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Between Personal and National: How Do We Create Meaning Through Memorial Ceremonies?

What is the “correct” way to create a collective memory?

Memorial ceremonies demand that we express in words events whose meaning goes beyond any text or symbol, and perhaps that is why so many of us have reservations about such ceremonies. Nonetheless, the collective memory created at these ceremonies has enormous social importance. What is therefore the “correct” way to create a collective memory? What are we trying to achieve? Is there a place for personal and intimate expression on the ceremony stage? Three researchers and educators at the Hartman Institute – Noam Zion, Dorit Glasser and Rani Jaeger – try to answer these questions, each from their own perspective.


Noam Zion suggests that the discussion that preceded the selection of a date for Holocaust Day this year to a large extent reflects a broader discussion of the lessons of the Holocaust and its meaning for Israeli society. In his opinion, it is possible that we should no longer attribute only one meaning to the Holocaust and should instead move toward a more open and segmented representation that includes the various approaches that existed prior to the biggest disaster in our history.
“The date for Holocaust Day has been a topic of discussion in Israel for many years. The Chief Rabbinate sought to fix Holocaust Day on the 10th of Tevet, the day commemorating the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem, which is marked by fasting and repentance in Judaism. The background to this approach is based on the classic interpretation of the Rabbis, according to which the Jewish People also bears responsibility for the Holocaust and should therefore do repentance. In contrast, fighters and partisans and Holocaust survivors sought to emphasize the aspect of Jewish heroism and to mark Holocaust Day on Passover, when the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began. The government accepted their position, with a small change, by fixing Holocaust Day in the month of Nisan when it is not customary to mourn.
At a later stage, Prime Minister Menahem Begin sought to change the date to Tisha B’Av, the day that marks the destruction of the temples. However, his position, which would have restored the traditional approach to the Holocaust, was not accepted. 

Standing during the siren. Holocaust Day, Tel Aviv 1974. Photo: Yaakov Saar, Government Press Office

