Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Rememberance Day. I was down at the Iriya (Municipal building) dealing with my Arnona stuff when they did the thing they do here, which is sound an air raid siren for two full minutes at 10am. Everybody stops. Traffic comes to a halt and drivers get out of their cars, stand at attention, hands at their sides. In the Iriya, there were lots of different kinds of people who live in Jerusalem. Everyone around me stood up, immoble, silent, as this strong shofar-like sound blasted through us. During those two minutes, I was able to plug into the fact that it was Yom HaShoah, to be there in the pain and the memories and the suffering in a way that’s not sustainable for a full day. To be shocked and horrified anew. That’s part of what it’s there for, I think. There was such stillness, just the bleating of this war noise there. Then, after the siren ended, there was a collective pause, and then everybody pretty much picked up where they left off–me in conversation with the clerk lady, people walking in or out, and so forth. By the time I got out of the building the city was back on full steam ahead.

As I was walking home, I looked into a cafe window and saw a guy with a big newscamera right in the face of two very old men. They had to have been survivors. It was, in the context of the siren and even just how far away and abstract and irrelevant the Holocaust generally feels to me, very profound to see them laughing and telling stories (or answering questions, dunno–couldn’t hear them) in this country at this time. They made it, and lived to tell the tale.

I have, for years, criticized the Jewish community and some who speak for Israel for behaving too much in a “victim mentality”, and not acknowledging the power that they/we actually do have and the ways in which we use it. And I still think that’s true. But today, I think, I was feeling the other measure of things, that is, feeling pretty powerfully the kind of suffering that has, in fact, taken place in what is still the lifetime of some Jews here today. They’re not mutually exclusive sentiments.

In recent years, some people have taken on Yom HaShoah as a minor fast day, akin to other minor fasts connected to major disasters in Jewish history (mostly connected to the destruction of the Temple). I don’t agree that this is the appropriate way to commemorate. First of all, it’s not clear that the minor fasts we already have are obligitory. In the Gemara, we find (Rosh Hashonah 18b): “Rav Papa replied: What it means is this: When there is peace they shall be for joy and gladness; if there is destruction/persecution, they shall be fast days; if there is no destruction/persecution but yet not peace, then those who desire may fast and those who desire need not fast.” Obviously we’re not in a time of peace, but I also think that the position of Jews in the world and the fact of Jewish statehood would have impressed the Amoraim (Rabbinic thinkers of Rav Papa’s generation) quite significantly. I was walking home, thinking about Rav Papa writing and teaching from Babylonia, trying to help construct a system of Judaism that didn’t require living on this land, and I tried to picture what he’d make of all this–the cars and the movie houses and the yeshivas and the kippot walking to and fro, and the kosher pizza joints. I think he’d consider this to really, really count for something–a lot. Even with all the ideological infighting, and the painful relationship of this country to its neighbors, and everything, I don’t think he’d define the current situation of the Jewish people as שמד (destruction/persecution)–I think we don’t have any idea how good we have it, frankly. I know some people who argue that since there is a state now, we should consider ourselves in a time of peace. I’m not comfortable going that far, but I can appreciate the reason why some people think that–this IS probably what Rav Papa meant, to some degree, or this might be considered a success beyond his imagination. But at the very least, we are in the neither peace and neither (Jewish) destruction space. I believe that all minor fasts should be optional.

More lately, I’m thinking, though, that I might want to take them on (I’ve been not such a fan in recent years) as a way of acknowledging the destruction and persecution that’s happening all over the world. I don’t think I’m obligated vis a vis the Jewish people (because frankly, though there still is antisemitism out there, we priveliged people mostly don’t know from real persecution these days) but perhaps as a citizen of the world, I am required to afflict myself a few days a year as a symbolic, ritualized way of acknowledging all of the persecution and destruction that takes place, all the time.

But in any case, given the complex halakhic status of the minor fast (and given the fact that the Crusades, the Inquisition, Pogroms and other destructions in Jewish history are covered under the umbrella of Tisha B’Av and I believe that fasting because of the Holocaust is more appropriately set there), I’m not such a fan. Also, it doesn’t strike me as what I would imagine people who perished in the Holocaust would want their descendents to do–rather, I think the better way to memorialize mass murder is, in addition to some somber remembering of what happened, to a) celebrate life, do life-affirming activities, b) to mark the failure of Jewish obliteration by doing what Jews do: learning Torah and c) to use this day as a time of concrete activism aimed at addressing the situation in Darfur, or any one of a number of other places where “never again” is happening right now.

Some resources:
Amnesty Int’l
Africa Action‘s talking points on how to end genocide in Darfur
Genocide Watch

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