Against a separate Shoah liturgy

Against a separate Shoah liturgy

Every now and again, the creation of a permanent Yom HaShoah liturgy becomes an issue some people think should be on the front burner. Some proponents of a universal service feel that that is what the Holocaust survivor legacy must be and that everyone must have a set prayer program for Yom HaShoah. But that is not the legacy of survivors. The legacy of the Holocaust survivors was presented to the Jewish people in June 1981, in Jerusalem, at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in front of 15,000 people. You can read it at

Nowhere does this legacy mention a Holocaust liturgy — and for good reason. The issue had been debated ad nauseam. The legacy mentions the importance of remembrance — and as the most studied and researched event on Planet Earth, the Holocaust will certainly be remembered as a watershed event in history. Getting its lessons across is another story — though no one denies that one of those lessons is the need for tolerance, the need to see another person’s point of view.

The proponents of a Yom HaShoah liturgy, some of them secular, are unaware of the pitfalls and impossibilities surrounding their demands, and want to force a liturgy upon the whole of the fervently Orthodox community in particular. Many feel that these people do not remember the Holocaust. They are wrong. Most of the fervently Orthodox in America and Israel happen to be Holocaust survivors and their descendants. I know. I began my life as such a person, in a black-hat/shtreimel world. Now I am a post-denominational Jew. Some might call me secular. Some might call me other things, but, in the core of my essence I am a Jew shaped by the Shoah — and Judaism.

I grew up in a Holocaust survivor community in Brooklyn, surrounded by memories of the Shoah in all its forms — from the silent ones, to those who never stopped talking, to those who abused their children, to those who overprotected them and spoiled their kids rotten. I went to Beis Yaakov in Crown Heights and Brownsville. Our teachers were survivors themselves. The Holocaust came up often, but obliquely. A play about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was our senior play in Esther Schoenfeld High School.

As I was growing up, the people around me echoed the words of their rabbis, who were clueless when it came to coping with theology after the Holocaust. They claimed secular and Reform Jews brought the Holocaust down on the Jews.

After all, how else do you accept a God who murders 1.5 million innocent children who did not sin? You create a punishing God, using Old Testament paternalism and imagery, who gets even with the Reform Jews and Zionists. The Minchas Elazar, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira, the rav of Munkacs (a town now in Ukraine) blamed the Zionists for Hitler — instead of blaming the perpetrators for being people who were evil. The irony is that it was mostly Orthodox Jews who died in the camps. His descendants’ followers live in Borough Park. Those who survived still remember, and so do their children. When it comes to God, many suffer from cognitive dissonance. Better not to go near the subject.

As a descendant of chasidic rabbis and a close relative to many of the chasidic rabbis in power today, I took every opportunity to discuss Holocaust remembrance and Holocaust liturgies with the cr?me de la cr?me of Jewish leadership in that world and the Agudah world more than ‘5 years ago; many of them are survivors and child survivors. And the answer was always the same: Halachically it could not be done. You cannot have a day of mourning in the month of Nissan.

They contend — and they are not wrong, according to their tradition — that the liturgy of Tisha B’Av (which falls this year on Aug. 10) contains what needs to be said, and they give divrei Torah to that effect when reading the Book of Lamentations. Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, the old Bobover rebbe in Brooklyn, was a survivor from Poland/Hungary who wrote a special lamentation and added it to the Book of Lamentations for his congregation. His followers remember, since his descendants have carried on the tradition. Halacha allows additions, not deletions, in liturgy. And in the machzorim and siddurim, it has taken centuries for certain poems commemorating massacres to be included in the "set tradition."

Other chasidic and haredi groups have their own way of remembering. In order to understand the diversity of Judaism, think of a circle, with a different kind of Jew standing at every nth degree. There are as many Judaisms as there are Jews. Every community creates groups that reflect the values they want to incorporate into their lives. Every siddur is different, every nussach is different. Munkacs is different from Bobov, Satmar is different from Ger, Lubavitch is different from haredi, and every yeshiva does its own thing about every aspect of Jewish life, including the liturgy and remembering the Holocaust.

Depending on who you are and how you were raised, your choices range from the most contemporary and evolving segments of Judaism to the traditional denominations — up to and including the farthest reaches of Orthodoxy. Every Jewish stream and groups within those streams have points of view about who we are.

For those less traditional than the fervently Orthodox to attempt to force a set liturgy on a set date onto any community and then to say, "This is the legacy of the survivors," is arrogant and shows a lack of understanding of how the Jewish community operates. Each community does its own thing. In New York City, even haredim have been to Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue to attend commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization. One such woman, wearing a sheitel, escaped that ghetto and had a chasidic brother who died in the uprising. As she sat in a synagogue that looks like a Christian cathedral, she reminded herself that the Torah scrolls in the holy Ark were exactly like the Torah scrolls in the shteibel where she davened every Shabbos.

In Teaneck, on Yom HaShoah, a community ceremony is held in the high school auditorium. It nominally follows what has become a set liturgy of its own. Many synagogues and schools hold their own ceremonies as well. These generally include a procession, a candle-lighting ceremony, a keynote address by a scholar or survivor, the chanting of El Molei Rachamim, the Holocaust Kaddish, and the singing of the Partisan Hymn. Other groups add a reading of specific psalms or poetry written by someone in the community. These ceremonies take place in every state capital and in the rotunda on Capitol Hill. They vary, but one thing is clear. When you look at who attends these events on Yom HaShoah, you will find Jews in black frock coats and Jews in black hats, Jews in black velvet yarmulkes, Jews in kippot srugot, women in sheitels and women in snoods, as well as people who wear no head covering at all. In Israel, when the sirens go off on Yom HaShoah, everyone stops. Everyone.

That is, after all, the point. The enemies of the Jews did not care about a Jew’s level of observance, and when it comes to remembering the Holocaust, it is each to his or her own.

Jeanette Friedman is a freelance journalist and editor who founded Second Generation North Jersey in 1979. She lives in New Milford.