Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed in Israel starting this evening, on the 27th of Nisan, which is the day the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. The date was also selected for its proximity to Memorial Day (for the fallen soldiers and terror victims) and Independence Day next week. We see all these events as part of the same story.
We observe this day with ceremonies and stories, lowered flags and sad music on the radio; and one thing that is unique to Israel: a siren sounds throughout the country at 10 a.m., and everyone stops whatever they are doing, stands up, and observes two minutes of silence in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. The entire country comes to a literal halt.
As you can imagine, remembering and teaching about the Holocaust (the Shoah in Hebrew) is a big deal in the world’s only Jewish country, and given that Israel was founded out of the ashes of the Holocaust and on the backs of its survivors, it is a major part of our national identity. Educating future generations about it is of utmost importance to us. To this end, many high schools arrange educational tours to the death camps in Poland.
There is some controversy about those trips; about the moral integrity of funding Poland’s “death camp tourism” industry, about whether those rowdy teenagers actually get anything meaningful out of the trip, and about whether the Holocaust should be something so deeply focused upon and ingrained into our national identity when we have 3,000 years of rich and diverse history to draw upon. After all, half of the country’s Jewish population is comprised of non-Ashkenazim–Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, India, and Ethiopia. They have other important stories to tell, stories that are not told as thoroughly and as publicly as the stories of the Ashkenazim. Furthermore, some argue, is it really so healthy for such a major part of our national identity to be built upon a sense of victimhood?
Well, I traveled to Poland with my fellow 11th graders in March 2004, and it was one of the most powerful and meaningful experiences of my life. The kind of experience in which the depth of its impact is completely impossible to convey to those who weren’t there. But let me try.
We visited three camps–Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and Treblinka–as well as the neighboring cities, Krakow and Warsaw, and a number of small towns where Jews once flourished, such as Lodz, home of the famous Hassidic sect, and the charming town of Tykocin… and the mass grave in the nearby Łopuchowo Forest where its entire Jewish community was murdered by the Nazis.
We had several guides, including an Israeli guide, a Polish guide, and a “witness”: a man who survived the camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz and whose family was murdered at Treblinka. We are especially lucky to have been the last generation that could travel with a witness and hear his personal story as we stood at the very places where the events happened. Our witness, Avraham, was a remarkable man with a vibrant spirit and a great sense of humor, and his contribution to the trip was immeasurable. Our teachers accompanied us and ran discussion groups. Our principal had brought his guitar and he played along with our singing.
And we sang everywhere. We filled every empty synagogue with song and dancing; we sang “Am Yisrael Chai”, “The Nation of Israel Lives”, and brought life and music to all these places where our ancestors had been silenced.
In the gas chambers of Majdanek, we sat on the floor and sang about faith and yearning for redemption through our tears. It may sound strange to do anything but observe a reverent silence in such a place; but for us, raising our voices in song is our way of honoring those who died there, giving them a voice, calling out to God from the depths of our despair.
We walked, grandchildren of survivors, free citizens of a sovereign Jewish state, and sisters of the Jewish soldiers protecting it, down the infamous train tracks, into the forests, and through the remnants of the ghettos. We carried our Israeli flags in heartbroken pride; our unspoken message to those who died there that their deaths were not in vain. My friend Menucha, whose grandmother survived Auschwitz, says: “I remember walking in Auschwitz with an Israeli flag on my back and thinking of how my grandmother had come in with nothing. I think it’s one of the proudest moments of my life.”
One evening in our hotel in Krakow, a woman came to speak to us and tell us how she and her family sheltered Jews during the Holocaust. After her talk, we got up, one by one, to thank her and hug and kiss her. That wordless exchange–the glowing warmth and gratitude, the firmness of her grip on my arms, the softness of her white cheeks against my lips–is burned forever into my memory.
There is no way to replace this kind of learning. As Menucha says, being there with a witness to share his story was like the difference between learning about the Shoah and being in Poland; the difference between knowing and feeling.
So did my trip, and the focus on the Shoah in my education, result in building my national identity on a sense of victimhood?
