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Burying the Shoah

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Remembering, gashing and healing

When performing a burial service, I always encourage the family to come and wash hands with me after leaving the grave site. Washing hands could be seen as an option or an afterthought, but it is an essential part of the ceremony, even when it’s minus 30 and all we want to do is rush back to our cars and leave. Like the walls around cemeteries, the washing of hands has a reason: we don’t carry death with us or allow the world of the living and the world of the dead to mingle.

I’ve been writing a version of this article, my thoughts about the ways we remember the Shoah (the Holocaust), and its place in our lives as a nation, on and off for more than a decade. While still a student at HUC-JIR, I was asked to write a D’var Torah for “Kedoshim” (Leviticus) [1]. One understanding crystallized for me when I focused on the verse

וְשֶׂ֣רֶט לָנֶ֗פֶשׁ לֹ֤א תִתְּנוּ֙ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וּכְתֹ֣בֶת קַֽעֲקַ֔ע לֹ֥א תִתְּנ֖וּ בָּכֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃ (ויקרא י"ט 28)

You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:28)

The imagery of gashing our flesh for the dead was extremely powerful in my mind. It got me thinking about how mourners still do that metaphorically today – self starvation, falling into alcoholism or drug abuse, and all the many other ways of dealing with emotional pain. I began asking myself if this injunction could also be communal – do communities “gash their flesh” for the dead? This led me to think about the ways our nation has been dealing with the memory of the Shoah and whether our practices of mourning are beneficial or harmful to our process of healing.

When approaching this subject, I think we should ask ourselves:

  1. What is the purpose of mourning in the Jewish tradition, that is, what is the intended emotional and spiritual outcome?

  2. Are the common practices relating to the memory of Shoah aiding in healing?

  3. How can we, as a nation, perform deliberate acts of healing from Shoah, and why is it important that we do so?

Before going any further, I’ll do that obligatory Jewish act of quoting from the Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jews:

What does being Jewish mean in America today? Large majorities of U.S. Jews say that remembering the Holocaust (73%) and leading an ethical life (69%) are essential to their sense of Jewishness.[2]

Notice, please, the wording: “remembering the Holocaust…[is] essential to their sense of Jewishness.” Not only the memory of the Holocaust, but the (active) act of remembering it is an “essential” part of their Jewish identity, irrespective of affiliation, and not much influenced by age group or gender.[3] What bothers me here is not only the centrality of the Shoah’s memory in Jewish identity (understandable only a few generations from the catastrophe), but the fact that more energy is spent on the act of remembering than to the act of healing. More than Jewish culture, ethics, sense of community or even language – the act of remembering death is the focal point of our identity.

Avinoam Patt, in his essay on literary memorials to the Shoah, asks a good question in direct relation to the above finding, “how do we remember something we never personally experienced?” [4]. How indeed? And for myself, more to the point, what sort of memory is this, and why are we remembering? I would like to suggest here that as a nation, we haven’t properly mourned the Shoah but instead have been re-living it generation after generation. As a nation (I will not speak to individual, or even individual-community experience) we have not yet moved from the open grave site, metaphorically speaking, and are stuck looking down into the horror without the ability to truly turn away, cleanse, and go into mourning.

Traditionally, we build a strong wall between the worlds – one for the dead and one for us, and we forbid the worlds to meet. Indeed, we keep them apart by strong ritual, allowing only names and memories to remain. We have not performed these ancient Jewish rituals after the Shoah/Holocaust and the destruction of multitudes of diaspora communities. Understandably, the shock of it all forced us to wait a few generations before re-joining the land of the living. Now, we must purify our nation of the impurity of death, cleanse our spaces of death, and allow life to re-enter, or there will be no room for us to live.

Immersion in death is forbidden

Last year, on the eve of Yom Ha’Shoah, I decided to try a different way of commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day, which I would like to share. The ceremony I built is modeled on a few traditional Jewish burial rituals, in order to perform with my whole self the separation from a horror that took place long ago, when my deceased grandparents were still young. We are standing at a critical moment when almost all the survivors have passed away and must now decide on whether we choose life or death. This choice is not easy, since our focus up until now in commemorating Shoah has been on death. Many of the rituals we have developed immerse us in death, beginning with the focus on (graphic/ pornographic) details of torture, pain and suffering and ending with the “March of the Living.” Why are we revisiting and forcing new generations of Jews into the land of the dead? Why are we doing it, not only to our minds but to our bodies? As a teenager I absolutely refused to even entertain the thought of visiting the death camps – Jews do not mix with the dead, especially not Jews who want to maintain the sanctity of life. Therefore, we need to create rituals of separation from death and the dead, rituals that allow us to remember the Shoah, but also start on the path towards healing from it. Jewish burial and mourning rituals know how to do just that.

