Pesach falls when it falls – on the 15th day of Nisan, when the moon is full, hanging low and seeming close to us.
We know that because the Bible tell us so.
Yom Hashoah, on the other hand, is not divinely mandated – in fact, you could make the strong argument that its origins come from the other direction, the pits of hell. But in fact it was created to fall close to the anniversary of the revolt of the Warsaw ghetto, the evening of Passover 1943, and just a week before Yom Hazikaron, when we remember Israel’s fallen heroes, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, when we switch from sorrow to joy as we celebrate Israel’s independence.
So this is a very complicated time for Jews. We start counting the Omer on the second day of Passover, counting down toward Shavuot. That sequence is biblically ordained, going from slavery to redemption to acceptance of the Torah, with a little bit of agriculture thrown in too. And during that time, and not at all accidentally, we recall our people’s darkest hour, and then move from that darkness to another kind of light.
We mark Yom Hashoah here in many ways, as the calendar on page 36 shows. Many synagogues run programs, either separately or in partnership with other shuls. The JCC, the federation, local yeshivas, and many other Jewish institutions acknowledge the day.
The Upper West Side Jewish community will acknowledge the Shoah by reading the names of some of the murdered Jews. The somber reading lasts all day; it begins at shul at 10 on Wednesday night, moves to the JCC in Manhattan at 7 in the morning, and ends there at 9 Thursday night. (There is more information on page 37.) That allows enough time for only a small percentage of the names to be read, but it rescues each name from oblivion for at least the number of seconds it takes to say it out loud, to have that name’s syllables in a reader’s mouth and then on his or her lips, and then released to the hushed air.
Almost every shul on the Upper West Side takes part in this reading. It is one of the few times each year when ideological differences vanish. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, unaffiliated shuls all come together. That normally would be a great good; here, in the face of huge evil, it still is good, but it is almost tangential.
An unimaginable number of people were slaughtered. The reading of the names, one after another after another, endlessly but incompletely, gives us a tiny glimpse of the enormity of the crime.
We must remember – but we must keep in mind that we cannot remember what we did not know. One of the many tragedies of the Shoah is that there often was no one left to remember specific victims because whole family, villages, towns were demolished. We who were not yet born, who were a continent away, cannot remember anyone who died in the Shoah. What we can remember is that they lived, and that they died, and that they died because they were Jews, and that they and we are part of the same people.
Jews in this area are particularly aware of the Shoah because so many survivors or their children came here. We always have had a richness of stories. They are hard to listen to – they are hard to tell, many survivors tell us – but we can find them. All we have to do is pay attention and listen.
Survivors are aging. We must listen to their stories, and when they are no longer able to tell them, we must tell them ourselves. Those of us who are blessed not to have had those experiences still must find within ourselves the strength to keep telling them.
And at the same time, we must not let ourselves be overwhelmed by them. Our elders survived the Holocaust because they wanted to live. They had felt joy before the plague years, and many of them, heroically, astoundingly, were able to feel it again, tempered as it was by memories, images, knowledge of what real horror looks and smells and sounds like that no one ever should have. We must live not only for the evil, but for the good as well.
We cannot tell only Holocaust stories. We must tell all our stories. The survivors wanted to keep living, and so must we.