The answer is: absolutely not.
It built my national identity on a deep sense of purpose and triumph. Triumph, because we are the answer to the Holocaust. Every Jewish baby born, every Israeli soldier sworn in, every mitzvah observed, every holiday celebrated, every song, every laugh, every smile is another slap in the face of Hitler and all he stood for. Ultimately, we won; not with guns or bombs, but with our spirit, our faith, and our dedication to our identity and purpose.
“The Eternal Nation is not afraid of a long journey”, I sang with my friends in the empty synagogues of Poland. The Jewish people is here to stay. We have something invaluable to give the world. We have been oppressed, persecuted, and massacred for carrying that message for thousands of years. But we’re still here, still carrying it. Learning the terrible extent of the sacrifice my brethren made to keep their identity and hold on to that message makes me all the more determined to do the same, and to pass it forward into what will hopefully be a brighter future for all of us.
In Part I, I mentioned that the Seder (and Passover in general) are all about interactive and experiential learning that is usually directed towards the next generation: the kids. This actually does not begin on Seder night, but on the night before, with a special ritual we call bedikat chametz.
In the weeks and days before Passover, as mentioned in Part I, we thoroughly clean and check our homes for any recognizable traces of chametz (leavened products; see part I for explanation). On the evening before Passover, we hold a special ritual to symbolically finish this task, called bedikat chametz, “checking for chametz”. We make a blessing, and then turn off all the lights in the house, and by the light of candles and flashlights, search for little pieces of chametz that were intentionally hidden by one of the family members (traditionally it’s 10 pieces). Obviously, this would be an extremely inefficient way to actually check for chametz; this is more symbolic than anything else, and it’s a fun game for the kids, kind of like a treasure hunt in the dark! When all the pieces of chametz have been found, we recite a passage in Aramaic that effectively nullifies any chametz that we have missed in our search. We declare that if there is any chametz left, to us it will be like “the dust of the earth”.
The following day, any remaining chametz (that will not be sold) must be burned or otherwise destroyed in a way that makes it unusable (such as pouring bleach all over it).
(True story: I cleaned, searched, vacuumed, and scrubbed my house top to bottom, and first day of Passover this year, I discovered two granola bars of dust in my purse. Thanks to the above declaration, it’s all good–I simply destroyed the evidence and removed it from the premises. 😛 )
The holiday begins with lighting candles at sundown, as with every other Biblical holiday. A service is held at the synagogue, and then all families return to their homes to begin the Seder. It is a very strong tradition to have the Seder with lots of people, generally with one’s extended family, and/or lots of guests. When an Israeli asks me what I’m doing for Seder this year and I say, “Just the five of us,” s/he gives me a look that is halfway between pity and horror. Even Jews with very little connection to tradition and halakha tend to attend some kind of Seder. I guess the parallel would be like how Christmas is celebrated so widely even by people who don’t really consider themselves Christian. We like to have quiet, intimate Seders, so there is room for discussion but things don’t drag out too long, and especially when our kids got old enough to participate, we really want to keep their attention as long as possible. Back in the USA, we generally had our Seders with my dad’s parents in New York and whatever aunts and uncles were around.
The word “Seder” means “order”, referring to the ten steps to the ritual meal that must be carried out in order. The Haggadah, briefly mentioned in the entry about the Jewish holy books, guides us through these steps, which mostly involve reading the passages aloud and eating symbolic foods that help us commemorate those events. The symbolic foods are arranged at the center of the table on the Seder plate:
We also set three matzot on the table in a pile and covered by a cloth.
The table is set, the kids and guests are seated, and we begin:
The leader of the Seder (usually the head of the household) recites the kiddush over a cup of wine. This is the same kind of “declaration” of the sanctity of the day that we perform on Shabbat and other holidays. If the Seder falls on a Friday night (as it did this year), the kiddush for Shabbat is recited as well. Then, we all drink our first cup of wine while reclining. This is symbolic of our freedom, as royals used to eat while reclining. (Yes, I said “first” cup of wine. There are four. It’s gonna be a long night. 😉 ) (Grape juice is okay for those of us who would rather remain sober…)
We wash our hands as though for bread, but without the blessing. We are not about to eat bread, but there is a custom to wash our hands this way before eating a food that is dipped in liquid.
