many generations ago...

Because like us, there are strangers living in a land not their own.

And one shouldn’t need to go to Lewinsky Park to notice their plight.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Pesach Thoughts 5769: Freedom in Every Generation

בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותינו

In every generation they arise to destroy us…

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים

In every generation a person is obligated to see himself as though he actually left Egypt.

I remember a primary school project in which we had to make our own Hagaddah. I’d never been particularly artistic, but with help from creative parents managed to win the school prize. Looking back, the only section I remember was the page discussing how enemies rise up to destroy us in every generation, and the big wall we drew with different bricks representing different enemies.

It was an all star team of baddies – the Crusaders, the Spanish Inquisition, the Cossacks, the Nazis.

And to add some contemporary meaning to the proceedings – and to remain true to the meaning of the text that we have enemies in every generation - we also added the PLO, the latest in a line of villains to step up to the plate and try their luck with us.

Yet thinking about it now, I wonder if our focus on enemies old and new may undermine our ability to fulfil the second ‘in every generation’ that of personally liberating ourselves from slavery.

- - - - - - -

The British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks questions why before the people of Israel left Egypt they had to ask their neighbours for gold and silver. The whole scenario sounds a bit like an anti – Semitic joke; you hear the one about the stingy Jews? They were in such a rush to leave they didn’t even have time to bake bread…but still found the time to demand cash.

The Chief compares this issue to the case of giving presents to redeemed slaves and explains that it allows the former slave to leave without anger and a sense of humiliation, that it facilitates emotional closure.

Because one who has received gifts finds it hard to hate.

And in order to be truly free, a people need to let go of hate.

- - - - - - -
If in every generation we are commanded to liberate ourselves from slavery, then surely we're also obligated to relieve ourselves of any hate (and fear) towards those who wronged us.

And while there’s no question that for so much of Jewish history the first ‘in every generation’ was very tangible, perhaps celebrating the festival of freedom in Israel – that independent powerful sovereign state of ours - its time to focus more on the 2nd ‘in every generation’ – liberating ourselves from hate, freeing ourselves from fear, ceasing to be traumatised by the past.

This is not to suggest that utopia has arrived, that weekend trips to Teheran beckon and that disbanding the IDF is only a matter of time. But I’ve been around enough Friday night dinner table discussions to understand that our vision of the world is often coloured by Shoah tinted spectacles - that the world is out to get the Jews; that the goyim can’t be trusted, that Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler...

And I wonder whether despite being physically free, we’re still emotionally enslaved or traumatised by the past, whether the first ‘in every generation’ undermines our ability to fully experience the second.

And whether true freedom is remembering the past, but refusing to let it rule us in the present.