Signals from History


July 28, 1941: Local police and militiamen acting with the acquiescence of SS troops of the prison at Drogoboych, Ukraine, use guns, clubs and fists to slaughter hundreds of Jews. [1]

Late July, 1941: Germans establish a Jewish ghetto at Dvinsk, Latvia. [1]

A balalaika ensemble in Daugavpils (Dvinsk), Latvia, photographed in 1929 or 1930.
A balalaika ensemble in Daugavpils (Dvinsk), Latvia,
photographed in 1929 or 1930. More…

Memories preserved, observed and transmitted

Recently my neighbor, 35, Jewish, asked me “Are you growing a beard?”

“No,” I replied.

“So why aren’t you shaving?” he asked me.

“It is the nine days before the 9th of Av (on the Jewish calendar), when Jews mourn the destruction of both the first and second Temples.”

“When was the Temple destroyed?” he asked quizzically.

“Two thousand years ago,” said I.

He looked at me puzzled. “How does growing a beard contribute to the remembrance?”

“It is a symbol of mourning. And in our days, there is plenty mourning to do, which moves one to despair,” I explained. “So the least one can do is resort to symbolism.”

A number of years ago, a fellow congregant came to my synagogue to say Kaddish after one of his parents had died. After he completed the required eleven months, I didn’t see him for a few weeks. Then one morning he showed up again and stood to say Kaddish. I asked him “Gilbert, who are you saying Kaddish for?” He replied “For my niece.” “When did she die?” “Sixteen years ago” he replied.

I looked at him, puzzled. “There’s no one who remembers her,” he said.

On July 6, twenty two children and their teacher were murdered by Islamic extremists in northern Nigeria simply for attending a secular school. The daily murder of civilians in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places are driving me to despair, frustration and boiling anger against world international bodies, governments, and heads of religious movements, all of whom are notoriously inactive making them complicit in these atrocities. Many of these victims are nameless to us, and even the ones whose names we hear are often remembered only for a single news cycle. But on her sixteenth birthday, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for the sin of advocating education for herself and other girls, spoke to the United Nations General Assembly saying “I don’t want revenge on the Taliban, I want education for sons and daughters of the Taliban.” It is those like Malala, who speak out so fearlessly, who give me hope.

In our synagogue, we read each day the names of those who passed away on that particular date. Some of those names go back nearly 100 years, to the founding of our congregation in 1917. Sometimes there is the name of someone we knew personally, other times it is just the family name that we recognize. And yet we continue to read all of the names, even when no one from the family is present.

Rituals insist that we transcend the plague of forgetfulness. Anyone who lives only in the present has an anemic future. They will live only in this day, without having roots in the past to provide a basis for moving forward.

I daily feel helpless and frustrated as I observe the violent events of the present. But my willingness to observe the mourning ritual of allowing my beard to grow during the days leading up to the 9th of Av roots me in the past, reminding me not only of disasters too large to comprehend, but also the ways in which we have transcended those disasters. And my own observance of the ritual prompted my non-observant neighbor to spend at least a short moment learning about the past.

As always, a willingness to speak up in the face of evil, even if that “speaking” is only the public observance of a ritual, has an impact on those around us.

(This posting written together with my executive editor, Cindy Harris)

Fuming against fumes

Several days ago as I approached the building I reside in, I heard the sound of a lawnmower. “The gardener is here,” I thought. As I got closer I smelled the cut grass, a pleasant aroma to me. But after a few breaths I was assaulted by the gas fumes from the leaf blower. To me this was the perfect example of the price society pays for making life more convenient. It might offend some readers if I say that when I see some runners on a busy thoroughfare inhaling the fumes of heavy traffic I am “fuming.” Think about trying to stay physically fit while jogging on a busy thoroughfare and inhaling fumes. I will spare you more examples, but by now I hope you got the message.

At MEMRI.ORG I recently saw the transcript of an interview with Khaled Al-Zaafrani, founder of the Egyptian Justice and Progress Party, that aired on HAFEZ-TV May 12, 2013. He blames the Jews for the First World War, the Second World War, and claims that Jews cannot live without instigating conflicts. This is poison in the air. It appears on television nearly a year after a democratic revolution that we called the “Arab Spring,” and is fed to masses who are not used to seeking out neutral sources of information. And it makes me fume.

Recent events have moved me from fuming to screaming. In Nigeria, a school was attacked by militants, a dormitory set afire with gasoline, and 29 children and a teacher trying to escape were either incinerated or shot to death. And their only sin was that their parents sought for them a Western education.

The children, the children! How can we forget the faces of the children in the refugee camps in Jordan, fleeing from their homes in Syria, torn apart from their families. I am speechless in the face of my helplessness, my inability to do anything about this. All this is done “for the benefit of the people” by a corrupt government, supported by world powers in the UN Security Council who cannot seem to unite to prevent a petty tyrant from causing such unspeakable misery.

The late Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the US House of Representatives, once said “We must remember that the veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are like guardians and we can never rest.”