These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Week 33: Family

Posted on April 22, 2012 by Derek Kwait

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This is the time of year for family. Last week, when Shabbat directly followed the last day of Pesach, creating a rare 8-day Passover in Israel, Friday afternoon, I was kindly invited over the home of a local family. The Mr. and the Mrs. were born in America, but each have been here for well over 20 years. Also at the meal were two of their 4 children, the Mrs.’ father, and family friends with two small children. As often happens when I eat meals with strangers, while I didn’t know these people at all when I woke up that morning, by Kiddush, I already felt like family. When I first began hanging out in more observant circles in college, I couldn’t get over how inviting complete strangers over for holiday meals is considered no big deal; in fact, more often that not, the hosts act as though you are the one doing them a favor. But of course, that just isn’t true, it’s the opposite, and feeding me is the least of it—by letting me come into their meal, into their living room, knowing they know nothing about me other than that I am a hungry Jew and that I know nothing about them other than that they are extremely generous, I can drop my baggage and just let myself feel at home and become a grateful member of their extended family. Maybe the most special thing about being a Jew is knowing that you are a part of (nearly) every other Jew’s extended family.

That night, I experienced the opposite side of this phenomenon when, for Shabbat dinner, two friends of mine who are roommates had family over: one her father, the other her brother and sister-in-law, and invited friends over for a combined family meal. My friends soon became translators between the thee overlapping families present—after nearly seven-and-a-half months together, nearly everything we Pardes students say to each other is an inside-joke. Similarly, almost anything a family member wanted to say about our mutual family member required explanation—in order for this anecdote to make sense, you have to first understand who this person was before she got jokes about yichus. Mostly, though, since we were in the majority, we Pardesians talked our own language amongst ourselves, while the family members looked on in bemused judgement of their loved ones’ choice of company. I would imagine my friends were facing a very George Costanza moment, the opposite of my experience at the former-strangers’ house: How can you be a member of two families, how can you occupy to two totally different histories, milieus, expectations, selves at once, especially when they are both so Jewish?

Monday, we finally came back to classes after nearly 3 weeks off. Wednesday, the day before the official Yom HaShoa, our morning classes were preempted for commemorative activities. The first introduced us to important Jews from Warsaw in the early-20th century. The program began by introducing us to Jewish denizens of Warsaw like the great Yiddish author I.L. Peretz, actresses Esther Rachel and her daughter Ida Kaminska, and father of Esperanto (and Shinto deity) Ludwig Zamenhof who lived and died before the Nazis, to emphasize that Jewish life in Warsaw didn’t begin with the Ghetto, that the Jews of Warsaw weren’t just standing around for 100’s of years being hated by their neighbors, they were active in all disciplines, had a diverse, thriving, growing, living community, and that maybe the biggest tragedy of the Ghetto was how it strangled it.

Following these, we learned about many of the heroes of the ghetto, including the Piasetzener Rebbe; Janusz Korczak, the pediatrician and author who famously refused freedom to accompany his orphans to the Treblinka death camp; The Pianist Władysław Szpilman; and Emmanuel Ringelblum. I had never heard of Ringelblum before, and he particularly fascinated me. He is perhaps the biggest reason why so much is known about the inner-life of the Warsaw Ghetto. While there, he organized a varied group, among the rich, poor, rabbis, atheists, capitalists, socialists, men, women that were all smushed into the Ghetto together called Oyneg Shabbos, to archive everything they possibly could from life in the Ghetto for the sake of preserving for the world the truth of the horrors they lived. They filled 3 milk cans with material, but sadly only 2 have been found. To hear about the sufferings in the Ghetto is one thing, but to have not only faces, but also everyday stuff: newspapers, ticket stubs, diaries, drawings, posters to connect it to, has had an incalculable influence on making unimaginable suffering relatable and real for people. A number, 300,000, is as good as meaningless, but a single letter can leave you paralyzed.

