May 6, 2005

Yom Hashoah and the Jewish canon


Yom Hashoah always seems to come at an inopportune time.

There hardly is a chance to put away the Pessah dishes when we are called upon to shift suddenly and drastically from joy to solemnity. The mournful remembrance of those who were enslaved in the Nazi concentration camps is supposed to displace the festive commemoration of the exodus from Egyptian enslavement, and the marking of even more recent tragedies-on Yom Hazikaron-is right around the corner.

This year, the moment of Yom Hashoah seems even stranger.

With 2005 marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi camps, these last few months already have been filled with multitudinous commemorations of the Holocaust. The United Nations held a special General Assembly session in January to denote the occasion of the liberation of Auschwitz, the opening of Yad Vashem's new wing drew thousands of dignitaries to Jerusalem in March, and talk of anti-Semitism and its significance 60 years after the genocide against the Jews has been a dominant theme of Jewish conferences and parlor-room discussions the world over.

So, in a year like this, how is Yom Hashoah distinct?

Perhaps most simply, the day is distinguished by synchronization. Yom Hashoah offers simultaneous commemoration of the Holocaust's 6 million Jewish victims on a single day by Jews all over the world. The solemnizing siren that sounds in Israel as night falls and Yom Hashoah begins is its most powerful symbol.

Upon closer inspection, however, the siren too closely represents the reality of Yom Hashoah. When the siren sounds, many haredim in Israel continue about their business, most Arabs ignore it and even those who stop and think usually forget it moments later. What's more, the sound of the siren dies at the Mediterranean, going no further than the borders of the Jewish state.

Many countries around the world, particularly the handful of European states that have adopted Holocaust Remembrance days of their own, commemorate the Jewish genocide on a day other than Yom Hashoah. That means that Jewish communities in those countries that want to encourage their home country's ceremonies may honor their national ones rather than the "Jewish" one, set by Israel's Knesset in 1951 on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Another problem is that Yom Hashoah lacks the rituals that anchor other Jewish holy days.

Certainly, this has its advantages, allowing for creative and different ways of commemorating of the most tragic event in Jewish history. For example, this year Yom Hashoah fell on V-E Day (victory in Europe), so some programming in the United States focused on the US role in winning World War II. Other commemorations included components about other genocides, including the 1994 violence in Rwanda that left some 800,000 people dead. One multi-synagogue event in Manhattan scheduled a survivor from Auschwitz and a refugee from Rwanda as the night's two headliners.

But as the number of living survivors dwindles and survivor testimonials lose their place at Yom Hashoah ceremonies, the shortcomings of Yom Hashoah-and the day's widespread lack of observance-will become ever more apparent.

Perhaps only then will Israel and world Jewry seriously consider moving Yom Hashoah to its rightful place in the Jewish calendar: Tisha B'Av, the day traditionally designated to remember Jewish tragedies.

There are several good reasons to move Yom Hashoah to Tisha B'Av.

First, Yom Hashoah just doesn't work well after Pessah. It's too difficult to go from the joy of Pessah to mourning the Holocaust in under a week. Jewish tradition takes this into account, barring mourning during the entire Jewish month of Nisan. This proscription is partly why many religious Jews are ambivalent about Yom Hashoah, and why some haredim do not respect the day. By contrast, Tisha B'Av falls in the middle of the summer, near no other Jewish holidays (which is good for the Pessah-weary), and at the culmination of a traditional three-week mourning period.

Second, Tisha B'Av has been all but forgotten by non-religious Jews, and moving Yom Hashoah to the Ninth of Av would be a way to revive and make more significant a holiday that for centuries has served to mark Jewish calamity and mourning. There is something important and poignant about preserving a day that millions of our ancestors have marked collectively for two millennia.

Tisha B'Av marks the day the First and Second Temples were destroyed, the day the Jewish fortress of Beitar fell during the Bar Kochba revolt and the day God decreed that the Jewish people would have to wander in the desert for 40 years before being able to enter the Land of Israel. The list of events commemorated has grown over the years to include subsequent Jewish tragedies like the anti-Jewish violence of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition against the Jews and, more recently, the Holocaust.

Third, moving Yom Hashoah to Tisha B'Av would be a way to ritualize a holiday whose lack of rites leaves organizers of memorial ceremonies-and ordinary Jews-too clueless about what to do. How many screenings of Schindler's List will we have to endure before we realize that movies, musical tributes and candle-lighting ceremonies just aren't enough?

Tisha B'Av is rooted in ritual, but not overly so, and its rituals are singularly on-message. On Tisha B'Av, there is none of Sukkot's abstractness, trying to relate lulav-shaking to our sojourns in the desert. Tisha B'Av has two central features: fasting, as on other days of the Jewish calendar that mark tragedy, and the recitation of Kinot, historical poems of tragedy. Even a cursory reading of the Kinot, many of which vividly describe violent anti-Jewish actions in heartrending detail and in relatively simple Hebrew, makes clear why they have endured for centuries. The list of Kinot has grown as has the list of Jewish tragedies, and many synagogues end their Kinot services with ones about the Holocaust.

Finally, moving Yom Hashoah to the month of Av would put the Holocaust into the context of Jewish history, linking it to Jewish martyrs of the ages and ensuring its place in the Jewish canon.

As recent events suggest, we may not be able to ensure that the world will forever remember the lessons of the Holocaust, but we can ensure that we do not forget it. That, after all, is our tradition.