09/27/2012 11:23 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

On Yom Kippur: A Place for Remembrances of Things and People I Never Knew

I usually write something this time of year, when sadness meshes with nostalgia for a religion I don't practice anymore but with whose history and ethnicity and food and humor connected to Jewish identity, I very much identify with. As someone who is very sensitive to external cues, it's an odd feeling to feel as much at home in Italy as I do and yet be missing the Jewish version of places in the States, of dressing up and preparing for some sort of reflection on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

I know that wherever we get to, there we'll be, and so it was that just last night I began to revisit and plow into the book I'd bought at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, "The Pity of it All: A Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933" by Amos Elon (Penguin Books, 2002), an Israeli author who until his death in 2009 since 2004 had lived in Tuscany. He was famous as an essayist, intellectual and critic of Israel's policies toward Palestinians. It turns out, at least it seems, that he was a true Israeli Jew who did not want to avenge the multiple brutalities bestowed on Jews through history, on those "others" around him.

I had begun reading the book during my visit to Germany this summer and put it down for a writing priority on other but connected subject. I think now, what isn't connected to history and how and whether or not we learn from it. I realize at this moment that growing up, I was part of the post World WarII baby boomer generation of Reform or Conservative Jewish liberals who did not like to see ourselves as haters or even blamers of Germany. We were the first in our classes at Brooklyn College to raise our hands and say the Germans didn't know about the concentration camps while the steadfast professor told us they did. We didn't want to not buy German loden coats that were the style or to not buy German cars, even though in my case my family didn't have one.

We didn't want to hate, and yet I think we all colluded and perhaps collude today in not teaching and learning the history before the history that made and still makes the headlines in our times only or just before them ... or even those who are seeped into the memories along with myths and glory and tragedy that are deigned to be included. The pity of it all implies all, and if nothing can include any complete thing, it implies at least here, it seems, that the extent of the pity may well be immense.

A sense of anguish and outrage is not always welcome. Let me speak for myself -- in a world where we need understanding and empathy with those different from us in race, religion, class and opinion. And yet the words, so shocking, open up the gates of pain and a surprise of being surprised by the very very long history of anti-Semitism, through much of Europe based primarily on the fact that the Jews who remained Jews had rejected Jesus as their savior. The ways in which they were seen were horrid, to the point of much of Europe blaming the Jews for the Black Plague of the Middle Ages, which killed 25 million people.

At the 18th century's end, in Frankfurt, "Jews were still prevented from leaving the ghetto after dark or on Sundays and Christian holidays. The Frankfurt ghetto consisted of a single dark lane, the Judengasse, foul smelling and dank, sunless because of its narrowness and its tall, overcrowded houses ... By 1743, some three thousand Jews (10 per cent of the population) crowded into a space originally intended for three hundred in conditions of squalor and congestion unknown elsewhere in the city" (p. 26). Ah, something more to grieve and at least get to know, the history behind the history we are given.

But in all fairness to the book's author and to the complexity of most human interactions, Mr. Elon was committed to showing the lighter and better times of the Jews in Germany, in addition to the tragic sides. So on a day that is traditionally a day of remembrance in Jewish homes, also of those cherished who have died, so it might be a day to reflect on how we remember and how we get to know one another.

I have yet to see at home portraits of all kinds of people that include their stories, stories of Afghan civilians and soldiers, of American soldiers with mixed feelings, of those whose anger ran away with them. And this isn't just about us, it is about Germans and Jews and Muslims, those who will tell a story and not spend all their time in hatred they feel is pure but is in fact always fused with shame or helplessness or more deeply, with sadness.

In truth it isn't enough to complain about the ways history has been taught us, since it is occurring as we speak and we might be able to decide how we get our facts, and whether we speak to people about their stories and how they came to be and feel that way. "The Pity of it All" is illuminating because though it does inspire deep sadness and sorrow, it inspires a wish to know better, to know on deeper levels, and to use our knowledge to make sense of what is and of who we are. We can only get richer, in human terms, if we integrate many more sides of history than we presently are wont to do.

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