Raison d'Etre / Editorial
August, 1998 / Av, 5758

Judaism as Holocaust Day, Holocaust Day as Judaism

Can memorialization of the dead really be all we have left of ourselves?

WITH YOM HASHOAH quickly becoming a permanent fixture on the Jewish calendar, we believe it's worth pausing for a moment to reexamine the day.

Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and serves as a day of remembrance for the Six Million kedoshim (martyrs) who died during World War II. But what tone does it set? What message does it send?

Indeed, its very creation appears to be only part of a larger phenomenon.

(Traditionally, Jewish tragedies have been commemorated on Tisha B'Av, the date that remembers the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem and has been associated with tragedy throughout Jewish history.)

A few news items in recent weeks suggest that while this trend to which we refer may not be as emotionally charged as the Holocaust itself, over the long run it will surely do significantly more damage. After all, the Holocaust lasted only a few years, but this tragedy is taking root: the reduction of Jewish identity to perpetual victimization.

Earlier this year,  9 year-old Daniel Obeler of Chicago was dubbed the "Holocaust kid" by the press. Why would a child born decades after World War II be given such a strange moniker? Well, Daniel, it seems, is not your average boychik.

Young Obeler won $5,000 in an art contest sponsored by Northwest Airlines. Contest rules stipulated that the prize money be donated to charity, and the Windy City child gave his to the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Don't get us wrong. Any time any child in our self-absorbed society gives away anything, it's an accomplishment — whether he's forced to do so by contest rules or not. What has our dander up is Master Obeler's motivation.

"I wanted to give my award to a good cause that dealt with humanitarian issues and the Jewish people. The Holocaust museum does both," Daniel told reporters.

What could it be, pray tell, that spurs a child of 9 years, an age when most boys have barely begun to develop any interest outside of sports, to involve himself with the horrors of war, even a war that decimated his people? Sensitivity? Perhaps. But surely he would not have sent his prize where he did without the steady fare of paranoia that has lead Jewish adults, even Jewry's so-called "leaders," to portray Jewry no longer as the Chosen People, but as the Chosen Victims, whose raison d'etre seems to be the ability to whine the loudest.

Now, when Fran Drescher kvetches, it's at least funny. When Jewry's self-appointed spokesmen do it, it's, well, embarrassing.

In recent weeks, a "fine whine" was served during a fight picked with blacks. Some of our sage community leaders made a stink about a small group of African-Americans who use the term "holocaust" to describe the tragedy of slavery. There can only be one "Holocaust," one official, whose name I didn't bother to remember, was quoted as saying, as if Jews hold a monopoly on tragedy.

A little later, another verbal fisticuffs broke out, this time with Japanese-Americans. It seems some of them have been using the term "concentration camp" to describe their internment on these hallowed shores during the war. And that, said the same bunch, is a big no-no.

Lest we be misunderstood, we are not making light of the tragedy of the Six Million. By most accounts, there isn't one family within Ashkenazic Jewry that remained unaffected by the Nazi onslaught. But instilling a Jewish identity based on the notion that the world is essentially an evil place laced with gloom and that if the Jew is not constantly on guard against the world's villains than G-d (for those Jews who can still believe in such an absurd notion!) Only Knows what will happen, isn't doing much in the way of keeping Jews in the fold. After all, sending out all those letters to "congresspeople," attending all those protests, and writing out endless checks to every underdog cause, comes at great expense: there is simply no time to explore the beauty of Judaism.

Nor is there even the incentive.

Indeed, stop the average Jew on the street today and actually ask what most strongly influenced his identity. Chances are, it won't be a solid Jewish education or, for that manner, any Jewish education.

It is no secret that the Incredible Shrinking People are well on their way to a self-inflicted extinction. One prominent Jewish leader, Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Reform movement, Jewry's largest denomination, gives his group "ten years, twenty at the most" unless current trends are radically altered.  We admire his bluntness.

Six Million Jews went to their deaths for being Jews. Yom HaShoah is suppose to memorialize them. This year, instead of getting angry, why not get even. Why not do something constructive that will guarantee the Jewish continuity the Nazis so desperately wanted to stop? Learn something new about your eternal heritage, teach something to those who thirst. Decide to have more children. Do something "humanitarian" that involves living, breathing human beings.

By focussing on the positive, parents, teachers, rabbis and laity send a powerful message to our young people still forming an identity.

No, Virginialeh, Judaism does not begin, nor will it end, with the Holocaust — unless we allow it to. And if that is to happen, who will we blame then for our woes?

Binyamin L. Jolkovsky,
Publisher and editor-in-chief


© 1998, Jewish World Review