Never Again?: Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Rosh Hashanah, Sep. 13, 2015

This post to “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is excerpted from the Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in the Congregational Service on September 13, 2015.  We encourage you to respond with comments below, to post to social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, and to continue the conversation engendered in these remarks.

Do you ever watch TED Talks? Founded more than 30 years ago, the nonprofit TED originally stood for Technology, Entertainment and Design. Its purpose: to spread a wide range of ideas through powerful testimonies of 18 minutes or less. In other words, TED talks are something you want your rabbi watching.

One that I saw was by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose name makes Rabbi Nosanchuk sound like Jon Smith. She spoke of the danger of being known by a single story in our lives. Although Catholic, I couldn’t help but hear in her talk a challenge we Jews face. Her premise was that when one is known only through a single story, we characterize their whole life emerging from one confining story rather than the multiple stories of a complex life narrative. She explained:

“When I left Nigeria to go to university in the US. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English, and was confused when I said Nigeria has English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced a tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove or other basic items.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me was a…patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a story of catastrophe…There was no possibility of Africans being similar to her… no feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of connection as human equals…She only knew catastrophe [and] Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones…But there are other stories, (of hope & triumph)…not about catastrophe, and…it is just as important, to talk about them…”

For Jews, it is a challenge to accept the story the world knows of us. For even though we live amidst great religious freedom, a time of tremendous growth in Jewish learning, even though we hold positions of influence Jews never before held, even though Israel is a tremendous repository of self-determination…what is our single story, our calling card with the world? Sadly, what more people worldwide know of Jews is just what Ms. Adichie fretted for her Nigerian culture. It is our story of catastrophe.

In Hebrew the word for catastrophe is Shoah, the word we’ve agreed for seven decades to call the genocide Hitler sought to perpetrate on us. The word Shoah was first used by the 8th century Prophet Isaiah to depict a cataclysmic firestorm. What follows Isaiah’s use of Shoah is a description of a people hiding from a God of vengeance amidst slain bodies. Today the term Shoah is also depicted with pictures of slain bodies, along with modern leaders reciting the declaration, “Never again!” And what do we mean by “Never again?” We mean for it:

-to signal that a Shoah could be dangerously close unless we work to prevent it,

-to inspire a unity among us to fight the threats of boycott, harassment, animus or violence,

-and to remind us to not let Hitler have a posthumous victory…to be Jewish and stay Jewish to spite those who’ve sought to kill us.

But I want to say something tonight that is difficult to hear. It is this: we have a poor record of living by “never again.” Yes, we have built thousands of memorials to those who died. Yes, we have responded with ferocity to Holocaust deniers, skinheads and terrorists. Yes, we have said “never again” just about every day since the liberation of Auschwitz. But our record of acting on the meaning of ‘never again’ is altogether poor.

Too often, when a nation in the world has suffered severe conflict, we have accepted the “single story” sold to us. We have been shocked by what we read in the morning paper. But by nightfall we were all-too-ready to hear excuses for American or Jewish inaction. Among the rationalizations we hear is that each of these disturbing conflicts are “two-sided and inevitable” in a modern world. We have clung to the reassurance of leaders who promised us that in the conflicts most troubling to us, people “who kept their heads down…would be left alone.”

These are not my observations. They are points made in a Pulitzer-Prize winning book authored by our UN Ambassador Samantha Power. In Ambassador Power’s book, she chronicled the declassified documents from the killing fields of Bosnia. For one thing she found in the aftermath of the Bosnian genocide was that remorseful people who saw that genocide up close would tell her personal stories they faced. They accepted being known by a horrid single story, and why? Because they wanted to combat future suffering. Like Jewish survivors of the Shoah in the 40’s, or Tutsi survivors of the Rwandan genocide in the 90’s, the Bosnian people wanted the world to be prompted by their catastrophic stories to stop genocide from ever happening again.

It is so hard to fulfill this commitment. Remember how in the first years after the war, our Holocaust survivors bottled up their stories? Only decades later did memories flood out into the open. I was in religious school at the time that hundreds of memoirs were published, and was stunned by the magnitude of the Shoah. Our teachers helped it to hit home by telling us there would one day be no first-person survivors to tell us about the Shoah. So there stories were entrusted to us. I especially remember the image shared with us as young children in that poem about a dazzling yellow butterfly a child saw amongst dandelions in a death camp. It was the last butterfly, he said, “It went away, because it wished to kiss the world goodbye.”

When I learned that Pavel Friedman, the child who wrote about the butterfly died in the camps, I didn’t want to believe it. I was in denial, and I wasn’t alone. I have since spoken with Jews of every generation who, once they heard the penetrating stories of the Shoah, were as afraid as I was as a child of the ramifications of Shoah on every dimension of Jewish life and activity.

I have often wondered: How would we tell our stories, if during the 20th century, the Jews of Europe were treated with only exaltation and dignity rather than torturous hatred? No tattooed numbers. No ugly memories. Hostility against us an aberration, brief and unrelated to our time. Halavai. If only it were so.

But I cannot live in the world of “if only it were.” I am a grown-up and I am your rabbi. It is 2015, and that “someday” when there would be no first-hand survivors to tell us their stories….is no longer in the distance. We can see that day from here. So it is now our responsibility to consider the gravity of what we’ve learned.

As far as I am concerned, this begins with assuring that the memories of the Shoah are responsibly referenced in our culture, and not just because it is in poor taste to compare every situation in the world to the Nazis. Rather it is because in this moment, we must protect those actually positioned to be the next victims of a genocide. What choices we make today can save lives. I try to remember that when teaching our kids. For they need help in putting “never again” in a context as true for all people as it is to just Jews.

