Galilee Diary: Non-collective memory

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt…you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
-Deuteronomy 25:17, 19

In recent decades, trips to Poland for 11th graders have become de rigueur in high schools in middle class communities. These generally take place just before Pesach, and cost around $1,000-1,500. For many students they are powerful emotional experiences, though periodically the media latch on to some revelation about the kids’ adolescent behavior in the hotel in Poland. It seems a bit weird and maybe not fair to put adolescents in the setting of the typical school trip with its expected pushing of the disciplinary envelope far from home – combined with a pilgrimage to a place that it seems should crush such natural behavior. And there is some controversy over the educational goals of the trip – is it an appropriate way to strengthen Jewish identity? Does it give disproportionate emphasis to Jewish death? Does it convey a Zionist message of the negation of the Diaspora? Is it a tool for nationalistic indoctrination? In any case, the trips continue.  Here at Shorashim, it is now a tradition that the annual Holocaust Day eve ceremony is prepared for the community by the teens who have returned from the Poland trip.

The brief ceremony follows a standard format of readings, songs, acandle lighting, and traditional mourning prayers. This year it wasvery well done, and some of the personal reflections by the kids werequite moving, translating the experience into self-analysis andresolutions regarding their own values and their commitment to them.Toward the end, we were asked to stand for a moment of silence. As ithappens, at just that moment the music from the wedding in the Arabvillage across the valley wafted in through the windows, and kids in thevillage set off a volley of loud firecrackers (standard, annoying,practice at weddings).  My first thought was anger at theirinsensitivity; then an internal voice wondered if they did it on purpose- but another internal voice pointed out that given my awareness of ourneighbors’ general, surprising ignorance of Jewish holidays andcustoms, it was highly unlikely that they noticed that they hadscheduled their wedding for the 27th of Nissan. And anyway, since wehave made it very clear that the Holocaust is a Jewish possession, ournon-Jewish neighbors tend to feel that it is not relevant to them.

Which brings to mind the fact that the Knesset recently passed a lawdenying government funding to any organization that supports orparticipates in programs to commemorate the “Nakba,” (disaster), as theArabs term Israel’s War of Independence.

And then the moment of silence ended with all of us singing Hatikvah andgoing home.  The next morning, though Yom Hashoah is a regularwork/school day, traffic was very light and my bus made record time toJerusalem, leaving me time to stop in the coffee shop in the busstation. The video display that usually shows cartoons and commercialswas devoted to a large picture of a memorial candle. The news crawlbeneath it reported the killing of Osama Ben Laden. And the soundsystem was playing the radio – which, on Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron,plays sad pop music, a genre that must be uniquely Israeli – songs byleading popular singers and bands, written in the wake of the Holocaust and the various wars, that are part of the canon of Israeli folk/popular music and that are all that is allowed to be played on these two days.

I sat there listening, wondering about the morality of trying to manipulate, control, and exploit memory – and wondering if there was anyway not to.

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Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

About Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

Marc Rosenstein grew up in Highland Park, IL, at North Shore Congregation Israel. His first visit to Israel was as a high school student in the first exchange of the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program in 1962. He was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1975, and then served as assistant rabbi at Community Synagogue, in Port Washington, NY. Rabbi Rosenstein was a teacher and also a principal at the Solomon Schechter Secondary School in Skokie, IL. He also served as the principal at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, PA. In 1990, he made aliyah, moving to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee, founded in the early 1980's by a group of young American immigrants. He is presently the director of the Israeli Rabbinic Program of HUC-JIR, as well as the director of the Makom ba-Galil, a seminar center at Shorashim that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence. Marc is married to Tami (originally from Waukegan, IL), a speech clinician working with handicapped infants and children. They have three children; Josh, Ilana, and Lev.

4 Responses to “Galilee Diary: Non-collective memory”

  1. avatar

    I would say we don’t want to manipulate or exploit the past and our memories, but it seems to me that remembering and commemorating our past helps us to chart a clear course forward. we don’t want to be maudlin or commercial about it, but remembering helps us to value our very existence and work toward a better world for those who follow us.

  2. avatar
    jack steenbarger Reply May 18, 2011 at 8:29 am

    Most anything that is tastful that helps us all to remember is good. and if the trips to Poland have some message to attract western Jews to migrate to Israel is not bad.I think you need to explore your feelings and why you take these things in a negative way..

  3. avatar

    Having long been puzzled by the paradox of Remember Amalek and Blot out his name, I am nonetheless even more puzzled by Rabbi Rosenstein’s seeming discomfort with the use of memory.
    We seek to manipulate, control, and exploit memory in countless ways, not just trips to Poland. Yizkor, yahrtzeit, seder, High Holy Days are all a case in point.
    Having lived through the Shoah from the comfort and security of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, I imposed upon myself the duty of visiting a camp each time business took me to Germany. Four camps later (Dachau, Buchenwald, Terezin, Auschwitz), I added to my responsibility the responsibility for helping rebuild Jewish life in eastern and central Europe through the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
    Memory is part of who we are as Jews, and of what we seek to become. We can’t just blot out Amalek’s name, we must harness our memories to move forward.

  4. avatar

    I do not believe that Rabbi Rosenstein is only speaking of the trips to Poland and remembering the Holocaust in his essay. I think he’s noting the contradictions and manipulations that occur in Israeli society and truly in all societies. His examples are: to remember what Amalek did but to blot out his memory, the Holocaust being just for Jews (when millions of others were killed as well), because the Holocaust is just for Jews the local Arabs ignore the commemoration, the government supports activities for Yom HaShoa but does its best to eliminate support for the “Nakba” though Israeli Arabs are citizens too and millions of Palestinians had to leave their ancestral homes in what is now Israel when Israel was born.
    I am a Jew and I do support Israel and its right to exist, but I do believe that a democratic state must treat all of its citizens fairly and sometimes there are real conflicts in doing that and supporting one faith over another. I am not trying to say what’s to be done. I’m just noticing the conflicts, the contradictions and the difficulties in being all things like Rabbi Rosenstein is.

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