It would be so much easier to forget history. In the 1942 short story by Haim Hazaz, “The Sermon,” the central character, an otherwise shy military man named Yudka, gives a lengthy discourse on the future of the Jewish people. At the beginning of the story, Yudka reluctantly comes forward, and begins his speech. “‘I wish to announce,’ Yudka spoke with an effort, in low, tense tones, ‘that I am opposed to teaching Jewish history … I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about our ancestors’ shame? I would just say to them: Boys, from the day we were exiled from our land we’ve been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football.’ ”
Yosef Haim Yerushalmi quotes this passage at the end of his book “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.” Yudka may be representative of a generation, the founders of the State of Israel, that wanted to move on from the past; but as Yerushalmi demonstrates, the very fabric of Jewish culture is interwoven with collective memory. The root zakhor, to “remember,” appears no less than 169 times in the Bible, and Yerushalmi explains that “nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.” Each year, we imagine that it was us in Egypt during the Exodus and in Jerusalem during the Destruction. For Jews, history is current events.
But I am sympathetic to Yudka. Jewish memory carries with it Jewish pain; it is far happier to forget. There is an entire atlas of Jewish persecution, places filled with haunting memories: York, Seville and Auschwitz, and even entire countries, like Spain and Germany. At times, it feels like there is nowhere one can go in Europe without confronting an ugly episode in Jewish history.
The area of the Eastern European steppe between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus is truly a “bloodlands” and soaked with Jewish blood. The mere mention of Ukraine conjures ghosts of the past: Chmielnicki and Petliura, pogroms and the Beilis blood libel. In 1941, at Babi Yar, just outside of Kyiv, nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis and Ukrainian Auxiliary Police; the massacre began on Yom Kippur and continued through the next day. To add insult to injury, the murders were covered up by the Soviet Union. Because of this, when watching the news recently, some had the reaction that Ukraine is Ukraine, and will always be Ukraine. But children are not judged by their parent’s sins, and a Ukraine with a Jewish president is very different from the Ukraine of 80 years ago.
The Torah’s imperative of remembering history is not in order to relive nightmares. History is a teacher, perhaps even a lesser form of revelation; in this regard, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch emphasized that history must be included in the school curriculum, because it offers a glimpse into God’s will. Unquestionably, Judaism expects us to live our lives in dialogue with history. The purpose of memory is not only to connect with the past, but also to learn its lessons.
To remember is to bring the voices of the past into dialogue with the present. Our ancestors are always speaking to us; and sometimes it sounds like a cacophony. Rav Soloveitchik eloquently described how at every one of his lectures, “visitors” would arrive, from his grandfather to the great rabbinic authors of previous centuries, ready to begin a dialogue with his students. To study the words of the rabbis is to bring them back to life. At seders and Shabbat tables, whenever we take hold of memory, we can hear the voices of the past speaking to us—grandparents and great rabbis, heroes and humble Jews, all offering insight and wisdom.
In recent days, two voices from Ukraine have been calling out to me. Chaim Nachman Bialik had been a student of Volozhin Yeshiva, but left to become a poet, scholar and publisher. In 1903, after the Kishinev pogrom, Bialik wrote what is arguably the most influential poem in the Hebrew language: B’ir Haharegah (“In the City of Slaughter”). It was a furious indictment of Jewish cowardice. Instead of fighting, the Jews of Kishinev hid during the pogrom, while their friends and families were beaten, murdered and raped. Bialik describes it vividly:
Come, now, and I will bring thee to their lairs
The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering—the sons of the Maccabees!
It was the flight of mice they fled,
The scurrying of roaches was their flight;
They died like dogs, and they were dead!
Bialik is saying “enough”—enough to Jewish cowardice, enough to begging the non-Jewish world to offer a bit of tolerance. Jews must take control of their destiny. It was a clarion call, one answered in the following decades by pioneers who renewed the Jewish spirit and rebuilt the Jewish state.
Last week, the call of Bialik was heard. Whatever may happen in the days and weeks to come, the Jews of Ukraine will always have the State of Israel. Robert Frost famously said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And Israel is taking in the Ukrainian Jews. From the very beginning of its existence, Israel has rescued Jews in need, in Yemen and Uganda, in the Soviet Union and in Syria. As of now, 3,700 Ukrainian refugees have applied for entry to Israel; undoubtedly there will be tens of thousands more to come. But unlike 80 years ago, there is now a place for Jewish refugees to take shelter. Thank God for the State of Israel. Bialik’s call for Jewish self-determination was answered, and the State of Israel has changed the lives of every Jew around the world.
Calling from even further in the past is Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement. He revolutionized the Jewish world, and taught a community that was broken in spirit the importance of faith, perseverance and love. The Baal Shem Tov taught: “One must have total self-sacrifice and dedication for love of one’s fellow, even towards a Jew whom one has never seen.” The Jewish family is our responsibility, and the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael, loving one’s fellow Jew, requires dedication and devotion.
This has always been the ideal; but it has not always been the reality. When the Jews of Kyiv were being murdered in Babi Yar, American Jews averted their eyes. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, in his book “Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?: The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust, 1938-1944,” reviews the halfhearted actions of the American Jewish community during the Holocaust. His final paragraph concludes: “The Final Solution may have been unstoppable by American Jewry, but it should have been unbearable for them. And it wasn’t.”
During the Holocaust, we were not our brother’s keepers.
This past week, we were. Volunteers in Poland are running to the border, doing their utmost to help, and many have taken Ukrainian Jews into their homes. One friend shared with me a picture of a young girl who hid under her host’s dining room table, too traumatized to come out. Another woman in the Krakow community took 20 refugees into her own home. It’s all hands on deck, with everyone getting involved. There is a non-stop push to help those displaced with food, shelter and supplies.
And then there are those who have been self-sacrificing in their mission to help others. The 192 Chabad rabbis and their wives in Ukraine have stayed in place to stand with their communities. The rabbi of Kharkov, Moshe Moskovitz, stayed behind with his wife, Miriam. In one of its last posts on its Facebook page, the community wrote about a moment the Shabbat before last when everyone broke out into tears: “The chairman of our community, Alexander Kaganovsky, established a wonderful tradition many years ago: after prayer, he congratulates community members on their birthdays and announces our activities. Today he asked everyone for a moment of attention and said, ‘Reb Moshe, on behalf of our entire community, I want to thank all of you, all the shluchim [‘emissaries’] who stayed here to be with us. You have told us many times throughout the years that you and your family are an integral part of our community. Now we can see that this is true.’ And he hugged Rabbi Moshe tightly.”
Rabbi Refael Kruskal, the CEO of Tikva Odessa, a network of Jewish schools, orphanages and community-care programs, evacuated more than 650 people in a bus caravan on Feb. 25. It was a harrowing experience that took 33 hours. A moving video recorded the moment when several buses stopped at a gas station, and Rabbi Kruskal made Kiddush; the children in the crowd broke out into tears. There has never been a holier Kiddush. And what these rabbis have done truly defines what “total self-sacrifice and dedication for love of one’s fellow Jew” means.
This Shabbat, as you make Kiddush, listen to the voices of Ukraine. Even though one is not meant to cry on Shabbat, this week it is appropriate to shed a tear for our brothers and sisters in need. And do whatever you can to help; that is what “dedication to love of one’s fellow Jew” means. The voices of our brothers and sisters are calling, from Ukraine past and present, asking us to fulfill our mission.
How can we refuse to listen?
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.