A story: there was a second grader in our congregation who visited her mom’s room just before bed-time. As she drew close, she said: “Mommy, I learned about the Holocaust today.” Caught off-guard, mom quickly recovered and said: “What is that, sweetie? What is the Holocaust?”

“It’s when six-million European Jews were killed,” said her 7 year old.

“Well, how did you learn about the Holocaust?”

“I was researching for my country that I chose for our school project about the Olympics. I chose Israel, and my book said that before Israel began, there was a Holocaust”

“How did it make you feel to learn about the Holocaust?” asked mom. “Sad.”

“Yes, it is sad. It was a very dark chapter in Jewish history. Very dark. Your grandmother and her family got out of Europe when they felt they couldn’t stay there any longer and be safe. And your great-grandmother had many of her relatives died…”

“In concentration camps,” her daughter finished mom’s sentence. She then reached for a hug.

“Well, good night, mommy.”

“Good-night” said mom, later approaching me as she began to think about next steps.

You tell me- what should she? How could she place that horrific & dark chapter in our Jewish history into context?

It’s not so simple. Is it? Particularly in this age with how toxic our discourse has become, our children have heard the Shoah referenced with frequency. The news has recently been consumed with the nuclear weapons deal negotiated with Iran. Suddenly so much conversation among us, words our children hear us saying, has turned attention to the Shoah. There are supporters of the deal vilifying opponents as war mongers with no sense of the sacrifice of soldiers. There are opponents of the deal who say negotiating with Iran is the same as appeasing fascist cruelty the way Neville Chamberlain did with Hitler.

One of the zenith moments of toxicity was this March when Congress invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak in Washington. Sadly, because there was so much attention given to the childishness and petulance of both the President and the Prime Minister, one could easily miss the powerful spectacle of Israel’s highest elected leader pleading with the Congress of its most important ally. As I watched the speech, I empathized with his describing what it is like to live with Iran’s terrorist proxies on his borders. But I was especially drawn to two images he shared.

The first was the attention Netanyahu paid to a portrait facing the speaker’s rostrum of the Biblical Moses, He quoted Moses steeling the Israelites, when he said, “Chazak V’Amatz. Be strong and resolute, and Netanyahu prayed that Israel and America would permanently stand “together, strong and resolute.” And the second prominent image was a guest that Netanyahu brought with him. The guest was Elie Wiesel, one of the world’s most widely known Shoah survivors. Netanyahu, who represents thousands of citizens who grew up seeing the tattoos of death camps burned into the arms of their parents, spoke a portion of his speech directly to Wiesel, saying: “I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned.”

I was grateful that the Prime Minister identified both Moses and Wiesel in his speech. For I see them both as role models for what it means to not stay permanently attached to the “single story” of one’s own victimization. Moses could have let the calamity of slavery kill our faith. But instead he directed us to stay united and pursue justice long after he left this world. Elie Wiesel may have began his career writing memoirs of the Shoah. But they hardly rival the books he has since published interpreting Jewish literature and lore for a new age, not to mention his voice of conscience when we see oppression abuse and cruel indifference in the world.

Today we should be asking ourselves, are we willing to act as Moses did with strength and courage, as Wiesel has done, with tenacity and clarity? Are we willing to take responsibility the way did, so that catastrophe affects but does not define our existence? It matters how we answer. It matters if we are willing to be strong and courageous, tenacious and clear, and not just because of Iran and Israel, America and the world. It matters because when our children raise questions, our answers to them don’t have to rely only on personal memories of victimization. Rather we can answer our questions together by acting with our children to end oppression, enslavement and catastrophe for all people, permanently.

Yes, that is a tall order! How to achieve it? Let’s decide together. I will soon call together a group of congregants in a task force. The group will recommend to us new goals for our remembrance of the Shoah. This will not be limited to identifying what to teach and learn. We should also consider how the Shoah catalyzes our social activism in the world, how we might respond to the refugee crisis we see gripping Europe, how the Shoah figures into our knowledge of modern Israel, how we relate to the Shoah during interfaith dialogue, during prayer services and holidays, and as we make outreach to survivors and their children.

I will share ideas to be sure. In fact, next Sunday afternoon at Zion Memorial Park, I will speak at the Cleveland Jewish community’s annual Holocaust memorial service between the High Holy Days. There, here and in the coming months, I will raise ideas to you about remembering not only what occurred for us, but also remembering our commitment that no one ever again has to experience a deadly catastrophe that destroys a people and its will to live.

As a rubric for our discussion, I will draw from studies I have had on this topic with a colleague of mine. When I approached this cherished colleague, they pointed out to me a lesson from Torah when the Israelites responded to the hostility of an Egypt bent on killing them. How did they make a transition? They refused to be defined by catastrophe. Instead they built a portable tabernacle so that no matter what circumstances they faced in the wilderness, no matter the memories of oppression, they could always gather close to one another. My colleague said constructing a place to commune was our “ultimate response to the horror, tyranny, and oppression…experienced in Egypt. Even in the aftermath of horror…we must do what we can do to bring holiness into our midst…”

By its clarity and its focus on “bringing holiness into our midst,” I bet you can guess, the teacher who shared that lesson with me is our Cantor Sarah Sager. Thank God for you, Sarah. You are right. Our lives committed to what is sacred are the very best response to any question our children raise. And they are a most worthy response…to those who diminish the horror of the Shoah by falsely declaring every foe a Hitler and every hardship a Holocaust.

In the New Year ahead, let us remember that although the Shoah is the single story by which the world knows us, we Jews know that surviving the Shoah wasn’t an end in itself. We didn’t just survive for our own sake. Rather we survived it so that we might do what our faith demands: to mend this broken world, and not to neglect the memory of catastrophe, even our immense catastrophe… But rather to know that there are other stories, like the one we want our children to be able to tell- of how we prevented a Shoah from ever happening again, to anyone. Amen.