There is a point in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America when a flaming Alef flies across the stage, seen only by a character who is very sick with AIDS. As hallucinations go, this would have to be one of my favorites; if I was ever going mad, I believe the only thing that might possibly bring me back could be the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The letters were also prominent in the prayer books at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, when I stood at the doorway with a man who told me his parents had been victims of the Holocaust, and standing in the shul gave him, he said, “a certain satisfaction.”
As far as I know, I did not lose relatives during the Holocaust. Both my parents’ parents had landed at Ellis Island in the latter part of the 19th century; other relatives moved to Haifa from Italy, and from what I can tell, most everyone was either in America or Israel by the time the genocide started. I first heard of it as a second grader when my day-school teacher, perhaps tired of our seven-year-old antics, began telling us how she and her sisters were put into camps as children. I was astonished, barely apprehending what she was saying, but I do remember her telling us that she and her sisters ate soup made from grass, and how her voice cracked as she spoke.
In the years since, I have seen some of the most unbearable images captured during the Shoah, and through media images, watched people in Rwanda, Darfur and Yugoslavia, among others, become victims of horrific genocides as well. I have never been able to shake the fear and misery that these memories left behind. My strongest reaction, though, is always anger; it doesn’t even get close to sorry or sad. My anger can find no outlet, as the people perpetrating atrocities are not in my sights and I can’t get rid of them; so the anger stays coiled inside me, fermenting patiently with no way to diminish or change.
I didn’t want to teach my son Josh about the Holocaust. I knew he would hear about it in school, as I had; and my own parents never mentioned it to me until I came home from school the day my teacher shared her story. Some things, perhaps, can be shared by almost anyone but a parent and a child. Whether it was fear or overprotectiveness I can’t really say, but in the end I think my anger had grown so large that I couldn’t figure out how to communicate it in ways a young child would understand.
When I did think of talking about it with my son, I thought of the picture I had seen in a book of a boy, about seven or eight, with his hands upraised while presumably, Nazi soldiers are pointing guns at him. He is pale, thin, staring at something just beyond the camera’s range with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen. I think of flying at the soldiers with a knife, knowing at the same time I would likely have been shot as well.
I don’t want Josh to see this picture. I don’t want him to see any pictures of anyone being terrorized or slaughtered, or to ask me what they mean. I have no choice in this, I realize, and sooner or later he will see something and ask me, why? And I will have no answer, knowing anything I say can never really explain the darkness that shadows all of us like a plague.
I need something, I think, on the other side of the Shoah, some way to bring the light back into his eyes after he hears about the six million, but where to begin? While the media, books, films and plays tell numerous stories about the Holocaust, there are barely any about Shabbat or other Jewish subjects or holidays. At least it seems so in comparison to what we see on the Shoah, which I still don’t understand. Because if there’s one way to fight back, at least from the vantage point we have now, wouldn’t it be through those flaming Alefs flying like arrows around onstage?
The Nazis did their best to destroy all evidence of Jewish culture, yet it trickled out. Anne Frank’s diary, Hebrew prayer books, Shabbat candelabra, ceremonial objects, customs, foods, holidays. These are the things I can give my son, reciting the alphabet in the car as we sing it together when he begins Hebrew school; sending him little notes in Hebrew with his lunch; lighting candles on Friday evening and teaching him the blessings of Havdallah as he reaches his face up to smell the ritual spice.
Our books, our prayers, our songs and dances, language, music, holidays.
I want my son to remember our holidays.
Not just the big ones like New Year’s and Hanukkah and Passover, but the lesser known as well; Shavuot and Sukkot and Tu B’Shvat. I want him to see a flaming Alef lighting the sky above us when he dreams at night; and bite into a fig inside a Sukkah before he goes to school in the morning. I could not save our people but I can maybe save a little morsel of who we are and what we have now, and he can save it too. It may not be a lot, but it is something, and right now it is all I have.
So when my son comes home and asks me about the Holocaust, I will, I think, listen and talk and try to explain; but I can also take him out to Cecil’s Deli and buy some Challah for the weekend, and teach him the blessings we say as we light the candles to welcome Shabbat. These and our love for each other are eternal, and cannot disappear into ashes no matter what happens. The alef-bet will bring us back.
Photo by Danas paris
Filed Under: Being Jewish