Posted on April 19, 2015 by Sarah Marx
We were in the middle of the street, ten or fifteen students huddled together on the median, when the siren began. People got out of their cars and stood, leaning on their bumpers, staring at the sky. All around us, on the sidewalks and in the shop windows, they froze in place. No one moved – no one spoke.
And yet the lights kept changing, from green to yellow to red and back again, as if there were still cars that would follow their lead. The concrete didn’t change when the sirens began, and neither did the neon signs, and the clouds kept shifting above us. A moment ago, we had been a bustling part of that landscape. Then the siren started blaring, and all of a sudden we were snatched out of ordinary life; we stood there, silent, as our lively corner of Jerusalem became a ghost town. The world progressed, but the human voices, the human activity, were gone.
Here in Israel, and perhaps everywhere in the world, that sense of absence pervades Yom HaShoah. On the desolate sidewalks, it’s impossible not to imagine an alternate reality where the streets are full of people – people reading newspapers and yelling at bad drivers, people arguing about politics or staring up at the sky, children scrambling in little packs around their parents, young lovers meeting eyes across the pavement, people laughing, people musing, living, breathing people. Instead, we have state documents and monuments and memories, and cities that screech to a halt for two minutes every year.
When the sirens ended, we climbed back up to the beit midrash, and started once again to study. There, despite the noise, the absence still seemed present, or even more acute. I opened Masechet Gittin, and I couldn’t shake the knowledge that countless students had read this volume of Talmud before me: as children in cheder, as philosophers in drafty urban garrets, as grown men in study halls that overflowed with noise. The Jewish tradition of text study prides itself on its infinity of voices and new discoveries, and throws together in one grand overflowing mess of debate. Every student who reads a text and responds to it, whether a great rabbi or a six-year-old child, lends more greatness to the tradition. So many voices were snatched from us – leaving snippets that hint at their promise, diary entries, poetry and prayers engraved on walls – and we are so much the poorer without them.
It felt only right, then, that in the Pardes beit midrash we commemorated Yom HaShoah through language. In the Shoah, our language, the words that shape our identities and that we hold sacred, was stolen away. Our books were burned. Our sifrei Torah were desecrated. Our names were changed, and the stories we told about ourselves were silenced. And so many speakers, so many thinkers – for all of us are speakers and thinkers – were lost to us.
So on Yom HaShoah, in a beit midrash lined with great stories, we added our own stories and the stories of others. Rena Quint, herself a survivor, generously shared her history with us; along the way, we met many others who were only present in speech, the men and women who had been thrown into her life by circumstance, who had loved her and suffered with her. We heard poems, we sang songs, we shared reflections – and, of course, in the Pardes tradition, we debated. Before and after the frozen horror of the sirens, we were loud, we were vibrant.
Memory takes place in the stark silence, in the streets that don’t move, in the loudspeakers that wail aloud and stop the city with their wailing. And it takes place in the learned chatter of the beit midrash, and the tunes of early-morning davening. We Jews honor the dead by mourning, and we honor them by living – our study chaotic and sparkling, our voices proud.