Karpas (Green Vegetable)
We eat a green vegetable, usually parsley or celery, dipped in salt water. The green vegetable symbolizes spring, and the salt water symbolizes the tears we shed under the oppression of slavery. The Polish tradition is to do this with potato, which is not a green vegetable, but good luck finding anything green in Poland at this time of year 😛
Yachatz (Splitting in Half)
The leader of the Seder takes the middle matza from the pile and breaks it in half. The bigger half is hidden away as the afikoman, which will be eaten later.
Maggid is the centerpiece of the Haggadah; the section that actually contains the retelling of the story of the Exodus. There is no way I’m going to cover all its contents here. For that, you’ll have to actually read a Haggadah. (Conveniently, Chabad has a full English version here.) You’ll notice that it doesn’t really follow the narrative the way you would expect. To understand why… well, you’ll just have to come to our Seder someday, and we can discuss it long into the night–as per the tradition. 🙂
So by this point in the evening, if you have never been to a Seder before, you are going to be really confused. What is going on? Why are we eating these weird things? Why is this holiday so different from other holidays?
Well, that’s how Maggid kicks off the story. The smallest child at the table recites the Four Questions: Why is this night different from all the other nights–that on all other nights, we eat chametz and matza, but on this night, only matza? That on all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night, we eat bitter herbs? That on all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, but on this night, we dip it twice? That on all other nights, we eat sitting or reclining, but on this night, we all recline?
The idea of the Seder is to make the children curious so they will ask questions like these.
The answer to those questions comes right away: Once, our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and God saved us from their hands. The text then dwells a little on the concept of retelling the story and educating our children about the Exodus, and then goes on to describe the story of the Exodus and interpretations of the passages and events by various sages. (Remember, the Haggadah is an extremely old text that was written around the time of the Talmud, so the passages reflect rabbinic discourse of that period.)
The most poignant part of the Seder, in my view, is the following passage, recited in the middle of Maggid: “And it is [that promise] that has stood for our fathers and for us, for not only one has arisen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they arise against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” This line, written so many centuries ago, has rung true at every single Seder since. This is a beautiful version composed by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Yonatan Razel, who here changes some of the lyrics to present and future tense to emphasize how relevant this ancient passage still feels.
We wash our hands again, this time actually for bread–that is, for…
That first word refers to the blessing we make over bread, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, “…who brings bread out of the ground”. We make two blessings over the matza–one for the enjoyment of food, and one for the mitzva–and eat the proscribed amount of it while reclining.
Maror (Bitter Herbs)
These are eaten to represent the bitterness of slavery. We usually eat either romaine lettuce or horseradish or some mixture of both. (The horseradish on the plate is that purple stuff. It’s purple because it’s mixed with… la remolatxa1. 😛 That is how it’s usually served with the famous (or is it infamous…?) gefilte fish.) We first dip the lettuce or horseradish into that brown mush, which is called charoset, and represents the mortar used by the slaves to make the bricks. It is traditionally made with apples, wine, nuts, and/or dates, and is supposed to be sweet, so it sweetens the bitterness of the herb representing slavery.
Now we follow a tradition established by Hillel the Elder in the days of the Second Temple. Tradition has it that Hillel sandwiched all the symbolic foods of Passover–the matza, the maror, the charoset, and the Passover sacrifice (a lamb)–and ate them together. Since we have no Temple, we cannot make the sacrifice, so we leave out the lamb. BTW, if you’re still wondering about the shankbone and the egg on the plate–the bone represents the Passover sacrifice, and the egg represents the Chagiga (holiday) sacrifice.
Shulchan Orech (Setting the Table)
This is where we have the feast! Everybody’s favorite part. 😛 Traditional foods include knaidlach, or matza balls, dumplings made of ground matza, in chicken soup; the aforementioned gefilte fish, which are balls of ground fish, usually carp; and lamb, in commemoration of the sacrifice. (I happen to dislike lamb. So, beef or chicken it is. As to gefilte fish, usually I can take it or leave it, but I enjoy it as a special Passover thing.)
