Holocaust Remembrance Day, Maus, and Growing Antisemitism

I was outraged by the juxtaposition of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the book Maus being banned, and a special national security training for synagogues. I had, in fact, just submitted a post to Medscape, which will be published on 2/1. Friday’s Shabbat evening service carried this resonant, moving sermon by Rabbi Jack Paskoff. He kindly is allowing me to post it here.

So yesterday was kind of a strange day for me. Not for me personally but for me in terms of looking at Jewish life, looking at history, contemplating current events. Earlier, I guess towards the end of last week, I received an email from Congressman Smucker’s office and he wanted to know if I wanted to be able to watch the ceremony from the United Nations yesterday, marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Truth be told, I’m a little resentful or more than a little resentful of the United Nations for, about 10 years ago, deciding that they wanted to remember the Holocaust, but not doing it on the day that Jews around the world have been doing it since the end of the Holocaust and since Israel was established. We’ll get our day on Yom HaShoah in April and I couldn’t understand why, if it was so recent in picking a day, why couldn’t they embrace that same day?

I was not sitting with Congressman Smucker to watch. He was watching on his link; I was watching on mine. And honestly, for the most part, it was filled with the perfunctory “Never agains.”

The Mourner’s Kaddish, the “El Malei Rachamim,” all in appropriate, somber tones, of course, chanted by men, because the United Nations would never want to offend the Orthodox by having a woman sing our prayers.

There was one speaker who caught my attention in a slightly different way.

His name Elisha Wiesel, the son of Nobel laureate Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, a prolific writer and prophetic voice.

His son stood up. Of course, he remembered. But then he said, but let’s keep one more thing in mind.

He said, in just about a week, people from all over the world are going to travel to China to compete in the Winter Olympic Games. And he wondered to himself, why we would bestow such an honor on a country that’s notorious for its human rights violations. It was a fair question. It got me thinking. Now let’s go back in time a little bit. Let’s go back to the very early 1980s Maybe was the late 1970s. They wrote a curriculum that was pioneering in its day called Facing History and Ourselves. And to me, the most important part of that was the facing ourselves part. We can look at Nazi Germany. We can look at the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide. We can look at Rwanda and Somalia, we can look at Bosnia. But when do we turn and look at ourselves?

The timing was ironic. I don’t know when the decision was actually made versus when it was reported. But this week, we learned that the banning of a book, of a text at a Tennessee School District, the book ‘Maus.’ Among other concerns for this book that had been used for years of eighth grade was that it portrayed nudity. Now you have to understand, if you watch, if you look at the panels in this graphic novel, the only characters are cats and mice. And if we’re worried about nudity, what’s going to happen here in Lancaster County and Manheim Township when the Manheim Township Middle School in eighth grade teaches the book ‘Night,’ and they talk about the prisoners being taken to the camps and being forced to disrobe. Is that going to be depicting nudity as well?

And let’s add one more dimension to the irony of that timing. Because this past week marked the 80th anniversary at the Wannsee conference, It’s an event during the Holocaust that most people have never heard of. But it was actually at Wannsee that Hitler made known and plans were put in place for what would come to be known as the Final Solution. But, the United Nations was remembering. The theme of the day innocuous enough memory, dignity and justice. And I sat and I listened. On one hand leaders of the world are saying, ‘Never again.’ And on the other hand, in synagogues across the country and around the world, people are preparing for next time. I can’t tell you how many people since Texas two weeks ago, when asked for their responses have said sad, frightened, but not surprised. It’s tragic have to say ‘Not surprised.’ I was visiting my sons in New York City last week and we were talking about the Texas hostage situation and talking about security in synagogues. And my son had read the articles and seeing the stories about the rabbi in the synagogue in Colleyville picking up a chair and throwing it at the perpetrator. My sons, who grew up in this room, looked at me and said, “Dad, you can’t pick up one of those chairs to throw it.” For years, I told people–and I truly believed– that the age of violent antisemitism at least in this country was over. I anticipated fully that there will continue to be glass ceilings and comments and proselytizing. I never imagined that in this country, we would be preparing for physical assaults and attacks in the way we are now. In the way we’ve seen since Pittsburgh and Poway and Jersey City, and too many other places. Sometimes it hides behind a mask. It hides behind the mask of anti-Zionism. We don’t hate Jews, we just don’t like Israel. We can debate Israeli policy all you want. But when that results in people running through Jewish neighborhoods, waving Palestinian flags, and saying death to the Jews, they’re not saying death to Israel.

This is our reality.

(addressing Toby, who was celebrating his Bar Mitzvah) I’ve known Toby since he was little, and I often asked him about Boy Scouts. And we’ll talk a little bit more about that tomorrow morning. Or I’ll talk; you’ll listen. Just nod my direction once in a while so I know that you’re still breathing. But we’ll talk about the Scout Motto of ‘be prepared.’ And that’s all we can hope for.

Everyone knows– many people know– that I am a firm believer in seeking what in Hebrew and Aramaic, we call them the Nechemta.

We’re taught that we are never to end the reading or a period of study. on a negative note.

We always have to find the Nechemta, the Nechama, from the word Nachum, the Prophet. We’re supposed to find something to bring us a little bit of comfort. And where do we find that? It’s not easy. And yet we look.

As a college student, I took a course in the Holocaust at Brandeis University. It was the class that had one of the highest enrollments of any class in the school it was taught by Rabbi Leon Jick, a reformed rabbi and social activist. And there was a lecture during the class on resistance. Resistance during the Holocaust and I wanted to be there and desperately talk about the Mordechai Anielewicz’ of the world. The leader of the Warsaw Ghetto armed uprising, and he did. Jick talked about it, about escape attempts ghettos, and concentration camps, about armed uprisings about Anielewicz sitting in Warsaw after the first night of the revolt against the Nazis, having pushed the Nazis out of the ghetto for the day, with just a handful of weapons and a lot of determination. Anielewicz was no fool. He knew they’d be back. But that night, on the eve of Pesach, the eve of Passover, Anielewicz said, “I have finally lived to see the day I prayed for. The day when the Jews fight back.” And I wanted to cheer the Anielewiczes but Jick didn’t stop there. People were starving to death. Illness was rampant. People were overworked and starving and they gathered to maintain their humanity. It’s a different kind of courage than to stand up and take up arms against the far superior enemy. That’s my Nechemta. Jews have always fought for our own humanity and for the humanity of others.

There’s an interesting passage, an interesting verse In this week’s Torah portion. It says if your enemy’s beast of burden falls down, you have to help raise the animal up. This is my enemy! Why would I want to help him? This is the humanity that we need to hold on to. We support those in need. We raise up the dignity the honor, the glory of humanity. We remember always that every single human being according to the Talmud is constantly accompanied by a myriad of angels. And those angels go out before us and they say,  ‘make way for the image of God.’ The Talmud does not say that those angels accompany Jews and only to Jews. That’s my Nehemta, to remember, to honor, to uphold Tzelem Elohim, the image of God in each and every one of us. I posted on Facebook yesterday about this Global Day of Remembrance declared by the United Nations and I said that it’s reached the point in the rise of antisemitism and hatred, where it’s no longer enough to just remember where we need to do more. And one of our congregants responded with the refrain that I typically conclude my Friday night remarks with Alenu. It’s up to us to live this life. To maintain the dignity, to honor the memories, and to fight for humanity, even in the darkest days. Alenu. It’s all up to us.

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