Thursday, May 01, 2008


At 4:05 am, my alarm went off. I climbed out of bed (I was already mostly fully dressed) and left my building to go hop in a cab. In case you are wondering this is why I live in Manhattan, where it took me less than one minute to get a cab in front of my building at 4:20 am.

My synagogue's slot to participate in the annual reading of the names of victims of the Holocaust was 4:30-5:00 am. I have been doing this for 7 years now, getting up in the wee hours, when New York is at its most mysterious and most sleepy, to share in this vigil, to give up a bit of sleep in memory of the six million, and to remember those people whose lives are reduced to a name in a list because of the atrocities of the Nazis. One year, I read my own name. It was horrible, there it was, on the page, and I read it. This year I heard the reading of 8 Max Schwartzes. It is horrifying to think that there were 8 of them (there were probably way more, this was just one of the German record books), 8 different human beings with different likes, dislikes, tastes and oddities, reduced to being a list of the same name in some huge book. They at once lose their individual identity and take on a whole new meaning as part of the collective memory of loss....just in their name alone.

And then at 10:30 am, I went to a bris. I spent a good chunk of the short ritual crying, not out of joy, although the baby, a second son, is obviously a very happy addition to his family, being that he is healthy, happy and very wanted. I started crying when we sang Eliyahu HaNavi to calm the baby, and when the mohel, explained that Eliyahu is with us in moments of risk, an idea that has given me some comfort in my own moments of risk. I cried when the baby cried, and I cried when the father made the bracha, and when we all welcomed him in to the covenant and wishing him a life of Torah, chuppah and maasim tovim.

Mostly I was crying because it is Yom HaShoah, and I could see this ritual in my mind taking place, in the ghettoes, during the war, and in the camps. I was imagining how mothers gave birth to sons they could not welcome into the Jewish people for fear that they would be discovered as Jews if someone saw their circumcision. I was imagining sons who could not have a brit on the 8th day because they would cry so loudly that they would give away their existence. I was imagining the boys born who were given britot at all costs in order to fulfill this mitzvah, for those parents who still believed in God even when God's face was hidden. And then the britot that took place to maybe appease God, even when the parents themselves had ceased to believe in God and lived in a world in which order and sanity had ceased to exist.

I know that some leave a part of a room unpainted to remember the destruction of the Temple, and most break a glass at a wedding in order to remember that joy is always tempered with sorrow, and that life is fragile and can be broken. I know of all those rituals that help to remind us that the world itself is broken and that we must work together and always be reminded to help to heal and repair the world. It seems to me that a bris on Yom HaShoah is just that, an act of memory, not just of the covenant between God and Avraham, but the covenant that we still have with God, the deal that we made not to allow ourselves to be wiped out and to build the world anew with the birth of every child. A memory of the sorrow of the world and a moment of joy, all combined, with the joy far outweighing the sorrow, but with a tiny unpainted corner of sadness still there.

I could not help but think back. Farther back than the day of my son's bris, one of the most amazing days of my life and a day on which I was so proud to accept upon myself the mitzvah of raising him as a Jew in spite of the tears and potential pain. All the way back to those parents and baby boys of years ago, who made the choice to be Jews, even when someone/everyone wanted to take that right and responsibility away from them. I wish a mazal tov to these parents today, and right next to it, a reminder lizkor, to remember always.


Maya said...

What a beautiful post! Thank you. It was really powerful to have the sirens sound in Israel.

Anonymous said...

Oh Maya, there is nothing like those sirens. I remember being terrified by them when I lived in Israel for a year when I was 8, and then when I was back again in college I welcomed them. That silence is purifying in a way, watching even tough old birds stand at attention in memory. I hear it in my mind. Thank you for reminding me!

Phyllis Sommer said...

what a lovely post. thank you for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post!