Standing during the siren. Holocaust Day, Tel Aviv 1974
Photo: Yaakov Saar, Government Press Office
The public and political debate over the date of Holocaust Day is evidence of how difficult it is to capture the meaning of the Holocaust in a symbol, ceremony or text. This difficulty has motivated a search for analogies to the Holocaust and to anchor it in existing events and dates. This problem is also encountered in Holocaust memorial ceremonies: how do we find the right words to explain such an extreme event, when it often seems that silence is in fact the correct response? Nonetheless, memory needs words and therefore when we ask ourselves how to formulate a memorial ceremony, we are essentially searching for the most appropriate interpretation of the Holocaust.
The religious approach to the Holocaust, which places responsibility on the victims, has already been rejected, and recently it has become increasingly apparent that the Zionist paradigm of heroism does not sufficiently provide for the needs of memory. Many have asked themselves if perhaps there is a need to invent a new paradigm of memory. And if there is a need to do so, how do we go about doing it?
Professor David Roskies, who teaches at Ben Gurion University, posits that no religious texts are capable of expressing or embodying the intensity of the Holocaust. These texts even appear to be ridiculously inadequate for commemorating the Holocaust. Instead of writing new texts, Roskies decided to place traditional and modern texts side by side. By letting them clash within one collection, he hoped that the two types of texts would resonate with one another.
The creation of Professor Roskies’ “Midrashei Tsalmavet” is a kind of prayer book or Haggadah for Holocaust Day. Alongside the Biblical text of the sacrifice of Isaac, in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son as a “burnt offering”, an excerpt appears from “Fear and Trembling”, the book by Soren Kierkegaard that deals with the sacrifice of Isaac. Joining them is an excerpt from the recollections of a Jewess from Vilna who was taken with her daughter to Ponar, in which she describes the march to the forest. Indeed, the Holocaust is not a sanctification of God in the conventional sense, since the fate of the victims was not in their hands; and by placing the Biblical text beside a new interpretation and a personal testimonial, a dialogue is created which prevents the texts from imposing one absolute meaning. Roskies tries to present fragmentary models, in the understanding that this fragmentation is in fact likely to create a more comprehensive meaning for the Holocaust.
“Midrashei Tsalmavet” includes instructions on how it is to be read. Parts of it are to be read sitting on the ground without shoes and parts are to be said standing. One of the excerpts in the collection is a text written by the Sages immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple. The Midrash says there, “Who is like thee, O Lord among the silent” (Mechilta Derabbi Yishmael, Beshalach) instead of “Who is like unto Thee, O Lord among the mighty” (Exodus 15:11) and its appearance here is a new usage of the Sages’ reaction to the theological crisis created by the destruction of the Temple. Alongside the Midrash is a quote from Eli Wiesel which states: “In the beginning, there was the Holocaust.” Just as the Sages began to rebuild Jewish culture after the destruction of the Temple, the text calls for the Holocaust to be the starting point in a process of rebuilding.
There is no single interpretation of the Holocaust. There is no one lesson, no paradigm for coping or a clear and immediate ideological reaction to the Holocaust. We are left with pieces and only they can be used to deal with an experience that is beyond the ability of conventional literature to encompass or describe without silencing it.
The memory exists only within a dialogue with those who themselves remember, says Dorit Glasser. In her high school class, she tries to connect with the personal stories of those present, with the understanding that there is no substitute for the impact of a personal experience.
“A memorial event becomes meaningful only when it is familiar to people,” says Glasser. “A ceremony is usually distant, formal and rigid, and it seems at times that one must wear a costume and behave in an unnatural or forced way. At Hartman High School we try to connect the ceremony as much as possible to the participants and the audience, and the main way of doing this is through personal stories. We search for the individual dimension in the experience, which will transform the ceremony into a personal moment for the participants and will convey the message clearly to the audience. When that happens, a feeling of truth is created, which the audience can respond to.
The only ceremonies that we hold in the school are on Remembrance Day and Holocaust Day. This is intentional in order to differentiate them from any other ‘special’ days. On the last Holocaust Day, the subject of the ceremony was ‘A Map to There and Back.’ Students and teachers got up to tell the stories of how their grandparents had been rescued. On Remembrance Day, Kinat David was chosen as the central idea, with focus on the motif of ‘the lovely and the pleasant.’ During the ceremony, we told the stories of religious soldiers who had fallen, with the goal of creating a closeness to the students, who come from a similar background.
For these ceremonies, the students themselves choose the songs, so that in addition to texts with a religious motif such as ‘El Malei Rahamim’ or ‘Yizkor’, the students sing songs that are close to their hearts, such as ‘Lev Am’. As with the choice of stories, the goal is to reduce the formality of the ceremony somewhat, and to make the event an individual experience centered around people. At a ceremony where the participants are youths who will soon be wearing a uniform, one cannot miss – alongside the intensity of the pain and the loss – the emotionally charged atmosphere that is created.
Our memory is anchored in a personal place, which is small and dense, and only from there can we nurture its growth to national dimensions. The texts that we choose for the ceremonies speak of the meaning of death through the eyes of those closest to those attending the ceremony. In Israeli society, one sometimes hears talk of the pointlessness of fighting. The personal voice that rises in us during the Remembrance Day ceremony enables us to deal with this.
Even on the trips to Poland, which have an almost fixed route, it is important for us to emphasize the personal place and the family memory. We often deviate from the conventional route and travel to locations in which the students’ relatives once lived and where their family’s story took place.
Memory, even when it is public, is rooted in private experience and exists only through a dialogue with those who need to remember. The impressive ceremonies, with their pyrotechnics, giant screens and horrific historical sites may have their place, but only the encounter with the experiences of real people provides meaning and brings those who are no longer with us to life.”
Memory, particularly in Israel, is liable to become stifling. We must learn how to hold onto it without devoting ourselves to it entirely, according to Rani Jaeger. “Without memory, personal or collective, there is no identity. This is seen clearly in cases where people lose their memory and feel as if they have lost their personalities. In the same way, memory is essential in order to create the shared personality of the collective. In every survey in which secular respondents are asked what is important to them as Jews, the most common answer is the ‘shared story.’ It is important that each of us locate himself within this story.
Memory gives meaning to the place we are in. Our social inclinations and willingness to make sacrifices for the community are rooted in this place. It primarily gives us meaning, from which we derive conclusions. Of course, in Israel we are particularly aware of the mechanisms that have an effect on memory. But if there is no impact on our lives, what is the point of memory?
In ceremonies that I organize, one of the most important aspects for me is the effort to expose the Jewish dimension of the Israeli collective memory. For the earlier generations in Israel, who founded the country, the Jewish language was part of the country’s cultural treasure. Even when they rebelled against it, it was there – in the structures and symbols they had created. For example, the ‘Days of Awe’ between Holocaust Day and Remembrance Day are perceived as a clear expression of the Israeli memory and were obviously created exactly for that purpose. On the other hand, they occur soon after Passover, whose historical format is the transition from slavery to redemption. The formation of the modern memory, therefore, preserves this format in a profound manner.
Many Israelis lack parts of the Jewish memory and at times they need to expand it. However, in contrast to Jews living abroad, Israelis have an additional Jewish memory – which is of enormous proportions – even if they unaware of it. Its influence can be likened to a kind of hidden garden in the human body. This Jewish memory permeates day-to-day Hebrew language and the structures of our lives, even if it isn’t felt.
Thus, for example, I took part in the creation of a memorial ceremony based on a Jewish structure – a Havdalah ceremony between Remembrance Day and Independence Day. ‘A time to eulogize, and a time to dance.’ Among other things, we took a poem by Natan Alterman, ‘The Silver Platter’ – which is usually read as the prayer following a funeral — and built what resembled a page of Gemara around it, with interpretations. We tried to show the connections between the poem and Mount Sinai, and to look at the poem as a modern prophecy rather than as a kaddish.
From this perspective of memory, the trips to Poland – as they are structured today – are problematic. I believe fundamentally in the Zionist process and it is a problem for me that Israelis need to go to Auschwitz in order to receive a stamp of approval for their Israeliness. I don’t mean that these trips shouldn’t be organized, but serious thought should be put into why we are going to Poland.
When considering an event of such huge proportions, like the Holocaust, its impact cannot be condensed into the ceremonies and symbols devoted to it. It is not always clear to what extent we are really affected by the Holocaust. The Holocaust seeps into us all the time. It is important to talk about the subject as much as possible in order that the dimensions of its impact and its various forms will be exposed to the light, similar to the therapy that is meant to deal with a personal memory. Only when this is done can we create the memory and not simply be bound to it."

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