Guilt-Written: Campus Tales

April 28, 2009 by

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What if no one said your name for an entire year? What if it when it was said, it was mispronounced, and you weren’t there to hear it? The names in books from Yad Vashem have strange letter combinations, lots of consonants placed next to each other, and I stumble over them at first. I make sounds I’ve never made before, and then, gradually, it becomes a language.

At three in the morning on Yom Hashoah, I sit on campus with one of my students under a tent in the pouring rain, reading names. This goes on for twenty four hours. There is an amazing amount of foot traffic for the middle of the night, and lots of people stop to ask what we’re doing.

Our tiny tent is a space of vulnerability, and not just because of its flimsy structure. Explaining that you are mourning your dead is sadly tricky business, especially as the Holocaust grows farther and farther away in our collective memory. In the minds of intellectual young people with an incredible capacity for empathy and a keen sense of justice, memorializing one genocide means doing the same for all others, with equal gravity.

The question of how to teach the Holocaust to this generation of American Jews remains at the forefront of Jewish education (along with, of course, how to teach Israel). How do we make the Shoah relevant to those who have no personal connection to it? How do we create a sense of ownership; grips on Jewish history and identity that are strong instead of tenuous? Genocides, wars, ethnic cleanings have happened and are happening all around the world. How do we answer what feels like the most paralyzing questions: How is this still relevant? Why should it matter?

As a Jewish educator, I empathize immediately with these questions, even though, admittedly, I’m terrified by them. They feel intensely high risk to me, as if the way I answer will make an indelible mark on my students, as if a person has no capacity to change or grow. In this world of universalism, what’s demanded of us as Jews is that we justify ourselves, our grief, and our manifestations of it. American Jews are now seen as safe, privileged, white and rich. Our past is no longer relevant. We should get over it and move on. This is the truly insidious nature of contemporary anti-Semitism, which asks us to not only overlook, but disengage from our history.

If this generation of American Jews (largely) feels disconnected from the Holocaust, then the argument that Israel remains important because of it holds very little water. We need to find another way to make both Israel and the Holocaust relevant, each for their own unique reasons. Anti-Semitism has made it impossible for American Jews to hold multiple identities (i.e. progressive, feminist, queer, Sephardi), instead seeking to detach us from our Jewish selves. The Holocaust is instrumental in that attempt, as it’s frequently pointed to as being used by Jews to silence other conflicts (Israeli and Palestinian is only one example.)

It’s this insidiousness that makes us feel vulnerable in our tents, reading names. How can we “justify” our ownership of devastation? Of course we shouldn’t have to, but before we get there, we need to empower confident Jews. Much like the idea that students will connect to Israel if we help them to build emotional connections, understanding anti-Jewish oppression can take place in the context of racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. In this instance, empathy is vital.

Whenever I’m in Israel, I take multiple trips to Yad Vashem: one to see the main exhibits, one to the art museum, and another to simply be there, to wander and sit and look out at Jerusalem from the hill. No one in my family was in the camps, I’m a third generation American, but somehow, in the arms of my dead, I feel safe.

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