Sunday, March 30, 2008

Link the Holocaust with Tisha b'Av

The Jewish Week, July 2001

Every year as Tisha b’Av rolls around, a natural question arises: If this fast day is meant to commemorate a litany of horrendous tragedies to befall the Jewish people, why not include the Holocaust?

There are a number of valid reasons to segregate the two.

As tragic as these other events are, the Holocaust stands alone regarding the nature of the evil, the scale of its destruction and our proximity to it.

Also, the focus of Tisha b’Av traditionally has been to blame the victim, the assumption being that we sealed our catastrophic destiny through some fault of our own, ranging from idolatry in the case of the first Temple’s downfall to causeless hatred in the case of the second. It would be unthinkable to assign blame in such a manner to the victims of the Shoah, what with the guilty parties so clearly known and the memory of their crimes still so fresh.

Finally, while the ancient prophets and sages were most concerned with reconciling the relationship between a sinning Israel and her God, many moderns have a greater problem with God’s role in the Holocaust than with Israel’s. So Tisha b’Av and the Holocaust would appear to be mutually incompatible.

Or so I thought, until a suspicious package arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, reminding me of that which unites all of our tragedies, ancient and modern, and all of us.

It was crudely wrapped in cardboard, about the size of a book. There was no return address and a very faint postmark. The address label appeared to have been typed on a very old, pre-electric typewriter. My suspicions were aroused further by the fact that the item was addressed to no particular person in the office, just to “Temple Beth El.”

With little hesitation, my secretary and I decided to call the police; they in turn summoned the bomb squad.

For the next two hours, the hallway of my synagogue became yet another emblem of our eternally tragic experience, like any street corner in Afula, bus stop in Tel Aviv, tunnel near Efrat, Jewish restaurant in Paris or synagogue in Vienna. All have been marked by the scent of destruction; all bear the smell of fear, the imprint of the bomb squad, the ineradicable mark of Tisha b’Av.

The specialists cordoned off the area, then carefully X-rayed the package. It turned out to be a book from the synagogue library, an old, yellowing novel written 35 years ago. Most likely a congregant cleaning out the basement discovered it, and not wanting to risk embarrassment, returned it by mail to the synagogue as anonymously as possible.

There’s more. The book is titled “Night Falls in the City,” by Sarah Gainham. Set in Vienna during World War II, it tells of a world crashing down around the protagonist, a Jew living at the center of Europe’s “ancient crucible of an ordered and cultured society.” “With incredible vividness of detail,” says a blurb on the cover, the author “manages to create an atmosphere of hate, vengeance and fear,” demonstrating “profound insight into … the weakness, heroism, and capacity for self-deception of all human beings.”

Sarah Gainham is one talented author. Not only did she create such an atmosphere in her book, but she was able to stir up the same fear and self-deception in my co-workers and me before we even had a chance to open it.

The incident reminded me that there is a fine line between legitimate caution and irrational fear, the type of knee-jerk trepidation that has convinced so many to cancel trips to Israel this year. For although the dangers are real, the dread has been disproportionate, just as mine was regarding the package. We’ve been pushing the panic button far too quickly of late.

The Columbia Encyclopedia defines paranoia as “a term denoting persistent, unalterable, systematized, logically reasoned delusions … usually of persecution or grandeur. In the former case the paranoiac creates a complex delusional system that purports to show that people want to hurt him; in the latter, he sees himself as an exalted person with a mission of great importance.”

Incredibly, we Jews fit the definition both ways: We’ve got the persecution complex and the delusions of grandeur. One could easily argue that if ever a nation has earned the right to be afraid of its shadow, it’s us. People really do want to hurt us. Our Temple was destroyed, twice. We were evicted from almost every country in Europe and butchered in the ones that let us stay. One-third of our people were indeed destroyed a generation ago. Our extended hand of peace has been rejected emphatically by human bombs. All the tragedies of our past, including the Holocaust, appear to be linked in delivering the resounding message that there is no one and nothing left to trust.

And that is precisely why we need to link Tisha b’Av and Yom HaShoah.

The issue is no longer who’s to blame and how could we have avoided these disasters. It’s now a matter of how can we live on in spite of them. That eternal Jewish quest to rebuild hope among the embers is harmed greatly by the assumption that enemies lurk around every corner and that every terrorist’s bullet is aimed directly at me.

As Isaac Mayer Wise wrote a hundred years before Auschwitz, “God gives us a thousand joys for each affliction, a thousand smiles for each tear.” Although that number would have to be amended substantially downward after the Holocaust, nonetheless, we who have lived Gainham’s novel and seen night fall in the city so many times — we who put the “oy” in paranoia — have got to overcome our fear of the dark.

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