This is Healing: From Yom Hashoah to Hope (Via a Renewal Beit Din)

pier to lakeThis is healing: When a rabbi asks gently, “How was that? To know you were Jewish for so many years?”

And the young man describes years of that feeling, of “almost Jew,” or “not Jewish enough.” Those in the room hear the pain and the confusion.

This is healing: When a rabbi acknowledges how hard your travels were and says, simply, “Thank you. Thank you for coming home.”

And the young woman smiles, her heart so open that the joy spills into every corner of the room.

Even this is healing: A cold, cold night at the lake, with the rain alternating between a steady downpour and a soft drizzle, crazy and confusing moments with a small crowd of friends walking you down to the water, occasional shushing so neighbors are not alarmed. A ritual that involves each person present speaking kavanot as you stand, and dunk, chatter your blessings and the Shema and finally, Shechechiyanu: Thank you, Holy One, for bringing us to this sacred moment in time.

After years of knowing who you are, you are, “Jewish enough” because your community has finally recognized that you were a Jew all along.

Conversion to Judaism: What is that, really? Some years ago I realized that all the study and experience that preceded the actual beit din was not about building a new identity. The identity was already there.

The time spent reading, living congregationally, journaling about Judaism and Jewish life helped fill in some corners, of course. But there is no “almost Jew” who could study – and master – all the aspects of a multi-cultured culture thousands of years old. No one born Jewishly could do that either. Study the Talmud all your life and you will still have no idea of how Jews lived in Alexandria in the first century of the Common Era (understanding the works of Philo, a prominent Jewish philosopher who lived and wrote in the city back then, would be a lifelong commitment on its own…).

None of us is, by any measure, ever “Jewish enough.” Such a measure is both arbitrary and useless.

In the end, as Renewal rabbis know full well, it is not about whether you have memorized the minor festivals or can recite the Thirteen Principles or even, simply, name the number of branches on a hanukiah. It is about the heart and soul. It is about knowledge and understanding. It is about a word Jews seldom use freely.It is about faith.

Our history makes it hard for us to advocate for faith. Our texts do not command belief, but action. We often birth our Jewishness – however we come by it – by asking questions. But there is also a faith in one’s Jewishness, a certainty, a knowing.

This is healing: Still feeling the shiver, after warm showers and the application of many thick towels, they come into the room. The young couple before us will be married in almost exactly six months. He knew he was Jewish when he was  just twelve, he told the rabbis. But when she told him she wanted to convert, he felt he had been granted permission. He finally knew how to go home.

She is – heart and soul – connected to her people. She speaks of her pain at a Yom Hashoah gathering, and one of the rabbis says, “When a Jew cries, and you cry, you know you are Jewish. When another Jew laughs, and you feel that joy, you know you are Jewish.”

They arrive in the room, hair still wet, the memory of the cold still clinging to them. Those waiting begin singing and clapping: “Siman tov u’mazeltov umazeltov v’siman tov!” And afterwards, there are many warm and heartfelt blessings for long life, growth, a family and a Jewish home that is nourished, each and every day, by their commitment and their love.

“Be mensches,” my husband, Ralf, says. “Be good. That’s not a blessing, it’s a commandment.”

We all laugh. Then we go out into that good, dark night, a night that saw the transition from Yom Hashoah, from a day honoring grief and anguish and sorrow to a day of joy and hope.

This is healing.

Yom Hashoah – So I Believe

Boy in the striped pajamasRitualizing remembrance was a straightforward matter when I first began to organize, create, and lead Yom Hashoah programs thirty years ago. Holocaust survivors played an important role; hearing their stories and contextualizing them with honor and respect was my task.

Three decades later, the Holocaust has become a cliché for horror and terror. Now it is frequently a subject for thinly developed stories of heroism, personal tragedy, or revenge. Popular films and children’s literature have proven that the Shoah is marketable to a wide and varied audience.

But the marketing of the Holocaust has transgressed — even violated — the memory of the victims. An example: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a children’s novel that features a lonely German boy whose father is a camp commandant. Though the boy sees the inmates from his bedroom window and plays yards away from the electric fence that separates him from a city of death, he hears no screams and smells no burning bodies. By asking the reader to accept this absurd premise, the author renders the real victims’ experience invisible and inaudible.

The little fable manipulates its audience. The German boy meets a Jewish one imprisoned in the camp while he takes a walk on his side of the electric fence. In the end, the German boy ends up dying in the camp because sneaks in to visit his friend. We are more conscious of his tragic death than those of the camp inmates, who face death in the gas chambers each and every day.

In identifying with the German child we have exchanged history for a fantasy. We have traded grief that can honor the actual dead for a cathartic experience that tells us nothing about the Holocaust – not how genocide is constructed, and not how it succeeds.

Frequently, I teach a text describing the way Hungarian Jewish children were burned alive during the Shoah. I do not do this as an act of grisly insistence on shocking my students. Shock value is of no educational value.

But historical reality presented inside a context is important. My students spend weeks contending with Europe’s long acceptance of anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Then they read that terrible, brief text. In class, I ask: How are these two histories related? Can mass murder occur without an embedded history of disdain or contempt for a given people? If so, how would that alter our understanding of the Holocaust? Does it?

