A seasonal march from past to future

A seasonal march from past to future

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

This is the period on the Jewish calendar that is totally overwhelmed with vital history, religious significance, national identity, great tragedy, unbelievable highs, and staggering lows. In calendric order, Jews recognize and celebrate the liberation of the Jewish people from their bondage in Egypt at Pesach; memorialize the Shoa; remember those who died while fighting to secure the state of Israel; and celebrate the miracle of Israel’s establishment. Four weeks later (50 days after we marked the Exodus from Egypt), Shavuot commemorates God’s revelation to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. 

This idea of the Exodus followed by the revelation is an extraordinarily powerful Biblical image, but for most Jews is part of ancient Jewish history. More traditional Jews continue to bring contemporary meaning to these two holidays and feel as attached to them today as if they were part of the modern Jewish experience. It is, however, Yom HaShoa and Yom Ha’atzmaut which really enable modern Jews to connect to Jewish history. These events challenge all Jews — religious and secular — theologically and existentially. They also raise innumerable questions, many of which are inexplicable, about Jewish peoplehood. 

Clearly, the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland after 2,000 years of exile has been miraculous. Its ability to sustain and strengthen its identity over the past 66 years perhaps is even more remarkable. On the one hand, Israel not only reasserts the Jewish presence in the Holy Land, but also affirms the unique nature of Jewish peoplehood. Yom HaShoa, meanwhile, marking the tragedy of the Holocaust, exemplifies the fragility of Jewish continuity.

Explaining the excitement and euphoria of Yom Ha’atzmaut is relatively easy. The Jews obtained the world’s recognition of the rights of Jews to their own country. The Shoa, however, transcends human understanding. It is this dichotomy which perhaps helps best to explain the political behavior and ambivalence of modern Israelis. After more than three generations of return, Israelis cannot disassociate themselves from the memory of the Holocaust. 

Contemporary Israeli life constantly straddles these two emotional extremes. On the one hand, there is a constant fear that anti-Semitism could once again lead to the obliteration of the state of Israel. Whether the source is the Arab world or the Iranian mullahs, Jews fear a new wave of anti-Jewish feeling always is waiting in the wings. Israeli bravado and extreme self-confidence must still face the reality of Jewish history. 

After the Holocaust, Israelis proclaim “never again,” but they know that only they themselves, together with help from God, can insure the survival of the Jewish State. Even non-religious secular Israelis, in their moments of honest reflection, recognize the uniqueness of the two most remarkable events in modern Jewish history and the place that the Holocaust and the State of Israel play within it. 

Curiously, Israelis are struggling with how to teach young people about the horrors of the Holocaust. Last month, its education ministry and Yad Vashem announced a comprehensive educational program that will teach about the Holocaust in kindergartens, leading to a debate about how young is too young to introduce children to historical trauma. “To what extent,” as columnist Shmuel Rosner identified the central issue, “does Israel want the Holocaust to be the seminal event that impacts its policies?”

Israel uses the calendar to balance the trauma of the Holocaust with the miracle of Israel — from the darkness of Yom HaShoa and Yom Hazikaron (memorial day) — the calendar pivots immediately to Yom Ha’atzmaut, the celebration of nationhood. An entire country pauses — freezes in its place — to remember the six million who were murdered in the Shoa and, one week later, those who died in the wars to protect the State. Then the entire country goes out to barbecues!

This conglomeration of contrasts — layering the religious/historical significance of Pesach and Shavuot with contemporary history — is a reminder that while we may be thousands of years from the Exodus, it is only 81 years since the Nazis came to power and 66 years since Israel was proclaimed an independent state.

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