Friday, February 1, 2008

The Anne Frank Rule

The Jewish Week 02/01/2008

In Shalom Auslander’s angry, narcissistic, yet shockingly brilliant memoir “Foreskin’s Lament,” he describes the horrible way his parents inflicted guilt as “going Holocaust” on him, as in “Do you know how many Jews died at the hands of the Nazis so you can keep kosher?” The Holocaust itself becomes a character in the narrative: “Mr. Holocaust,” he calls it, the bearer of eternal Jewish trauma. Auslander is numbed by the naked bodies in the newsreel footage he watches at school assemblies. He struggles with the horror even as he trivializes it, out-Rothing even Philip Roth in his cynical detachment.

Similarly, in the documentary “Kike Like Me,” recently broadcast on the Sundance channel, Jamie Kastner takes us on a sophomoric, self-indulgent road trip through the Jewish world, culminating with a visit to Auschwitz. It is an infuriating yet revealing window into the YouTube generation at its most cynical and most shallow. Borat meets Buchenwald. Kastner, like Auslander, is simply one lost young Jew trying to figure out how this big Holocaust piece fits into the rest of the puzzle known as Jewish identity. It’s a big piece, but it’s just another piece.

As we marked the 63rd anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation this week (Jan. 27), we approach an important threshold: The Holocaust has receded far enough into history to begin its assimilation into the larger Jewish story. This process is inevitable and for the most part beneficial. When we lose a loved one, the grief eventually gives way to “normalcy” — but not normalcy as it was before the person died. Instead, a new equilibrium forms, an altered worldview, in which the story of that departed relative becomes one with our own, imbuing our lives with added meaning.

The Holocaust is hardly typical, but it is noteworthy that prior tragedies in Jewish history eventually yielded rich new fruit. Seven decades after the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews returning from Babylonian exile brought with them the seeds of a vibrant new form of Judaism. Out of the ashes of the Second Temple’s destruction emerged a radically new rabbinic ethic. And, following the traumatic expulsion from Spain in 1492, it took about two generations for those refugees to begin finding new kabbalistic answers to their gut-wrenching questions.

Historians will argue the fine points here, but what is irrefutable is that the Holocaust is becoming in some manner normalized, especially among Jews born long after the liberation. I sympathize greatly with the survivors forced to swallow the shocking fruits of this new normalcy. One shudders at how they must respond to Auslander’s insolent prose or David Deutch’s humor, as quoted in Heeb Magazine, including “jokes” like “So I guess you don’t think the Holocaust is funny. But I gotta tell you, it killed them back in Poland.”

And we thought that the greatest danger to the memory of the Holocaust came from the anti-Semitic deniers! I ask the survivors to have patience, somehow, and to recognize that out of this rudeness will emerge, eventually, renewal.

On the other hand, while this generational seismic shift is taking place, it is clear that boundaries are needed to protect the martyrs from the shockmeisters. Just as the ancient rabbis believed in building a “fence around the Torah” to safeguard the commandments, so must we build a “fence around Auschwitz” to protect the memory of the slain. In a culture that revels in free expression to the point of unruliness, we need to establish some basic rules.

In my house, we have the Anne Frank Rule.

One night during a recent school vacation, my family was engaged in a stimulating round of “Apples to Apples” — that popular game where a rotating judge picks a descriptive card (like “refreshing,” or “feh!”) and other contestants select cards that they hope the judge will consider the best possible match (like “Passover” and “Alan Dershowitz”). Naturally, we were playing the Jewish version.

I’ve found this game to be a very helpful tool in navigating through the complex choices of Jewish identity. Echoing the randomness of such choices, “Apples” effortlessly shuttles us from lox to Leviticus and from Moses to Jackie Mason; from the sublime to the ridiculous. This reflects the same randomness experienced by Auslander, Kastner and their contemporaries, as they shuffle various pieces of the Jewish identity puzzle through their psychological playlists.
This particular game was one of our all-timers. It came down to the final hand, with my two teenagers and I each having a chance to win. With the game on the line, we doubled the stakes and pulled out two descriptive cards: “odd” and “offensive.”

Ethan and Dan played “Crown Heights,” “my bedroom,” “J-Date” and “Dennis Prager.” I suppose any of those could have been the best match. But I held the trump card in my hand. You see, I had just drawn “Anne Frank.”We have a little rule in my family, one suggested to us by a close friend. Whoever plays the “Anne Frank” card automatically wins that hand. No questions asked. The idea is that it would be offensive to Anne’s memory, and by extension, all Holocaust victims, for Anne to lose to, say, “Joan Rivers” or “potato kugel.”

But here, the exact opposite would be occurring. Anne would win for matching “odd” and “offensive.” How could we shame her in this way?

I succumbed to that logic and pulled back the card. I lost the battle but won the war, as my family then engaged in a dialogue about how, just as Anne’s is no normal card, the Holocaust is not just any old piece of the Jewish identity puzzle.

This Golden Age of global free expression is busting boundaries and demolishing dictatorships everywhere. But in our yearning to infiltrate the Great Wall, let’s remember to preserve that fence around Auschwitz. As the Shoah recedes into history, let it never recede into normalcy.

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