Yom HaShoah Feature


Yom HaShoah Feature


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Obscene Meets The Glory

by Leo Lieberman

Maybe because it was Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance -- that special Sabbath service that comes right before the holiday of Purim. Or perhaps it was because I was in a synagogue being rebuilt in the city of Berlin, a place that I never thought I would ever want to visit. Or then again, maybe it was because I was surrounded by students from New Jersey as well as German Jews whom I had met for the first time. Or maybe I was just feeling a bit lonesome thinking about being back home and listening to Rabbi Aaron explain the portion of the week while the Cantor intoned the melodies in his usual mellifluous tones. Or then again, it might have been a combination of all of the above factors.

But here I was in Germany, where it all began and my mind was filled with all those obscene pictures -- the parade grounds where Hitler had addressed a multitude of cheering citizens; the rubble of a synagogue destroyed during the Kristallnacht pogrom and now marked by a little plaque; the square that witnessed the burning of the books so that the Nazis could wipe out all the precious words recorded by Jews (and I remembered the words, "Where first they burn books, then they burn men and women" Such a prophetic forecast.); and finally the scenes of the deportation to the death camps and the endless tracks leading to the annihilation.

I closed my eyes tight and hoped that the Hebrew prayers recited in an foreign accent, but couched in familiar melodic strains, would somehow erase these pictures and help me to forget. But the word zachor -- "remember!" kept intruding, more than a request, a command. Over and over again, I heard, Yizkor! -- You Shall Remember. And even though I heard the Rabbi joining the command to remember with the name of that ancient villain, Amalek, and sometimes it was co-joined with the name of the arch disturber of Israel, Haman, and even though the words were spoken in a language that was alien to me, I began to get the uneasy feeling that it was I who was being addressed.

And so I moved and shifted in my seat most uneasily and tried to distract myself by thumbing through the prayer book, concentrating on the Hebrew words and trying to ignore the translations that were in German. Once in awhile, I glanced sideways at my students who had come to view the sites of destruction and who, once in awhile, were persuaded that this trip was not only an educational one, but that there could be some "fun and games" as well -- especially when they visited beer halls and souvenir shops and cafes.

But now, as we sat here in this house of worship, the New Synagogue, we were joined by some strange and almost mystical sense of mission. I observed some of these young people, those not of the Jewish faith, who had never entered a synagogue before and who were a bit unsteady on their feet, who had asked me to let them know when to stand and when to sit, how to dress and what customs to observe. And I wondered too, what pictures were circulating in their heads, what memories, what questions buzzed about like gadflies?

And I was aware too that no one was looking at his watch to check the time and to find out how much longer the service would last, no one seemed to be concerned that the afternoon was a free time to explore and to do last minute viewing or visits or shopping. Time took on a special meaning that day. And then the Rabbi looked in our direction and in German and then in English explained that it was the time to recite the Kaddish prayer and that all those who had lost dear ones, close members of their family, might wish to stand and join in the recitation of this traditional prayer -- a doxology in praise of God.

For a minute I hesitated and then I noticed that, without prompting, one after another, each of the students, both Jewish and Gentile, stood and joined both in oral and silent devotion. And I too joined them, remembering all those who had perished though no fault of their own, at this place in those days.

And for a little bit the obscene pictures were replaced by glory and a holiness as we said together, Yisgadal v¹yiskadash, affirming what we most fervently hoped Auschwitz had not erased.

From the book "Memories of Laughter and Garlic: Jewish Wit, Wisdom, and Humor To Warm Your Heart" by Leo Lieberman ($12.95, ComteQ Publishing). Leo can be reached at features@comteqcom.com.


from the May 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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