These and Those

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

Har Herzl: From a Place of Rest Comes Awakening

Posted on April 24, 2015 by Shira Sacks

shiraFollowing the Yom Ha’atzmaut ceremony at a Jerusalem elementary school (affiliated with the national religious, or Dati Leumi, movement), I sat in a processing session at Pardes. I told my teacher how I had been feeling blank, seemingly without much emotion or intellection since Yom HaShoah the previous week, and how this was atypical for me since I typically connect to such events and narratives. My teacher shared that when he visited Auschwitz, he was surprised to feel less than he had expected — he had felt numb too. This admission comforted me because I had been feeling guilty and ashamed for not connecting thus far with the community center Yom HaShoah tekes (ceremony), the Masa Yom HaZikaron tekes, the elementary school tekes, and the general atmosphere of memory and mourning. I value connecting to experiences on intellectual, spiritual, and emotional levels. Maybe it is a strange, masochistic drive — to try to feel as much as I can in any given scenario — but for me it is a necessary component of empathy and connection, experience and learning; it is the lived experience of the human experience. This week of the Israeli “Yoms,” I had been trying to react and engage, and I had even cried a bit, but my level of comprehension, understanding, and empathy was minimal. Since I am passionate about Israel, Zionism, Judaism, and Holocaust education and awareness, not connecting to these events disturbed me. Especially considering that the news of soldiers being killed last summer, their faces and stories, woke me up from my ambivalence about Israel and Judaism, rekindling my Zionist and Jewish identities.

A few hours after the processing session, I found myself on a tour of Har Herzl (Mount Herzl) with Pardes, and still, I was feeling numb. I was having difficulty truly comprehending the tragedy of each headstone, each picture, each candle. Despite my immense love for this country and these people, looking around at the mourners, I did not feel deeply connected to their unspeakable losses — that each of one of them lost not just any man or woman young and tragically, but perhaps the person that meant the most to them in this world.

And then, we came upon the section of Jewish paratroopers in Europe. We were approaching the grave of Hannah Sennesh, one of my personal heroes. Someone I learned about growing up in Young Judaea, singing Eili Eili and imagining the courage of her spirit — emigrating from Hungary to Palestine and returning to Hungary to fight the Nazis, the despair of her knowledge of her impending death — once the Nazis had captured her and before they executed her, and the legacy she has left for so many. We came upon her grave, surrounded by an Anglo tourist group of kids, and we stopped and gathered just as they were switching on a recording of Eili Eili. All of us, the Pardes students, the Anglo tourist group, and the Israelis and other tourists who were standing in the paratrooper section, we all began singing along, unplanned. We all knew the words. Suddenly, I felt the profundity of it all. I felt the tragedy and beauty of this day — that we were all here, that we could be here, because of the people under the stones whom we were trying to commemorate. Singing along to the beautiful Eili Eili with strangers, I felt again so connected to Israel and the Jewish people. Eili Eili, shelo yigamer leolam… Following the end of the song, as I walked away from the section of the cemetery, I sung the translation in English under my breath — Oh Lord, My G-d, I pray that these things never end– reminding myself in my native language of the meaning of Hannah Sennesh’s poem, of her sadness and hope. My emotional connectivity and tear ducts were highly active throughout the rest of my walk through the cemetery and visits to the graves of other soldiers and heroes.

Walking out of Har Herzl, I remembered that this was not the first time Hannah Sennesh and this cemetery had awoken me from numbness. Eight years ago, I spent nearly six weeks in Israel with Young Judaea, the summer I was 17. When we visited Yad Vashem on a humid July day, I did not cry at all at the museum. I was confused about why I was not having an emotional reaction to the intense sadness of the site, because as I wrote above, I am not one of those people who hides their emotions and never cries — that is definitely not me — and because I cared deeply in high school as well about remembering the Holocaust. And so, leaving Yad Vashem, I noticed I was feeling numb. Later that day we visited Har Herzl, and I remember seeing the graves of young children and the grave of Hannah Sennesh. It was not until we visited these graves that I cried that day. It took the thought of a child buried amid soldiers, as well as seeing the grave of my hero — a woman who had reached refuge from the Nazis and then sacrificed her safety and ultimately her life for her fellow Jewish people — to facilitate a physical reaction. There is something about youth and death, love and sacrifice, sites of memory and mourning, that engage my soul.

Learning at Pardes this year has given me the opportunity to physically reconnect to Israel and to learn about the Jewish tradition and texts that connect us as a people. I am grateful that I am beginning to understand the connection between the Torah and the ethics that underlie our dedication to our nation and service to each other.

כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה.

אם אין אני לי, מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי? -Hillel, Pirkei Avot 1:14