Thursday, April 23, 2009

Yom Haatzmaut Dayeinu

Just Glad to Be Living in Israel Living most of my life in the United States, I knew Israel’s independence was not something to take for granted, and indeed to be celebrated at every opportunity. Nevertheless, with the pace of life there not focused on Israeli holidays, the ability to celebrate and commemorate Israel’s independence sometimes conflicted with business meetings, kids’ activities and other day to day challenges. I remember my rabbi imploring us to attend annual community-wide Yom Haatzmaut celebrations, but also remember that even in the community in which I lived – one rich in opportunities to live a full Jewish life – the attendance at these events struck me as being far too low for a community of its size and commitment. Since making aliyah, I have seen something new. Even with all the differences within Israeli society, the fear that we are in a post-Zionist era, and the challenges of life in Israel, celebrating Israel’s independence is done with a sense of pride, joy and such a level of spirit. It is truly inspiring. Beginning with Passover, and leading up to Yom Haatzmaut, Israel decks itself out in blue and white. Highways are lined with flags. Kites fly bearing the blue and white. Small flags fit with a plastic clip for your car are sold at major intersections. Last year I adorned my car with 60 to the delight of many passers-by. It will be 61 this year, of course. Newspaper ads become patriotic and use blue and white regularly, and the weekend papers have free inserts of Israeli flags. The Yom Haatzmaut celebration in my new community is emotional. The past two years my wife and I have left with a lump in our throats from the feelings of pride and awe at being able to live in Israel, to raise our children here, and to build for the future. Fireworks are seen throughout the country, just as on July 4th in the US. Other than religious holidays when work is prohibited, Yom Haatzmaut may be the only day that no newspapers are printed. Family celebrations are varied, but many involve finding a patch of grass somewhere and setting up a portable barbecue to picnic into the night. We add Hallel to our prayers offering God special thanks for this milestone. But based on living most of my life in the Diaspora where it was often a challenge to carve out time to acknowledge, much less actually celebrate the holiday, it strikes me that there are no formal rituals associated with celebrating Israel’s independence. So I started wondering, what could be done after six decades to mark Israel’s independence in a way that is perhaps more universal, and even to facilitate a five minute pause in the life of someone overseas who wants to celebrate Israel’s independence, but for whom the pace of life is more about the daily grind rather than the festive nature we have in Israel. Thinking about the meaning of what we are celebrating, the message I hope my children will take with them forever, I realized that though the words of Hallel are meaningful, perhaps we needed something more contemporary. Building on an element of the Passover Seder, I came up with “Yom Haatzmaut Dayeinu.”
IF God had only given us Herzl’s will to dream, and not given us the Zionist Congresses, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only given us the Zionist Congresses and not given us the 1917 Balfour Declaration affirming the reestablishment of a Jewish home in the Land of Israel, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only given us the Balfour Declaration and not created the spark for early waves of aliyah to dry the swamps, irrigate the Land and build our country, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only given us the spark to ignite waves of early aliyah to build our country and not taken us out of the ashes of the Holocaust, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only taken us out of the ashes of the Holocaust and not continued the ingathering of the exiles from the four corners of the earth, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only continued the ingathering of the exiles and not given us the 1947 UN Partition Vote to create the State of Israel, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only given us the 1947 UN Partition Vote and not enabled our victory in the War of Independence and our Declaration of Independence, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only enabled our victory to establish and declare independence, and not restored Jewish sovereignty to the Land for the first time in 2000 years, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only restored Jewish sovereignty to the Land and not built us a thriving democracy, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only built our democracy and not helped us overcome our enemies’ attempts to destroy us in 1956, 1967, 1970, 1973, 1982, 2006 and even today, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only helped us overcome our enemies’ attempts to destroy us and not returned the Jews of Ethiopia to their homeland, rescuing black Africans from slavery in Africa to freedom, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only returned the Jews of Ethiopia to their homeland and not enabled the aliyah of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only enabled the aliyah of Soviet Jews and not reunified our Holy City, Jerusalem, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. . IF God had reunified Jerusalem and not made Israel a world leader in medical, biotech and high tech fields – a modern light unto the nations - it would have been enough. Dayeinu. IF God had only made Israel a world leader in technology, and not continued to bless Israel with His promise to build Jewish life for eternity, it would have been enough. Dayeinu. So let us pause on this special day to remember these and many other miracles that God has done for Israel, and that we magnify every day just by living as Jews in our homeland. Dayeinu.
Happy Independence Day Israel. Chag sameach.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Because of Schindler’s List

