April 19, 2007
Shoah seder—too young to know
We are walking home from shul, my son and I, my arm on his shoulders, his
arm hooked awkwardly up to my neck. We take this short walk often on
Shabbat, but tonight
is Sunday, he's in sweats and sneakers, and we're discussing the
We've just come from a Yom HaShoah seder at B'nai David-Judea Congregation, a ritual our rabbi, Yosef Kanefsky, implemented several years ago to ensure the perpetuation of the observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Yair, who is 10, and I agree on the most jarring moment of the evening. It was when the rabbi asked all the children in the room -- there were probably 40 or 50 kids among the 140 guests -- to leave their parents' sides and stand up against the wall.
"It felt really weird to have to leave you and stand there with all these people I don't really know," Yair tells me as we walk.
He acknowledges that the moment is symbolic -- he knew I was 20 feet away, that in two minutes he would come back and sit by my side. But it was enough for him to get a hint of what it might have felt like for kids and parents to be separated.
The teens at B'nai David create new content for the hagaddah every year, adapting Holocaust literature into short scripts that they read at the seder -- this year about a son who goes off to Budapest just when the Nazis invade, a mother and daughter and a bowl of soup, a neighbor girl who finds a dead baby.
The seder progresses loosely through aspects of the war, from prewar life, to hiding, to concentration camps, to the resistance. The scripts are interspersed with songs, poetry, Psalms and harsh rituals.
We eat cabbage and potatoes and dry bread. We leave our shoes under the table and place all of our jewelry in boxes on the table. We sit in complete stillness for two full minutes, commemorating those who had to live in hiding.
The daughter of survivors tells of her mother being beaten in the camps, of how her father lost his first family. We light Yizkor candles and sing songs -- a prescient prewar ballad, a composition of Anne Frank's words, the Partisans' Anthem and, at the end, "Hatikvah."
As we sing, I look over to Emil Sassover, standing with his wife, Lola. After being discharged from the Russian Army in 1945, he joined the Haganah, and he and Lola fought for Israel's independence.
They are among several survivors here for the seder.
Another is my 94-year-old neighbor, Lazor Rosman, who always has a pocketful of chocolate for my kids. Conscripted into the Hungarian army as a mechanic, in 1942 Rosman stole a Hungarian Army truck and commander's uniform, and transported 70 Jews to the safety of a village, where he bribed the mayor.
The teens have adapted his story this year, and they read his words as he watches.
Yair can't see the teens from where we're sitting, so each time they begin a reading, he slumps down to the floor in the middle of the U-shaped table for a clearer view.
The Holocaust isn't new to Yair -- he's learned about it in school, and all my grandparents were survivors -- but each time he crouches to the floor, the childish innocence of that movement shakes me.
He's so young, I think, why am I imposing this knowledge upon him? Why must I hammer this into his head and try to force him to feel?
I know these questions are heretical, unholy to be emanating from the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. And I know -- and truly believe -- the answers. Never forget. Honor the sanctity of the lost souls. Perpetuate the story of heroism and survival and the founding of the State of Israel. Uphold not only our national history, but my family history.
But this Yom Hashoah seder, for all its potency, feels forced -- as if emotions are being plied out of me, being drilled into my son. It is the same trouble I have with powerful and effective programs like March of the Living. Why must we manipulate emotions? Are we trying too hard to remember that which we can never truly know?
Many of our community programs focus on children. At a Valley-wide Yom HaShoah service last Sunday at Kadima Hebrew Academy, children introduced survivors for a candlelighting ceremony, sharing the messages they learned from survivors' stories and pledging to keep the memories alive.
And on Tuesday, for the 10th year, almost 2,700 children of all colors from private, public and parochial schools around Los Angeles gathered under a blue and white tent surrounded by Israeli flags at the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument in Pan Pacific Park.
Speakers -- both adults and kids -- read from selections they had prepared in classroom lessons, trying their best to get kids to understand what the number 6 million means, what it means to be a victim of racist hatred, what it was like in the camps, and how the Holocaust imposed upon future generations the responsibility to stop other genocides.
All the readings at Pan Pacific Park were drawn from children's accounts of the war -- from Elie Weisel to the Bialystok youth resistance movement to a musical rendition of "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," sung sweetly by Maya Sherer, a Temple Emanuel middle-schooler.
Her song made me cry. That's when I realized emotions like these, evoked through allusions and artistry, are built up over many years.
Maybe, what we are most worried about is that these kids, more than six decades away from the events, will never naturally feel, viscerally understand the horror, unless we impose it on them. So we don't just give them the information in classes and books (though hopefully we do that, too), we take them through emotions at seders, on trips, in museums and annual ceremonies meant to make them learn how to cry. The counter-intuitiveness of teaching children about the Holocaust is a harsh truth for parents of the new millennium, who believe in organic parenting, in going with the child's flow.
But, of course, there isn't anything natural about the Holocaust, and so how we pass it on to the next generation can't be natural.
I wish that I didn't have to teach Yair, or my two younger children, about it.
But I know that I do. And so on a Sunday night, I take Yair in his baggy sweats and his buzzed haircut to shul, and we eat watery cabbage and undercooked potatoes and we sing Yiddish lullabies.
And for just two minutes, we separate from each other, and from what we think we know.
To view B'nai David-Judea's Yom Hashoah Hagaddah, go to www.bnaidavid.com.