I want to inspire critical thought and understanding. I hope that my students can become better human beings. Isn’t that the only education that matters?

What do I long for? I wish we could look our history in the face. It tells us: We must understand and protect the sacredness of human life.

Last Sunday morning, I taught a preschooler about the Torah using a paper model about sixteen inches high. I taught him how to dress and hold our “Little Torah” and how to raise it high for hagbah. We discussed the pretty silvery crowns, the breastplate, and the Hebrew letters on the mantel, and the funny hand at the end of the pointer.

“Yosef,” I said, “we are asked to hold the Torah near our hearts. Where is your heart?”

Joseph touched his chest. I laid our Little Torah against his heart and rested it against his shoulder. Instinctively, he wrapped his arms around the Torah and held it tight.

“Why do you think,” I asked, “that we hold the Torah close to our hearts?”

“So we believe,” he said.

I hold the Torah of the Holocaust close to mine. So that I believe. I can and must honor those we lost. I can and must try to give renewed life to Judaism. I can and must understand and protect the sacredness of human life.

May we, this Yom Hashoah and all those to come, remember our dead and sanctify life.

On Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day: Contending, Again, with the Road to Hell

“I wouldn’t have wanted to be that man,” one of my students said.

“No, look,” I said. “I didn’t say anything. Why should I? He was doing what he thought is right. He was trying to save souls.”

But even as I said it, I knew I was still angry.

That day, a lovely spring day, I’d gone to get some groceries. On the way back to my car, a well-dressed man of around thirty-something approached me with a flyer. The flyer depicted Jesus carrying a cross, bleeding, in pain. The next picture showed Jesus nailed to it. Bleeding, in pain. It advertised a local passion play production.

“I’m Jewish,” I said. And for the first time ever, I pulled out the heavy stuff. “And a rabbi, to boot.”

“We don’t make any distinctions,” he said. “We reach out to everyone.”

I made a polite mumble out of “thanks, but no thanks,” and got into my car. But I couldn’t even leave the parking lot. I had to drive to its outskirts and call my husband, Ralf.

“I told him I was Jewish,” I said. “He makes no distinctions. When can we have some distinctions, please? After almost two thousand years of eviction, oppression, and forcible conversion, can we not have some distinctions? We’ve been strung up and nailed up and gassed. Hell,” I said. “Oh, hell.”

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions.

Even now, after years of loving and intense interfaith work in the South, I find the Easter season the most difficult time of the year. The crosses on the church lawns, the purple fabrics, and the signs and billboards announcing theatrical renditions of the last hours of Christ—they trigger an old exhaustion in me. I see them and think of the history I teach.

Easter, after all, was historically a dangerous time of the year for European Jews. Easter was often accompanied by accusations of host desecration, claims of blood libel, the replay of the “Christ-killers” epithets and of the attendant mob violence.

Every year I teach mostly Christian students about the history of antisemitism. I also go to one church after another each year. I keep hoping to establish relationships based on understanding that God does not and will not ever need a translator. (If God couldn’t hear humanity pray in any language, then I would have nothing to say to Her.)

Each and every semester I am appalled at the apparent ignorance of my own students, who claim, that all this is completely, utterly new to them. Can it be?

“Can it be?” I ask. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Jewish crowd willingly accepted the blood of Jesus on their heads and the heads of their children (27:25). Has anyone counted the churches that don’t quote Matthew during Easter as the story is retold? How many churches in America actively, openly name and repudiate this verse for the immeasurable harm it has done for centuries? Which of my Christian students have never, ever heard or read the verses in John in which Jews are labeled the children of the devil?

I know, I know. We bypass, don’t feel, ignore. Most of our living lives, we are completely indifferent to the pain of others. Me, too.

The verses I’ve quoted don’t feel all that real to my students. They don’t associate their texts with Jews they might know. And when they get exposed to the history of antisemitism, they want – badly – to disconnect that tale of woe from any implications where their own religious training has been concerned.  I would probably do the same in their shoes.

Typically, our semesters are challenging. Just as typically, we get where I hope we will go. Whatever I teach always has the same agendas anyway: To demonstrate to my students how little we know about each other (that “each other” includes all of humanity, by the by).  To teach them that humility is – devoutly – wished for in this or any world. To become better people as a result of our education. That is the only education that matters.

Whether they are studying biblical scripture or biblical times, whether we are looking at Jewish feminism or antisemitism, whether we are confronted with the beautiful, the bad, or the ugly, does not matter. We can all do with regular does of humility. We can all be reminded to try and love each other in a way that does not insist on eradicating our diversity.

And yet, if I am honest, I am tired. I am tired of the facts, of the evidence. Six million Jews died within living memory and swastikas still adorn shirts and flags. There are those who still claim Hitler never killed anyone. One million Jewish children were mercilessly murdered and churches around the world still quote Matthew. Passion plays in Europe still depict Jews as Christ-killers and all the old stereotypes and clichés are alive both there and across the Middle East.

The man in the parking lot meant well. But some of the roads to hell are paved with good intentions. Someday, the hell that has resulted from centuries of so many well-intentioned Christians trying to eradicate any belief but theirs must itself be acknowledged.

How will we make real peace on earth otherwise? And is that not the truest and best intention – for all of us?