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A Time To Mourn…

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A Time To Mourn…Jewishness

Barbara Borts reflects on the importance of Yom HaShoah.

As a progressive Jew from an earlier time, I hadn’t learned about Tisha B’av, the fast of the 9th of Av. When I began my rabbinical studies, and later my congregational work, Tisha B’Av was beginning to be marked in progressive Jewish circles, mostly as the day for formally mourning the Holocaust. Although we made mention of the Holocaust on other occasions, and notably, in the beautiful martyrology created by Jonathan Magonet and Lionel Blue, z’’l, for the then RSGB [Reform Synagogues of Great Britain] machzor, there was no actual day set aside, no time carved out, for specific rituals of mourning for the 6 million. And the 9th of Av was perfect for that, with its doleful chant for Lamentations, for the kinot, the dirges, for the aspects of mourning such as removing leather shoes, fasting, and sitting on low stools. It also began to accrue some meaning from its proximity to Hiroshima and Nagasaki days. I even included ‎some ‘kinot’, for Hiroshima in the services I created for Tisha B’av, as taught by Arthur Waskow But it remained our day of mourning.  Each people deserves a time of their own for their bereavements, without finding equivalences nor, even worse, hierarchies of tragedy. I said as much one year when I was invited to join Japanese diplomats to plant a tree in Woburn Square in sorrowful commemoration of both events.

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez

At some point, we became aware of the Knesset-established day for commemorating the Holocaust, which was called Yom HaShoah. It is impossible to choose just one day on which to commemorate ongoing horrors, but the Knesset had chosen the day on which the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began,  which, because that was Pesach, was postponed for a week, until the 27th of Nisan. Was this simply an Israeli day? Was it universal? Was it incumbent on all Jewish communities? It was perhaps unclear, but, as one of the older colleagues explained, if this was becoming the official day of grieving and remembering in Israel, then we in the Diaspora would need to mark Yom HaShoah as well. And it had the advantage of being in the spring, when people were still at work or school, whereas Tisha B’Av fell in the summer.

Thus, Yom HaShoah was taken on by virtually the whole Jewish world as the day for mourning the Holocaust. There were communal commemorations as well as those held by individual synagogues and communal organisations. Songs were sung, 6 candles were lit, a survivor would share their story, and we all recited kaddish. And we would listen in agonised silence with people as the names of their murdered family members were read out, to sit with them and listen to their sobbing. It was a day on which we Jews remembered and mourned our murdered fellow Jews.

“March of the Living” at Auschwitz, 2014

And then, the UN declared the 27th of January as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. That evolved slowly, from an event held by local Councils, in which Jewish people were invited to civic centres and churches, to tell the story of the Shoah, then was gradually loosened from Jewish hands and became a universal day for mourning genocides and atrocities throughout the world. Voices of survivors and offspring of survivors were muted, in order for the local church choir to sing something optimistic about changing the world, or Stand By Me, or how just one day can change your fate and turn tolerance to hate. And, because one believes visits to Auschwitz will prevent hatred of the Other, there are often testimonies from mostly non-Jewish young people who had visited Auschwitz to reflect on their feelings about their visit, as a short visit imparts the true tragedy of the situation.  

I held to the two days. One, Yom HaShoah, the day for Jews to remember and to weep, and the other, for Jews to call attention to the atrocities of the Holocaust and for those to be placed into the context of other kinds of atrocities, massacres, genocides, all under the rubric of Never Again, not for us, not for anyone. And this felt right.

Reuven Rivlin at the state assembly for the opening of Yom HaShoah at Yad Vashem, April 2021

Now, however, HMD is nudging out Yom HaShoah. We used to light a yellow candle and dedicate that candle to a murdered Jew on Yom HaShoah – this year,  I noticed many people doing this on their Facebook pages for HMD. Most synagogues, rabbis, and organisations, are involved in HMD ceremonies – there are at least 5 different types of events for the Northeast of England alone. Sometimes there is a Jewish story, followed by other stories, but the Jewish component is often El Male and Kaddish. I once sang two Yiddish songs in a local cathedral, but that was quickly passed over for the sake of choral music, children’s choirs and the music of the dominant culture.

 A short while ago, when I was organising the calendar of festivals and observances for my congregation and mentioned Yom HaShoah, one man expostulated, saying that he, as an active member of the local community, was involved in HMD and that it would be a terrible thing, as well as redundant, to organise something else. And nowadays, few people attend synagogue for Yom HaShoah, nor observe it as a day of remembrance.

All of this is disquieting. I did like the balance between the private and the public, the particular and the universal, implicit in the two different types of days. Now I watch, as I have in other times and in different circumstances,  as many Jews choose to champion the universal in place of the particular. I knew Holocaust survivors – I am still acquainted with children born in the camps or in displaced persons camps. I know the daughter, the son, of a refugee or survivor, who had no extended family, only their parent’s memory of family destroyed. I worry as we become subsumed in wider discussions that we lose our own perspective, and forget about our own murdered ones, our lost cultures, our silenced voices. 6 million dead, but there are deaths beyond those. And it did not end antisemitism – one only has to look to that small Texas synagogue to understand that. We need to be together, as Jews, to remember all of this and all of the slaughtered Jews and to keep their memory alive. It is our own collective private grief, and it cannot be sung away with  Stand By Me.

The prime minister of Israel Moshe Sharett at the Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at the Foreset of the Martyrs , 1954

Something in me is struggling this year, a concern that attention can be paid to the Holocaust as long as Jews take up little space in it and speak in specific ways about it and as long as we move on, in the next breath, to the other sufferings of the world.  Perhaps this is a reaction to the upsurge of antisemitism we are experiencing and a way of gaining approbation from the wider, non-Jewish world, demonstrating our shift away from a preoccupation with ‘parochial’ Jewish concerns to a more ‘catholic’ embrace of the correspondence of all tragedies. And I believe that this is not entirely a bad thing, as some Jews need to be reminded that ‘never again’ needs to be a mantra applied to all people and their suffering.

But, as long as people deny the Holocaust existed, as long as people can sneer that Jews have no right to mourn when they oppress Palestinians, as long as Texas synagogues can be attacked, as long as marchers can chant ‘the Jews will not replace us’, and as long as one grieving survivor or their family is still amongst us, we need Yom Hashoah, ‘a time to mourn’ unapologetically, for Jews, as Jews.

Barbara Borts

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Rabbi Dr Barbara Borts has a BA from the University of California,  she moved to London to study at Leo Baeck College and was ordained in 1981. In 2014, she completed a PhD thesis entitled Mouths Filled with Song: Anglo-Reform Judaism through the Lens of its Music at Durham University.
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