So remember the piece of matza the leader of the Seder hid away way back before Maggid? Now is the time to find it: it’s the afikoman (that word apparently comes from the ancient Greek for “dessert”). We are required to have a proscribed amount of it as the last thing we eat. But first, the kids have to find it! Another treasure hunt. 🙂 This is a great way to keep them awake and engaged. Another tradition developed out of this that the children then hold the afikoman “captive”, thereby indefinitely delaying the end of the Seder, and “bargaining” to give it back in return for a gift or a treat.
Now we recite Grace After Meals, over a third cup of wine (the second was drunk at the end of Maggid), and then drink that cup and recite the blessing after drinking wine. The final cup of wine is poured.
Hallel is a special prayer recited on holidays, comprised of Psalms 113-118. The first part of Hallel is recited at the synagogue, and it is continued here, and then we go on to read additional Psalms along the same general theme of God being awesome. The final cup of wine is now drunk. (And if it’s really wine, so are we. 😛 )
The name is referring to God accepting our completion of the Seder. This is when the Seder officially ends. (There are opinions that this is not a distinct section of the Seder, but that this and the previous are one section–“Hallel Nirtza”.) We sing l’shana haba’ah b’yirushalayim habnuya–next year in rebuilt Jerusalem! Then there are a few more traditional Passover songs, which are generally fun and lively and get everybody’s energy up for the final leg of the Seder. (Great for keeping the kids awake, too.)
The very last song of the Seder, at least in Ashkenazi tradition… you’d think it would be something profound, about freedom, or the purpose of the Jewish people, or maybe even about the holiday itself. But it’s this:
A cumulative song in Aramaic about a little goat that Dad bought for two zuzim (units of money), which gets eaten by a cat, which gets bit by a dog, which gets hit by a stick, which gets burned by a fire, which gets doused by water, which gets drunk by an ox, which gets slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer), who gets killed by the Angel of Death, who gets destroyed by the Holy One, Blessed Be He.
(And you betcha we sing it with sound effects. 😛 )
…I know. Why on earth are we ending the Seder with this silly little ditty?
Obviously, as with everything in the Seder, because it is has important symbolism. The idea of the song is that there is justice in the world, even if we don’t see it at the time; that every action has a consequence, and that, as the Talmud says: “There is justice and there is a Judge“.
Believe it or not, this silly animal song contains the deepest, most fundamental message of the Seder.
Why is it so important for us to remember that God freed us from slavery and brought us out of Egypt?
Because we must remember that there is justice, and there is a Judge, and even when the world seems unjust and terrible things are happening to good people, there is a reason for everything, and it’s all for the ultimate good. Even when we’re at the profoundest depths of despair, God’s redemption can occur in the blink of an eye.
That is the message of the Seder, and that is why the tradition of the Seder has carried us through many other “Egypts” throughout history.
So… that’s the Seder, in a nutshell. Outside of Israel, you “get” to do the whole thing all over again the following night. (I’m sure there are advantages to this, but to me it just sounds exhausting and I am grateful to be here!)
A blessed and happy Passover!
1. La remolatxa is “beet” in Catalan. The only reason I know this word is because I served a Moroccan beet salad to Josep when he was here for Shabbat, and he asked me what it was, but we did not have a common language in which we both knew the word for this vegetable. 😛 After Shabbat I Googled it, and now I’ll never forget. (When I clarified, he was like, “Not something I eat every day!” Was that a polite way to tell me he hated it? 😛 I decided not to press the issue.)↩
So we are back in Israel as of yesterday afternoon, and still trying to get over the jet lag and exhaustion from around 36 hours of travel (I know, boo hoo. Try doing it with three restless kids!) and get our act together because Passover–the Jewish holiday requiring the most intense preparation–is next Friday night. (Ahhhhhh!)
