In the fifth grade, after I got thrown out of Yeshiva (a Jewish school), I went to a private school in Brooklyn Heights. From a rigorous eight-hour day, which included daily prayer, Torah study, Talmud and three hours of English, I was catapulted into a different kind of educational environment. Instead of chumash (Torah study), I learned literature. I exchanged Rashi’s philosophy for expository writing about race, gender and politics. In my new school, my teachers were no longer rabbis with long beards. Instead, the new gurus wore jeans with Birkenstocks; the students carried purple and green L.L. Bean backpacks. No one at that new school wore a long skirt, no one’s tzitzit (fringes) hung out of their shirts, no older boys wore black hats and only once did I see a yarmulke, but it was being worn for a production of Fiddler on the Roof. Jews existed at my new school, just not the Jews I had grown up with. The reality of the Holocaust existed as well, just not the way it had existed at my Yeshiva.
As a child, my instruction on the Holocaust was visible—palpable, in fact. In the fourth grade, when Rabbi L. rolled up his sleeves to play handball with the boys during recess, I could see the numbers of the Lodz ghetto emblazoned on the under-part of his forearm. In my brother’s class, just a few grades ahead of me, Mrs. B’s skin revealed a similar unmistakable history.
At my new school, the Holocaust was Kristalnacht and Anne Frank, dates with names, occurrences, outlines, essays. It was Hitler and Nazi propaganda, a video we watched once in class. In Yeshiva, the Jewish genocide of World War II was Rabbi L., Mrs. B., the German babysitter my mother hired to walk me home after school. In Yeshiva, the Holocaust had names and faces and families. One had only to search the auditorium during Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), as we lit yahrzeit candles for the six million, to see tears or to witness teachers leaving through the back doors whispering, “I lived it, I lived it.” While my new school taught poetry, my old Yeshiva was of Theodor Adorno’s belief that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz”.
Perhaps it was those ancient faces I thought of first when I heard the horrific news that a lunatic had opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh killing 11 Jews. I certainly reflected on my childhood, when just a few days after that attack, swastikas were scribbled across a garage in Brooklyn Heights with graffiti that read “All Jews Must Die.” That garage was just blocks from the school I had attended after Yeshiva. I knew the exact spot. Then, just a few days after that, another synagogue in Brooklyn was vandalized with words that read, “Die Jew rats we are here.” There has been a nation-wide spike in anti-Semitic crimes.
I suddenly recalled the crucial education of my days at Yeshiva, how the words “we must never forget” were a mantra. Somehow it feels like we’ve forgotten. A large number of leaders in our country have been condoning violence lately. And this has everything to do with Pittsburgh, and mass shootings and hatred directed at minority groups as well as attempts to silence and erase the LGBTQ community.
I ask myself in these times of great distress, how will I teach my children, my two baby girls, something I learned from observing the survivors of a massacre? How can they possibly grasp the gravity, the weight of the words “we must never forget?”
Some days I feel hopeless, like we really have neglected to remember the barbed wire of the past. My children are being raised in an interfaith family, because there is more than enough room for two Gods in my house. In times like these, we could all use some extra God. The way I raise my children has come under close scrutiny from much of my community. Yet, many have also praised our way of life. If Judaism has taught me anything it is that I always was and I always will be an outsider.
The Passover seder reminds us that “We were strangers in the land of Egypt” and because of this we should understand what it means to be a stranger. The current political climate had made everyone, not only Jews, strangers. But, the Jew is visible, because he is a Jew. The tragedy of the Holocaust was that it came for every type of Jew. The Third Reich didn’t ask what kind of a Jew you were or what holidays you celebrated. They checked your yellow star and threw you to the gas chambers whether you were Reform, Conservative, Lubuvitch, Orthodox or even a non-believer. And now, in Brooklyn, NY, at the epicenter of the universe, hate has come to play its hand at trying to divide us once more.
Yeshiva, Judaism, who I became, what I ran away from, what I ran toward, has informed my life and almost all of my choices. For a long time I felt that I was not Jewish enough for Yeshiva. Then I often felt that I was too Jewish for anywhere else. It took time to find community outside of my community. It took time to decide to discover what Judaism meant for me, because to be a Jew is not only something lived, but something felt in the deepest part of the neshemah, the soul. To be a Jew for me means to do good in the world, to help people who need help, to appreciate what I have, to live a humble life. It means teaching my little girls strength and that a leader is always better than a follower and never preaches hate. At some point in my life, Judaism became about sharing traditions, then it became about loving someone from another faith while still keeping my own traditions and beliefs.
My 3-year-old is learning the aleph-bet. She says the letters the same way I once learned to recite them. Soon there won’t be any Holocaust survivors left to tell the stories of Bergen Belsen. We will have to visit museums and watch movies and read about how once upon a time six million Jews were murdered when it seemed like the world had closed its eyes.
And when I’m asked if I think the Holocaust could ever happen again, I will follow the urge to say that our country condones the same violence as Hitler did, the same bigotry as Nazi Germany. I will argue with anyone who denies this truth. I will point to the babies at the border, the marginalized people at the edge of our society, the Jews, the Jews, always the Jews. Our synagogues in Brooklyn have been smattered in hate crimes where once, during recess at Yeshiva, Rabbi L. reached up to hit a handball during recess, and the sun glinted off the numbers on his arm, revealing a history I was never to forget, inheriting the responsibility to remember.