I am a Jew and my mother is a Jew. Her mother and father are Jews whose own mothers and fathers (and sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and cousins) were murdered by the Nazis because they were Jews. I am a Jew whose entire childhood and adolescence was overcast by the shadow of the Holocaust. The stories on my grandfather's knees were not the fables of Aesop or the fairytale legends of knights and dragons, but the chilling narrative of personal terror and the ugly deeds of survival. I attended a Jewish day school that erected a "Holocaust Garden," an agglomeration of white statues and plants that served as the venue for seemingly every educational program or assembly the school ran. The prevailing lesson of my elementary school education, more than spelling, more than the multiplication tables, more than even the Ten Commandments, was one simple word: "zachor" -- "remember."
At first glance, this smacks of a relatively effortless chore that is lacking in any true significance. Why the emphasis on memory? The prevailing wisdom is one of learning from history's mistakes. "Remember," we are told, "lest it happen again." This appears to have been nothing more than an exercise in futility, however, as despite our noble efforts to remember, genocide has continued to claim the lives of millions: Yugoslavians, Rwandans, Sudanese. Surely, we were not trying to combat only the genocide of Jews. There is, however, another predominant explanation cited for our generation's perpetual duty to remember: preserving the legacy of the Holocaust for posterity, a basis that is disturbingly necessary. If one were to claim that they did not believe the Civil War ever happened, that it was a hoax concocted as part of a mass agenda, they would be deservedly ridiculed. However, when it comes to the Holocaust, every pseudo-intellectual and conspiracy theorist comes out of the woodwork to claim that an event so thoroughly documented, attested to by millions of eyewitnesses, has been exaggerated and embellished in order to manipulate and deceive the world, and that it did not, in fact, transpire. These deniers of history are perceived as such a threat that many fear that future generations will be left to ponder: if six million Jews were murdered but nobody is there to remember it, did it really happen?
This is an important point and an important fight but I wonder whether fighting it is worth the trouble and whether this focus on remembrance is a double-edged sword. One of the biblical commentators tells us that one of the reasons that the Jews had to wander through the desert for forty years was because the generation that left Egypt had a fatal psychological weakness: it had a slave mentality. The generation of the desert was so traumatized by the bondage of Egypt, so stricken with a sense of victimhood, that they were not an appropriate generation for the ultimate redemption. Instead, they were doomed to die in the desert, and it was their children, a generation that did not remember the slavery of Egypt, that merited entrance into the Land of Israel. I wonder if somehow our obsession with the Holocaust, with burning its gory details into the brains of our children, is somehow infecting us with a similar trauma.
Last week, like every Passover, we sang at our seder, "in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us." And indeed they do. Following the lead of the ancient Egyptians was the Romans and the Crusaders, the Cossacks and the Nazis. Today, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Ahmadinejad vie to wipe Israel off the map. The narrative of Jewish history has been a seemingly continuous march of blood libels, pogroms, gas chambers, and suicide bombers. It is a chronology that, while vividly accurate, also colors the lenses through which we perceive the world. It is a version of history that marks all enemies of the Jews as a common enemy and labels our battle for survival as an endless war for which there could be no political solution. It serves as a valid account of our past and, sadly, our present, but does it have to be our future? Admittedly, this ultimately depends more on the will of those who desire to destroy us than on our mentality, but our mentality isn't totally insignificant. In the context of Jewish history, our generation is truly blessed with not one, but two glorious nations where we are able to thrive, where our Jewishness is not a handicap. But our current circumstance of splendor is trumped by our knowledge of history and tarnishes our ability to enjoy the treasures we have been given. As Leon Wieseltier astutely observed years ago in The New Republic, "a minority that has agreed to believe that its life has been transformed for the better, that has accepted the truth of progress, that has revised its expectation of the world, that has taken yes for an answer, is always anxious that it may have been tricked. For progress is a repudiation of the past. Yes feels a little like corruption, a little like treason, when you have been taught no."
The Talmud tells us that the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, a day currently reserved for fasting and mourning to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, will in the future be transformed into a joyous holiday. Yesterday, Jews worldwide observe Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day marked on the calendar to honor the memories of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis, and while I do not foresee it being transformed into a holiday any time soon, the sentiment is one worth considering. Wouldn't we prefer a future for our children where the notion that Jews would be targeted for exile and annihilation simply because they were Jews would be one that is totally foreign to them? Wouldn't we prefer that at seder tables of future generations the statement "in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us" is met with greater amazement than the presence of matzah on the table? I think I would. Yesterday was a day reserved for remembering those we lost, but today should be a day for admiring those we still have: people like my grandparents, true Jewish heroes who saw their entire families wiped out because they were Jews, yet continued to fight on and build as Jews. They helped build a Jewish state and generations of Jewish doctors and lawyers, rabbis and teachers, businessmen and congressmen that serve as an unshakable affirmation of a simple truth: Hitler lost. Yesterday was truly a day for remembering. But today, is it all right if I try to forget, just a little?
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