Being in the States was many things for many different reasons, but one thing that I felt there this time was… strange. Back when I was a kid and still a new immigrant, going back to the USA was a huge relief. When surrounded by people speaking Hebrew, I didn’t even realize how much I was straining to understand even when I wasn’t trying. It was only when I was surrounded with English again that I realized how much easier that was. And as you mentioned, Americans are so nice and upbeat when interacting with strangers. This used to be so refreshing for me.
This time, though, it was kind of exhausting. Israelis have a pretty bad reputation when it comes to friendliness and politeness. They don’t mind if I walk around as my usual pensive, antisocial self. 😛 I have the unfortunate combination of being both extremely curious about people different from me, and extremely shy, if not somewhat socially anxious, so I usually end up wondering about them and making up stories about them instead of striking up conversations. (This is where Eitan comes in handy. He “interviews” people for me, and I listen. 😉 )
Moreover, I felt extremely self-conscious in my long skirts and covered hair, next to my boys with their kippot and payot. I am no longer used to being a Jew in a primarily non-Jewish place. This may sound strange, but it adds pressure, because it means I become a representative of the Jewish people to the world. We are supposed to be “a light unto the nations”. It makes it that much more important to me to present myself as being kind, respectful, and generally a good human being. This is pretty challenging when you have three energetic little boys who are not used to, uh, non-Israeli standards of behavior. 😛 By Israeli standards, my kids are pretty well-behaved, but by American standards–let alone European standards–they can be a nightmare. (…I don’t know what your standards are, that you think my kids are so great, but you’ve always been an odd bird. 😛 )
This is not just my own quirk, either. There’s a mitzvah known as kiddush Hashem, “sanctification of the Name”, that specifically involves presenting yourself as a positive example of the Jewish people to the world. Throughout history, the whole Jewish nation has always been judged by the actions of the few–usually for the worse :-/ and that can be dangerous to all of us.
Practically speaking, when in the US, I experience this “ambassadorship” fairly often. Most Americans have a vague idea of what Jews are and know to categorize us that way, and we had quite a few “Shalom”s and other friendly comments indicating recognition. Other Jews tend to feel an automatic kinship with strangers they recognize as Jews, so we had some of those approach us, too. At one supermarket checkout counter, an African-American lady asked what our religion was and when we told her we are Jewish, she said “I have so many questions for you”. We asked for her information and promised to be in touch. (My father-in-law took this upon himself and said he’s going to send her a link to this blog. If you’re reading, say hi!)
This made me want to wear Jewish symbols outwardly so people would know what they were looking at. I’ve been wearing that gold Chai necklace of my grandmother’s pretty much every day since she was diagnosed (there’s a picture of it in this entry about Jewish symbols), but not everyone recognizes the Chai. Of course, the USA is pretty much the only place in the Diaspora where I could even consider proudly displaying a Jewish symbol. (This is what happens when you do that in France. 🙁 )
I often feel the same way about being an Israeli. I sometimes get friend requests on Facebook from random people in all kinds of random countries, and when I ask them to what I owe the pleasure, often it’s because they love and support Israel.
I am willing and proud to take on this role, but especially during these tough political times, it can be a heavy responsibility. As soon as I set foot on Israeli soil, I felt it lift from my shoulders somewhat. Here, I still represent something–observant Jewish women, American olim (immigrants), settlers, what have you, but that’s less pressure than the entire Jewish people and the whole state of Israel. Sometimes I wish I could just blend into the crowd. But I’m always going to stand out… not only because of my religion, nationality, and personal choices, but also because of my unusually high sensitivity and empathy, and sometimes it can be a burden.
We thought of you as we flew over Barcelona on our way back to Israel. I told H we were flying over Spain, and he said, “So Josep might see the airplane!” I chuckled and said you probably wouldn’t, and even if you did, you wouldn’t know it was us 😉
Lots of love,
Blog readers: Yes, I still have an announcement, but give me a little more time to get settled 😉 In the meantime, have you ever felt that you are representing something to the world? What did that feel like?
