A Meditation for Yom HaShoah

At Temple Emanu-El in Providence, when someone opens the door to our chapel and leaves it to close on its own, one hears a brief and barely audible “click” as the door hits its frame, and then another loud, definitive, often startling, “clack” as the door finally latches. The louder sound happens only after the door has been closed in silence about ten seconds, long enough that the person who came or left through it is long gone.

Today is Yom HaShoah. Holocaust Remembrance Day. The 27th of Nissan, less than a week after the end of Passover, a holiday on which we celebrate our freedom from slavery and oppression. Our celebration of freedom ended with a “click”, but we are jarred back to reality with the “clack” of our commemoration ceremonies and yellow candles. Maybe we were freed  three-thousand years ago. Our oppression barely ended so recently as 1945. It still lingers.

Although it didn’t seem like a day to teach up-beat music to my students in our Religious School as I do each Sunday morning, all students third grade through seventh today sang “Ani Ma’amin”. Each class had different memories about learning about the Holocaust; each class had different feelings about singing the song, hearing its words, and grasping its meaning.

אני מאמין, באמונה שלמה, בביאת המשיח
ואף על פי שיתמהמה, עם כל זה אחכה לו בכל יום – שיבוא

I believe, with wholehearted faith, in the coming of the Messiah.
And even if he is delayed, even with everything, I will wait for him, every day – that he will come.

Even in the depths of our despair, we believe. As Jews, we believe. As human beings, we believe in the goodness of people, despite all else, that a better time will come and that peace will prevail.

When we read texts, we have a tradition of not ending on a sad or angry note. Often times we add a verse at the end of a negatively or reproachfully themed haftarah in order to rest on a more hopeful idea. My classes today ended by singing “Oseh Shalom,” Judaism’s universal prayer for peace, and “HaTikvah,” the national anthem of the State of Israel, as we prepare for our celebration of the State of Israel with Yom Ha’Atzma’ut next week.

Although the tragedy feels long gone and far removed, it still lingers. We still feel the jolt back to reality as we put the death tolls into perspective for our students, as we show them what it meant to us, our parents and grandparents, and theirs, to remember those who perished.

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Almost Atheist

Sitting in the first lecture of a course entitled “Catholicism” at Boston University, Professor Donna Freitas requested that we introduce ourselves by saying our name, our school and major (the usual stuff), but then also to include our own religious backgrounds, and how that drove us to take the course. She explained that our “baggage,” which she says, “some of us carry around with a forklift behind us,” defines our perception of the material we are going to study, and thus it was important for us to know about the “baggage” of those with whom we’re about to share our semester. This survey revealed that the student body in our class is composed of, among others:
— some religious Catholics looking to get an academic perspective on their religion
— some students who grew up nominally Catholic but whose families were never practicing
— one or two Muslims
— two Jews, including myself and an Orthodox friend
— some non-believers or non-practitioners.

While “unloading our baggage,” one student’s response particularly interested me. She said, “I grew up Catholic, but we weren’t really practicing, and I haven’t gone to church in a long time. I would say now that I’m probably almost atheist.

Almost Atheist? Does she mean almost a-religious?

My most handy Dashboard computer-dictionary, crafted by Oxford American Dictionaries, defines atheism as “the theory or belief that God does not exist.” The word is derived, by way of French, from the Greek word atheos, “a-” meaning “without,” and “-theos” meaning “God”. By this definition, can one ever be almost atheist?

I am sure this student didn’t mean her response to be so intensely and excruciatingly scrutinized, and I don’t fault her for this semantic error. It merely gave me fodder for pondering, so I used it to springboard an interesting excavation of thought. but there is indeed at least one great philosopher who can readily fall into the category of almost atheist: Primo Levi.

Primo Levi, author of the famous Holocaust survival memoir Survival in Auschwitz, consistently writes about how he wrestles with the existence of God in the aforementioned book. His beginnings were in an emancipated but Jewish family in pre-World War II Italy, in his twenties ending up in the Auschwitz death camp. Levi was a “non-believer, and even less of a believer after the season of Auschwitz” [Primo Levi, “Shame,” in Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology, ed. Lawrence L. Langer (New York: Oxford UP, 1995), p. 115]. But Levi’s atheism is unique and interesting: he tells comrades and others time and again that he is an atheist, but occasionally acknowledges that a god exists in whom others legitimately believe. In this way, a number of times in Survival in Auschwitz and in his other writings, Levi essentially says, “God, YOU don’t exist.” He is uniquely defiant in his atheism, explicitly expressing that his belief is optional, that he chooses to resist God.

The same dashboard dictionary that I used to define the term “atheism” also intriguingly gives it the following synonyms: nonbelief, disbelief, unbelief, irreligion, skepticism, doubt, agnosticism; nihilism. Okay, so perhaps I was mistaken in my approach to the word: not that it is defined differently than I originally thought, but that, if “atheism” is legitimately a synonym for irreligion, then perhaps it can also apply in the context in which my classmate used it. Of course: leave it to me, ever to remain the Literal One.

Depicting the Holocaust: A Problem

It is a constant struggle for us to figure out ways to represent the Holocaust that are respectful to those who perished. Often representatives from different groups wish to remind the world what happened in those dark years while Hitler was in power and the Nazi party ruled and ruined the lives of all it enveloped, so that the world can remember and renew our vow again and again that we will do what we can to ensure that it never happens again. The question is always: how?

Today, January 31, 2008, a group in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was faced with this very issue. The Rio carnival has a reputation of being “a festival recognised worldwide for its joy, humour, entertainment and eroticism,” the lawyer of Fierj, the Jewish federation of Rio, explained in an article about the opposition toward a certain float depicting the Holocaust. He opposed the float because of the aforementioned characteristics, and represented Fierj in their fight against it, saying that “The monstrosity that is the Holocaust just cannot be combined with the excessively festive nature of the carnival.”

According to the same article, “The float is one of several that Viradouro was planning to use as the group parades down Rio’s sambadrome under its theme ‘It gives you goose bumps’. The other floats are set to portray cold, fear and birth.”

Does the memory of the Holocaust give you goose bumps? Does it sometimes infringe on your ability to sleep at night? Of course it does. How about the time of Pogroms? Or the Crusades? Or the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, in which the Church told many pagans, Jews, and others, that they were to convert, be expelled, or die. And yet, Mel Brooks can poke fun at both the Inquisition and the Crusades in his movie, “History of the World: Part I”. What is it about the Holocaust that makes us so opposed to those who want to depict it for an effect? What is it that makes it okay for people to create video games in which the player is a Crusader, reminding us of a time when thousands of Jews, and others, were killed in the name of Jesus Christ, but the idea of a video game in which players play the role of Nazi is abhorrent to us?

Don’t think I’m downplaying our pain still from the Holocaust. I am not. I am asking simply why we don’t share that pain when we think about the other events that were just as horrific? On Yom Kippur we read the martyrology, which tells of ten Rabbis who were brutally murdered in their respective time periods, just for being Jewish. This is perhaps less well-known, but this too doesn’t make you want to vomit?

The fact that people would want to dedicate a parade float to displaying anything resembling the atrocities of the Holocaust sickens me. A memorial is one thing. A display is another.

Try to have some respect for the Dead. They have been through enough.