A ritual for burying and mourning the Shoah

On the eve of the day, a few people from my congregation and myself gathered around a burning fire. The fire held heavy symbolism here, but also had a practical side in that Canada is still cold at this time of year. I wanted us to be outside because we bury outside, and I wanted us to notice the world as it is, without hiding from it.

We began with קריעה (K’riah), each ripping our shirt as a mourner would do at the moment of death or at the beginning of a funeral. We did this silently and with a lot of kavanah, thinking of all that had been torn apart. This act made it clear to us that we are the mourners, not those who were murdered, and I cannot stress the distinction enough. Part of what has to change is the idea that we approach Shoah in an everlasting present tense and allow our identity as Jews and sense of direction in the world to run to and from the death camps. When we were talking after the ceremony, my husband mentioned Pesach, and the injunction to imagine each of us as being there. Specifically, we are asked : בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, “In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he left Egypt” (Mishnah Pesachim 10.5). Could this be an example that in order to maintain memory of a traumatic event, we are called to revisit it every year? But as we were going over this ritual practice, we noticed two things that indicated differently. First, the word “כאילו”, “as though” is reminding us that we were not actually there but are rather removed from the events. We don’t imagine ourselves leaving Egypt, and slavery and death, but rather “as if” we were the ones. This removal is important to our state of mind. But deeper than that is the fact that we are asked to remember leaving Egypt, not our time there. For the last few thousand years, our yearly ritual of spring, of freedom, of life hinges on our memory of leaving the place of death. Not on revisiting death. Of course our Passover Haggadah includes references to the atrocities of slavery and the suffering of our ancestors, but that isn’t the focus. The focus of our memory is leaving that place. The focus is on life and not on death.

Our ceremony reminded us that the Shoah is in our past, the murdered are in the land of the dead and we ourselves are their mourners in the land of the living. Therefore, by marking ourselves as mourners by doing קריעה, we reminded ourselves that we belong to life. After K’riah we each took a stone and placed it in a small heap, creating a memorial mound, much like we do at the end of a burial to symbolise our commitment to remembering the dead. Since this was a symbolic way of building the memory we want to pass on, we each said aloud a word or short meditation that held important aspects of the Shoah we should remember, if our nation is to come back to life. Then we recited Kaddish.

After Kaddish, and when people felt ready to go inside, we performed a ritual hand washing to cleanse ourselves from the touch of death, much like when leaving a cemetery. Then we lit a yahrzeit candle, and sat around for another hour together, drinking sage tea, eating round foods and talking. Some shared stories of their families, others shared thoughts on Jewish identity and belonging. Much like we do for Pesach, we thought about all we want our children to learn from this, and all we would rather they forget. We spoke about the Shiv’ah (seven-day mourning period), which maps perfectly to the seven days of mourning between Yom Ha’Shoah and Yom HaZikaron (the Israeli memorial day for fallen soldiers), and of the deep symbolic value that has for some of us. After this, how do we rise to celebrate Yom HaAtzma-ut (Israeli Independence Day)? One of the most troubling things I see in our Jewish and Israeli culture today is a rhetoric that places ourselves and the victims of Shoah on the same plane. Antisemitism is alive in our world, and so are many other horrific forms of racism and human violence against humans, other life forms, and against the Earth itself. However, to join in the work of healing the world, we must first cleanse ourselves of טומאת מוות (Tumat Mavet), the impurity of death.

For future generations

When we tried to imagine what Holocaust Memorial Day might look like in future generations, it came to us that it should be a day of actively separating ourselves from death and planting ourselves in life. We want to remember what happened and teach it to our children, but not on this day – much like the Seder ceremony doesn’t traditionally contain all the horrors of slavery (only a few of them). Midrash keeps those for other times, but on that one evening, we focus on recounting our leaving Egypt and our birth as a nation.

We have a strong obligation to our future generations and ourselves to record and remember the Shoah as part of our Jewish history. The other side of this obligation is to stop doing pilgrimage to temples of Death where we sacrifice our children, our culture and ourselves. I am leaving the land of the dead where it should be and focusing instead on the Tree of Life. I am dedicating myself to life, it is one of our gifts to the world.

Update: Check out this VR Immersion proposal for Babi Yar mass murder site. A new development of immersion in death fantasy. This is Tum'ah.

[1] You can find it (in Heb.) in the book

דרישת שלום: דרשות לפרשות התורה של רבות ורבני התנועה הרפורמית בישראל. עורכות: תמר דבדבני/אלונה ליסיצה. הקיבוץ המאוחד/ התנועה הרפורמית, תל אביב 2018. עמ' 228-229.

[2] A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Overview Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, Oct. 1, 2013, p. 14

[3] You can find a more detailed breakdown of these findings in the full report: “A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews.” Oct. 1, 2013, p. 57

[4] Avinoam Patt, A visible Bridge: contemporary Jewish fiction and Literary memorials to the Shoah. In Third-Generation Holocaust narratives: Memory in memoir and fiction. Ed. Victoria Aarons. Lexington Books, London, 2016, p. 43

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