Following this, we met a survivor, Morris Wyszogrod. Before the war, Mr. Wyszogrod’s parents, a musician and a theatrical costume designer, pawned some of their belongings to enable him to develop his talents as one of very few Jews admitted into one of Europe’s elite art schools, the Marshal Josef Pilsudski School of Graphics. When the war broke out, these talents saved his life countless times, as he was constantly spared by Nazis wanting to use his abilities either for their own personal gain (as when a drunk officer commissioned him one night to make a portrait of him and his girlfriend making love upon threat of death) or to help the Nazi cause (as when he was ordered to make a sign that said “Entry Forbidden for Jews or Dogs”). Apparently, by Nazi ideology, only the Jews who couldn’t paint were less than human. And Mr. Wyszogrod can paint: The drawings he showed from the camps, black-and-white, art-deco-like sketches of huge men in army regalia brutalizing waifish Jews with other waifs, barbed-wire, and, in every picture, a flock of V-shaped birds flying off somewhere in the distance in the background, looked pulled straight from a macabre New Yorker. After he presented his life, we asked him questions, the obvious, impossible ones no two survivors have the same answer to: How do you carry on after the Holocaust? How can you still believe in God? “The only way I know how to live is as a Jew,” he said (though I paraphrase). “So that is how I decided I’m going to keep living.” It’s working—the man is well into his 90’s and walks, speaks, and thinks straight and clear as someone half his age who didn’t go through the Holocaust.

The next presenters were Pardes students who went on the Poland trip in January. For those of us who didn’t go (or at least for me) details of what exactly happened on that trip have always been blurry. On the one hand, those who went came back from the shared experience so much closer, with a seeming mutual understanding and perspective not shared by those who didn’t go. On the other hand, even when pressed, they rarely talk about what they saw with the rest of us, as though to say, like Jews who were born in that country not so long ago, “If you’ve never been there, you could never understand.” But that day, four of them broke their relative silence to share pictures, memories, and personal reflections. This was by far the most powerful part of the day. If I try to write more about it, I’ll ruin it.

Next, we had a speaker from Yad Vashem, Dr. David Silberklang, lecture on his new research into how much Polish Jewry knew before the Nazis came for them. His conclusion: They knew more than we thought they did, but their amount of knowledge could have made no lick of difference to their inevitable fate.


You know, I may have actually overstated the case before—there were some public statements about the Poland trip from its veterans prior to Wednesday. On her first Erev Shabbat back from Poland, my friend Nikki posted as her Facebook status: “After returning from Poland, I’ve never been so happy to be pushed around by dozens of Israelis in the shuk….Am Chai Israel!!!!!!”

We had classes as normal that afternoon and Thursday, Yom HaShoa proper, the idea being that the best way to honor those murdered for being Jews is by continuing to study Torah in our beit midrash in Jerusalem.

There was one difference: Sometime in the morning, I would guess around 10:30, we went outside to hear the siren. Every year on Yom HaShoa, a siren is sounded throughout the country and everybody— in schools, stores, and offices, cars, trucks, and busses, even on highways—stops what they’re doing, stands, and remembers. It has to be one of the eeriest, most moving things I’ve ever seen.

(Video stolen from Joseph Shamash)

As the alarm was sounding, and I noticed all the Israeli flags people have begun decorating their cars and balconies with for Yom Ha’atzmaut next week, it occurred to me how little Israelis—a proudly Hebrew, free, strong, ruggedly independent, and assertive people often seen as aggressors—really have in common with their cousins in the Holocaust, commonly seen as Yiddish, powerless, oppressed, vulnerable, and victimized. Yet, just like how just about every Jew, even non-religious one, make Passover seders, so, too, a week-and-a-half later, everyone, even Sabras, stop and stand in tribute for Yom HaShoa. We lean one week and stand the next, not because they keep trying to destroy us, but because we can still lean or stand or do whatever we decide the situation calls for, together. We may be the smallest of peoples, but we are the largest of families.

Quote of the Week: [To his future 10-year-old child] “I hope that the world you live in is one that makes believing in the Shoa more difficult than believing in God.” – Andrew Lustig, from “My Child, the Holocaust Denier.”

Hebrew Word of the Week: משפחה (“meeshpakha”) – Family