A New Meaning To Zachor
Yom Hashoah has been painful every year that I have observed it.
The first experience I remember was when my Oma, my grandmother, spoke in public for the first time about being a survivor of the Holocaust. We were at a commemoration event at the shul where my father was the Rabbi. I stood on the bima with my mother and my grandmother, and we lit yahrzeit candles in front of the congregation. I recall it being the first time that I came to realize how my family’s story of survival and trauma affected me, and my place in the national story that we are still telling today.
“Zachor.” That was very last word I remember my Opa, my grandfather, saying to me on his deathbed. He begged me to remember. With tears in his bright blue eyes, he told me to never forget what had happened to our people during the Shoah. In many conversations over the years, he taught me that the devastation of the Holocaust comes after a long line of national tragedies. That the Jewish people were no strangers to calamity. He was so appreciative of the fact that I was being raised in a peaceful time and yet he assured me, that even though life as a Jew has an inherent risk, it also has many manifold blessings.
After my Oma died, I recall going to empty her apartment. I was in her room, touching all the pieces on her dresser, trying to freeze them in time so I could remember every detail about her. My fingers opened a small jewelry box. It was empty except for a pin. Written in black letters on the pin was the word, “Zachor.” Another last communication, yet the same message.
I don’t think my grandparents could have anticipated how much we would need to remember.
Now more than ever.
I took that pin home, and it now lives in my own jewelry box. I don’t need to wear it to be reminded of its message.
That is what the newspaper is for.
Often my family and I say how glad we are that my grandparents were spared the pain of witnessing current events and the rise again of Neo-Nazism and Anti-Semitism around the world.
I have been afraid.
I am not afraid for my life. I am secure in the choices I have made. Ultimately as I cannot control the world, all I can control is my ability to relinquish control to God.
But as someone who was raised with the Shoah echoing in the background, I can’t help but feel on edge. Anti-Semitic cartoons in the papers. The murder of Jews in shuls during prayer. Anti-Zionism a type of rationalized Jew-hatred. Vitriol from the extreme right. Demonizing from the extreme left. Pitchforks and a new Nazism in the night. Swastikas on stores, garage doors, and playgrounds.
The statistics are astounding. Hate crimes against Jews are rising every year. But what used to be shocking we’ve become numb to. I even saw people commenting on Facebook that the recent shooting in San Diego was not a shock to them anymore. Devastating, but as a whole, we are quickly becoming accustomed to this level of horror. That is horrifying in itself.
There have been a lot of murmurs in response. I have spoken to several friends just this week, who have told me that they are beginning to consider aliyah to Israel. “At least we can defend ourselves there.” “Maybe Hashem is giving us a sign that it’s time to go.” “I would rather be an immigrant than a refugee.”
In other corners of the Jewish community, there are talks about how we protect ourselves in the Diaspora. Do we arm our community members? Hire security? Video cameras? Police protection? Blast proof doors? Grants from the government?
At the end of the day, the lull of peaceful living we have enjoyed the last generation seems to have shifted. We are awake. We have lives to live and no intention of backing down from them.
So what do we do with this fear?
This morning I was taught a particularly powerful chapter of the Torah that engages in the question of national trauma and our relationship to God.
When Yeshayahu the prophet is trying to inspire the Jewish people to come back to Israel from exile, they have been broken by the losses and tragedy of the destruction of the temple and captivity. He tells them, “And you forgot the Lord your Maker, Who spread out the heavens and founded the earth, and you fear constantly the whole day because of the wrath of the oppressor when he prepared to destroy. Now where is the wrath of the oppressor?” A statement as commentary on the sense of brokenness we experience as a nation after tragedy. Even when the threat is gone, it is hard to process that trauma.
The message from the Torah is that often in our fear we can forget that it is God who is in control of the world and everything that happens. Even after God has wiped the enemy off the face of the earth and relegated to the annals of history, the fear still lingers.
The previous verse begins with, “It is I (God) that consoles you.” Through a connection to our faith, we can be comforted to continue to live and to heal.
As a people, though our personal and national trauma persists (and for many may never go away), we have been blessed with profound healing. Just take a look at the bountiful and strong Jewish communities that have been rebuilt all over the Diaspora. Our resilience as a people are displayed in the shuls, schools, and homes in these communities. They were literally built from the ashes of the Shoah on the premise that no matter what happens to us, we continue to live Jewish lives.
We have been healed by receiving the opportunity to have a Jewish state in the land of Israel. The sacrifices have been great, but we are living in a lifetime of fulfilled prophecy. The deserts are blooming again. The hills of Jerusalem are buzzing with Jewish life. We have our own army to protect us.
Never before since the times of the Bible have we been so blessed with vibrancy.
So let us not live in fear. God is in control. Let us choose to remember the Shoah, so that we can use the memories of the horror to educate our decisions. We need to be aware of what is happening in the world. We need to take protective measures, whatever they may be. We cannot live with our heads in the sand. Yet, the way we respond to dark times them informs the way we thrive when we find the light.
As Yom Hashoa begins, let us honor the stories of survival and the memories of those who perished.
They not only serve as a reminder of what we must fight against, but also remind us of how resilient our people can be.
Perhaps a new meaning for the word “Zachor.”
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.