I don’t know if you know this about me, but I am fascinated with languages. Recently I’ve been on a very strict regimen of learning Spanish on DuoLingo. I’ve been practicing almost every day since the beginning of the summer, and creo que puedo decir que mi castellano es mucho mejor ahora. O, se puede decir, es existente. 😛 They say that people with musical abilities tend to be better at grasping languages, and in these past few months I’ve developed a theory why. When I immerse myself in a new language, I start hearing words, phrases and sounds from it echoing in my thoughts, much the way I get a catchy song stuck in my head.
Anyway, what I’ve found in the last few days is that the language reverberating in my head has not, for a change, been Spanish.
It’s been French.
Three guesses why. :-/
I studied French as a third language in eighth and ninth grade. Personally, in retrospect, I think they should have been teaching us Arabic. But given that those years were the height of the second Intifada, and that it was a religious school that was not supposed to have a political affiliation but quietly arranged buses to anti-disengagement protests… you can imagine that maybe some among the staff and the parents might not have been so thrilled with that choice. So French it was. And it so happened that in eighth grade, I had a unique opportunity to travel to Paris with my school choir. We visited several Jewish schools and communities in Paris, and when we weren’t performing, we toured. It was my first time in Europe, and my maternal grandparents had firmly instilled within me an appreciation for high culture, art, music and travel, so I was well trained to appreciate Paris. 😉 The trip was wonderful and left me hoping to return someday.
However. There was one thing that struck me about being in Paris that I had never felt before in the USA or in Israel. Something that I felt again, several years later, in the city you call home. Something that I felt as a Jew, especially when visiting the Jewish communities in those cities.
If you give it some thought, it kind of sounds ridiculous. I mean… I live in Israel, right? This trip was in March of 2001. 8 Israelis were killed and about 45 were injured in terror attacks in that month alone. My trip to Barcelona was in 2006, just three months after the Second Lebanon War, in which I personally dodged a few Katyushas in Haifa. Certainly, far more Jews have been killed on racist/nationalist grounds in Israel than in France or Spain over the past fifteen years. But in Israel we do not tuck our Stars of David under our shirts. In Israel we do not hide our synagogues behind heavy metal gates and stern security personnel. And obviously, in Israel, we do not avoid speaking or wearing Hebrew in public. Seeing Jews do these things, just as a matter of daily life, was appalling to me. It felt backwards, so different from the feeling of being Jewish in America (or even in London, which I visited in 2004), and from the kind of fear we deal with in Israel.
The news from Paris last week was horrifying but not surprising to me. (And frankly I find it upsetting that the world’s attention was focused solely on Paris while 2,000 people were massacred by Boko Haram in Africa. But I digress.) There has been a serious uptick in antisemitic incidents in Europe in general and France in particular lately; boosted by the war in Gaza, but it was on an upward trend beforehand, too. I don’t need to read the papers to know this; all I have to do is open my ears. I’ve been hearing more and more French on the streets. This year was the first time in Israel’s history that France topped the countries of origin for olim, new immigrants to Israel. 7,000 French Jews moved here in 2014–and that includes the exhausting war we had this summer. If you ask any of these olim, they will tell you that they’ll take the rockets over the constant, looming threat of antisemitism any day. At least, they say, here, we are in charge of our own destiny.
France is the world’s third largest Jewish community, after the USA and Israel. But a few years down the line, that may no longer be true. The Jews are fleeing France. And when Jews start emigrating en masse, it is not a good sign for the place from which they’re fleeing. Persecution often starts with Jews, but it never ends with them… and we already saw that in Paris last week.
And while I do find all this upsetting and infuriating, I can’t say I’m unhappy about the wave of immigration from France. There is a sizeable (and growing) community of French expats in my town, one of whom started a lovely café here. 😀 The other day Eitan and I were walking down Emeq Refa’im Street in Jerusalem and we noticed that a restaurant that had been there for many years was closing down, and there were signs up that it was going to be replaced by a French patisserie. I gave a sarcastic grin and said, “Thank God for French antisemitism.”
I hope that many Jews from France will make aliyah, but I really wish it were more about coming to Israel than about fleeing France. :-/