Dreizel and Shalom Yaakov Birnbach
Sitting in the second row at Israel’s national Yom Hashoah ceremony thanks to good friends, my mind wandered to things and places far away as I absorbed the powerful speeches, stories and performances before me. More than ever, the juxtaposition of this being both a personal and national tragedy was clear. And even though I have watched this ceremony on TV before, I reflected on how we commemorate this tragedy today and in the future. The theme of the program was especially powerful, “Children in the Holocaust.” Survivors’ whose stories were depicted were children during the Holocaust. Musical performances were both about, and by, children. Speakers referred to the 1.5 million children whose lives, and hopes and futures, were brutally cut short. The loss was made particularly relevant this week with projections that had the Holocaust not happened, the world’s Jewish population would number 35 million, three times what it is today. And while the stories of specific survivors were replete with personal horrors and grief, that they have each rebuilt their lives and raised families of their own offered hope for the future in spite of the suffering of the past. Without a doubt, we must mourn for our losses, individually and nationally. But to only mourn perpetuates defeat and victimhood. In an age when the number of living Holocaust survivors is dwindling, we must learn and teach from the past, and build for the future. By continuing to live and thrive, by magnifying Jewish life in every facet, we not only honor the memory of the six million murdered that their death was not in vain, but we also make sure that our very flourishing is a perpetual victory over those who tried to destroy us in the past, and a notice for those who would think of doing so again. Memorializing the six million is both a mission and obligation. We must consider not just the absolute losses, but the lives and stories of all the survivors and victims. We must consider the sacrifices of others in the past that made the present possible, for each of us as individuals, and for us as a people. And, especially in an era that provides platforms for those who deny that the Holocaust even happened, as a lesson to the world. On a personal level, my great grandparents were ones who made such a sacrifice.
Star of the Efrat (and Kanczuga) soccer team
As the Nazis rounded up my family in Kanczuga, Poland, all the shtetl’s Jews were being taken away to be murdered. My great grandmother, Dreizel, my great grandfather, Shalom Yaakov, their children, grandchildren and neighbors were among those being led to their death. Benny Shanzer, a teen at the time who was already an old man by the time I met him, told me how on that very day, my great grandmother saved his life. As they were being rounded up, she looked at him and said, simply, “You’re too young.” He understood and escaped, owing his life to the caring of a woman who would be murdered along with her family within hours of his escape. As much as she exhibited caring for Benny, I have no doubt that even until the last moment, they comforted their children with all the unconditional love that they exhibited throughout their lives. Lives cut short by the barrel of a Nazi gun. My great grandparents were also selfless parents in a way that nobody I know can ever imagine. They exhibited painful selflessness in the decade preceding their murder by sending four of their children away – to America and to Palestine - without knowing if they’d ever see them again. My great grandparents did this to protect their children, to give them opportunities, to give them a future. In doing so, they not only saved their children’s lives and enabled me to be born, but through them and their actions, they made it possible that we would have the privilege of living here today. As I sat at the Yad Vashem ceremony, it was clear that my great grandparents probably could have never imagined the life I’d be able to lead in Israel today, 75 years after they sent my grandmother, their daughter, to settle in Haifa. But whether they could or not, if they could see us now, they would be very proud. Others, like my relatives, made similar personal sacrifices, and there are thousands of stories of Righteous Gentiles who also sacrificed and put themselves at personal risk to save Jews, sometimes neighbors and sometimes total strangers. Among the most famous of these was Oskar Schindler whose story was captured in the award winning film, Schindler’s List. Many say the greatest victory over the Nazis is that Jewish life continues to flourish. A neighbor’s father, a survivor, celebrates Pesach each year with extra gusto, and his entire extended family at his side, as his victory over evil. Others speak of other occasions, holidays and lifecycle events in a similar way. Each one, another victory in the battle of the ongoing war against anti-Semitism. Yet sitting at Israel’s national Yom Hashoah ceremony, surrounded by Israel’s religious, civic, military and political leaders, by survivors, and even people like myself born after the Holocaust, something different came to mind. I sat near the world’s diplomats. For many of them it was their first substantial exposure to the Holocaust. The stories they heard, the ethical questions that must have been raised, were profound. How would they have responded then, indeed, how do they respond now to threats and rhetoric that is every bit as criminal and genocidal.
A special list - the Efrat soccer team
Oskar Schindler had his list of 1100. As Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) said in the film, “The list is an absolute good. The list is life.” Yet my mind wandered to another place, another list, surrounded by fewer dignitaries, but no less significant. Eichen Elkin Feldstein Goldberg Goodman Levy Revivi Shefler Taragin Zeligman Zivotofsky My ten year old son was privileged to be picked to be on our town’s 3rd and 4th grade soccer team, playing other third and fourth grade teams from throughout and around Jerusalem. It’s a big deal to him, an enormous point of pride to us, his family, and is as fun to watch as it is competitive and educational. But as I sat at the national Israeli ceremony commemorating the six million martyrs, I couldn’t help but think that this list of 9 and 10 year old boys is every much about life as Oskar Schindler’s list. In many cases, this list would not be possible without the bravery and sacrifices of those who came before us. And after all, what better representation could there be of the survival and flourishing of Jewish life, more than six decades after the Holocaust, than dozens of boys running all over soccer fields in and around Jerusalem, cheering one another on in Hebrew. I think that my great grandparents would have an extra measure of pride in seeing their great-great-grandson running up and down a soccer field in Jerusalem, and leaping to stop a goal in Gush Etzion. I think, if they could, they’d join me every week sitting in the front row at the game to see our future before their eyes, or at least in the second row, as I did this week, remembering their lives and sacrifices that made our life here possible.