Years ago, we took our boys to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial to the victims of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. There is a field of empty chairs, including 19 small chairs for the children. Two outer gates marked at 9:01 and 9:03, respectively, frame the moment of destruction that morning — 9:02, when the bomb exploded. One line of the inscription reads, “May all who leave here know the impact of violence.”
It is one of the most striking memorials I’ve ever visited. It conveys a sense of earth-shattering absence and offers us a reminder of our vulnerability in a too-often hostile world. The visual — how one moment in time can change everything — struck me hard.
I think about the universal truth of it often, especially upon hearing news of sudden, violent loss — like when Ezra Schwartz, z”l, was murdered in Israel three years ago this month. And I haven’t been able to shake the tangibility of it since the slaughter of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in late October.
I could exhaust my word count for this column describing the many incidents in between, terror attacks in Israel and school shootings in the U.S. among them. All of us have seen the impact of violence. We have learned it from history, too. And yet, look! There it is in the headlines again, keeping it fresh in our minds.
Like most of us, I suspect the all-consuming feeling we American Jews share now — that nothing will ever be the same after Pittsburgh — will stick to me for a long while. The armed guard who greets me when I walk into shul on Shabbat signifies the growing fissure in what has been our comfortable place as Jews in this country, though we are still blessed to live in one of the safest diaspora communities.
For the families directly affected by any tragedy, the pain is inconceivable, rending a hole in their hearts that never fully fills back up. But how can any of us, as humans who value life, not feel wounded, too? When it happens within our Jewish community because we are Jews, it’s as if we’ve severed a limb. It feels local wherever it takes place and personal because our first instinct is to play a round of Jewish geography in which six degrees of separation become one.
I recently interviewed the son of a Holocaust survivor who told me that the most fitting memorial is to tell the stories of those whose souls were stolen from this world, to be their voice and honor them by living life as fully as possible. I considered this while looking up at the darkening autumnal sky, which mirrors what so many of us are feeling these days. For a fleeting moment, I found the silver lining among the mournful clouds.
There is still so much good in our world, and this season is a time to be grateful for it. It gives us Thanksgiving, which overlaps this year with the Jewish month of Kislev, in which we celebrate Chanukah, a holiday of miracles. On a personal level, Kislev happens to mark the anniversary of my bat mitzvah.
In a cathartic purging of keepsakes I’m sure my sons will never want, I recently sorted through my bat mitzvah mementos. Among them I discovered the memory glass my friends made for me, placing souvenirs from my party inside a purloined cocktail glass, filling it with water, then sealing it with wax. By now, the water had evaporated and the items were hard to recognize beneath a thick layer of dust.
And yet, the stories from that meaningful day decades ago were still there for the recollecting. Memories are like that, I realized, all the more so when they are painful ones. Time may soften some of the sharpness, but the agonizing core of the loss never, ever goes away.
Since Pittsburgh, I’ve tried to push pause on my sadness to let some light in each Shabbat. I’ve blessed the candles, beseeching God for the well-being of my husband and children, adding a plea that synagogues everywhere, of every denomination, should be packed and that we’ll find strength in numbers, both physically and spiritually. And I’ve prayed, as I now do each morning, that we never lose the memory of it and that we should all be safe — wherever we live, worship, shop, and carry on with the business of being human in a world that belongs to us all.
Merri Ukraincik of Edison is a regular contributor to NJJN. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.