Chevre, as promised I continue with my series of thoughts from our trip in Israel:
27 June, 2014 / 10:00
The Herzl Museum on Har Herzl, Jerusalem
The day before we went to the museum at Har Herzl, the museum hosted an event honoring distinguished female Zionists, including Julie Naschauer, Herzl’s wife.
I knew the story from an earlier visit. The museum presentation of Herzl’s work notes her contribution to his success. But it was only in reading the Jerusalem Post that one dimension of her actions struck home in a new way.
Hearing her story once again raised for me the perennial, spiritual question of individual sacrifice vs. communal welfare.
Ms. Naschauer did not believe in Zionism. Nevertheless, she financed Herzl’s work and the nascent Zionist movement – at ruinous cost. After Herzl himself died at the age of 44, she died a brief three years later, bankrupt, having spent her entire family fortune.
Between them, they left three orphans. His eldest daughter Pauline died a drug addict. His son, Hans, killed himself when he heard the news of his sister’s death; in the meantime, he had left Judaism for a series of Christian churches. Trude, the youngest, died in Theresienstadt during the war; her son, Stephen, who had been sent to safety, committed suicide when he learned of the death of his parents.
Eventually – and in only 44 years – Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state was realized. Yet his own family did not live to see it.
It is impossible to discern the whys and wherefores of his family’s demise and the relationship of that tragedy to the crusading work that virtually absented him from his family for the better part of ten years.
What do we give up when we commit ourselves to a larger good? Where is the tipping point between fulfilling a commitment to our fellow human beings and caring for our own family?
My friend, Arik has labored to ensure that civil rights flourish in Israel – and in the territories that Israel maintains under military occupation. Many is the time that Arik has put himself in danger in standing up for his principles; he has been beaten and put in jail. As members of our group quickly learned, he fights a battle that he cannot win – and has for many years. He must steel his resolve and draw sustenance from small victories because the large battles have not – cannot? – be won.
We met with Arik the day before the Herzl Museum to learn more about the dilemma facing Israel and the Palestinians. I wish that I had thought to ask him these questions. I am sure that he struggles with them continually.
Most of us, I am sure, come to the question from the other side of the issue. We commit most, or all, of our time to nurturing our families. But what about our obligation to the larger community? In loving our spouses, raising our children, strengthening our homes – have we left the rest of the world to “fend for itself”?
It is a tricky thing, this balance between altruism and taking care of ourselves. The story of Julie Naschauer – as do so many stories of the building of the state – serves to remind us of the difficult calculus with which we engage in trying to live a life both human and humane.
27 June, 2014 / 11:30
Yad Va-Shem, Jerusalem
As do most groups, we came to Yad Va-Shem this morning – to the museum that commemorates and teaches about the destruction of much of European Jewry during WWII.
The feelings created by the exhibits are complex and manifold. Outrage. Fear. Anger. Astonishment.
Beyond those there is always the sorrow.
I ask myself the question: what do we, can we, should we make of this crucial reality of our recent past? How do we respond – beyond “just” feeling the feelings?
Most surprising is that some have responded with humor. Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” ridiculed Hitler and Nazi Germany and somewhere, sometime, I remember Brooks commenting that humor was a kind of revenge for him. More sophisticated was the novel The Last Dance of Genghis Cohn, in which the dybbuk/soul of a murdered Jewish comedian takes up residence in the body of a German officer. The humor is very dark, presaging the suicide of its author, Romain Gary.
Others respond through art: painting, sculpture, literature. My cousin, Chuckie – as an artist, he goes by Yonatan – has created art that grows from his awareness of the Shoah; one of his paintings used to hang at Yad Va-Shem. The most haunting and painful poem I’ve ever read is “Deathfugue” by Paul Celan. At the same time, the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” It may mean other things within its original context, but people have used it to raise the question: can art in any way “address” the horrific elements of that time without being dishonest, disrespectful, incomplete, blasphemous?
Differently, Emil Fackenheim wrote that to abandon Jewish life would be to capitulate to the evil. He formulated what he called the 614th commandment: not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. His Zionism – eventually he moved to Israel to live – was an expression of that commitment.
Fackenheim hints at another kind of artwork: the construction of the self. Each of us is an artist, utilizing the elements of ourselves, our families, our communities and our histories to create the person that we want to be. That applies to the Jewish self as well as to any other aspect: having been born into a time and place in which Jewish identity is barely a “given”, in which we are free to come and go from Jewish life as we please, in which the old certainties are shaky and rarely lay claim to our souls – to live as a Jew in the modern period, for many of us, is to create one’s Jewish identity almost from scratch.
If that is so, then, the question is: what place does “the Shoah” have in the construction of my Jewish identity, my Jewish life?
Personally speaking, my Jewish identity at its core is separate from what I know and think and feel about the Holocaust. Put differently, the way in which I live my life as a Jew is almost entirely without regard for those thoughts and feelings. My sense of being a Jew in the world is not conditioned by them; my behavioral choices are not directed by them; my faith and commitments are not impinged upon by them.
Where I part with Fackenheim is here: if I were to live out my Jewish commitments despite – or to spite – Hitler, I would still be granting him a posthumous victory. I would still have given him a place of power in my life.
What do I make of the Holocaust in the construction of my Jewish life? Meant in a very specific way: very little. It is not that it is unimportant to me. It is. But it does not provide a starting point for the Jewish life that I have chosen to build. It is an important element in the story of my people’s life: no more, no less.
For me, to create a Jewish life that is rooted in any way in Hitler and the Nazi abomination would be to try to create something beautiful and positive and affirming out of something that is ugly and negative and destructive. Perhaps others can do that. I cannot. And I won’t grant the Nazi horror that kind of power over me.
Instead, I build my Jewish life on a rock instead of hell hole. I have found a faith and trust that, while not oblivious to the evil, is not built upon it, instead affirming the goodness and spirit that must counter the terror in each and every age.