Dear TEE community,

As I was planning this week’s Shabbat service and Yom HaShoah observance, a reading I’d included last week stood out to me in a new way. It says:

We are a people in whom the past endures,
in whom the present is inconceivable without moments gone by.
The Exodus lasted a moment, a moment enduring forever.
What happened once upon a time happens all the time.

Usually, when I think about the power of memory and ritual I find great, positive meaning in the ideas expressed in this statement. As a rabbi, and in my own experience, I have witnessed life’s milestones as moments which are profoundly individual and yet, at the same time, connections to a universal humanity. Every time someone gives birth, leaves home, marries, or mourns, they are doing what millions have done before, participating in a larger sense of being human which, in Marge Piercy’s words, “shines through us and remains to shine…on the way to forever” (The Art of Blessing the Day, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).  For many Jews, that connection to past and future is also part of the significance of Shabbat and holidays observances, a kinship not only to our own family histories but to Jews throughout time and space.

Yet, in the context of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) the idea of being a “people in whom the past endures” takes on a different meaning.

In the early 20th century, the scholar, Salo Wittmayer Baron, denounced what he called the “lachrymose [tragic] theory” of prior Jewish historians. He argued that, as a people, Jews were not uniquely persecuted and that focusing on the negative experiences of victimization suppressed knowledge of the much longer periods during which Jewish cultures flourished in co-existence with others. What Baron pointed to was the Jewish self understanding characterized in the joke that all Jewish holidays can be summed up by the phrase, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!”

More recently, an understanding has developed that such a perspective is not only limited but harmful. Growing research about the lasting impact of trauma has led members of the Jewish community to consider  the legacy of communal, transgenerational trauma, particularly with regards to the Shoah. It has become evident that those impacted are not only the survivors and their families, but also Jews with no direct connection to the genocide of WWII. As Jewish Studies scholar Aaron J. Hahn Tapper puts it,

“[At the age of five] I had already started to learn about dominant Jewish narratives, of which the Shoah was – and continues to be – a central component. As a member of the Jewish community, certain events were part of my life, even if neither I nor anyone in my immediate family had experienced them.” (Judaisms, Univ. of California Press, 2013)

Like Tapper, I grew up in a family with no direct connection to the Shoah. As a child of 8 or 9, I first learned about the genocide from gruesome films of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves and by reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I had nightmares about Nazis coming to kill me and tormented myself by wondering which friends might help me hide if necessary or whether I would be brave enough to fight in the resistance. In other words, aspects of the Shoah were integrated into my upbringing as my own trauma.

Unfortunately, I was by no means alone in this – every Jew I know has experienced some form of the nightmares and worries I had. These concerns still inform our communal discussions of security and antisemitism. We all have an interest in examining and healing this continuing trauma.

During this week’s Shabbat and Yom HaShoah observance we will have an opportunity to begin that discussion as we reflect on the important work of Rabbi Tirzah Firestone. Short excerpts from her book, Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma, will be a steppingstone into considering how our understandings of the Shoah impact our individual and communal lives. I hope you will be a part of our conversation.

Be well / Zei gesunt / Sano,

Rabbi Drorah Setel