The Gravity of Memory
Yesterday, observing Jews (and observance looks different for every person) celebrated Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. It is the day of atonement. It is the end of the Days of Awe that begin on Rosh Hashanah. It’s also a time that digs deep into Jewish memory—I can’t think of a Jewish holiday that doesn’t dig into Jewish memory right now, but I feel like at Passover, it’s a tool, and during the Days of Awe, it’s an experience.
From something my congregation read on Rosh Hashanah, “From the deep well of the past, in the depths of our own despair—the shofar sounds remembrance.”
Yesterday, after an antisemitic terrorist attack by a Neo-Nazi on a synagogue in eastern Germany, the congregants finished the service at the hospital, where they sounded the shofar. Their synagogue door held as the assailant threw Molotov cocktails at it and fired at it multiple times. In anger, the assailant turned and shot people on the street, killing two and injuring two more.
He was caught and detained.
He had live-streamed it on Twitch, railing against Jews. Over two thousand people watched the livestream.
From my congregation’s High Holiday prayer book:
The past has been
a mint of blood and sorrow—
That must not be
True of tomorrow.
Last night, as I broke the Yom Kippur fast with the same people I’ve been breaking fast with for more than twenty years now, the attack in Germany came up, as did politics. One of our family friends said quietly, “Sometimes I think about what made my grandparents leave Germany in 1933. What did they see? How did they know?” And I think all of us knew that the question he was really asking was, should I have already left? Is it already too late? Because in the pause that came after, someone else at the table asked him, in a question that I think is as Jewish as challah, her voice breaking a little bit, “But where would you go?”
I understand that as a visual person, an anxious person, and someone who tends to pull trauma deep into their bones and hold it there, someone who spends a lot of their free time immersed in historical trauma, I tend to have an overactive imagination. But it is hard for me to see Jewish people without wondering, imagining, how they will look if we end up in concentration camps again, how I will recognize and find them, these friends of mine. How we will cling together. I try to memorize things like the shape of their eyes, the angles of their face, the way they move, instead of things like the roundness of their cheeks, or their hair, things that would change.
On Friday nights when I sit in Shabbat services, I am often distracted. I think about the emergency exits. I think about where the children in the synagogue are. How we will protect the little ones, the congregant in the wheelchair, when the gunman comes.
In the year since Tree of Life, it is no longer an if in my brain. It is a when.
A friend reached out last night to find out how I was doing with the news. I assumed he meant Germany, but I checked to make sure I hadn’t missed anything else.
“Kind of expected it,” I typed back. Because I did.
There are no survivors in my family. Those who fled the pogroms were the ones who survived. Everyone who stayed through the pogroms and after perished. There are entire branches of my family tree that I will never know. Sometimes, when I read the Auschwitz Museum’s Twitter and see the photos of people who came from villages or towns near where my family resided, I wonder if they knew my family.
I was lucky enough to know my great-grandmothers, both who fled Ukraine (one from Kyiv, one from a town that was in Poland, is now in Ukraine, but was largely erased from the map through genocide—it was a Jewish village.) They did not dwell on the old country, and I was too young to know to ask them questions. But I grew up with the understanding that America is the safest place for Jews in the entirety of our existence, and it will still happen here. It could always happen here. And we must be ready when it does.
I don’t know a Jewish person without a passport. The Jews I knew without passports all applied for them on Wednesday, November 9th, 2016.
There has been a lot of writing about how Jewish people view and interact with history. A vast majority of the scholarship I’ve read has been Ashkenazi-centric and that’s likely some self-selection there as I am an Ashkenazi Jew. But we interact, generally, with history through stories and so our history isn’t truly history but myth. fairytale. folktale. There is purpose to the retelling. There is a bent to the teaching.
In a review I was reading for a book I am also now reading, the reviewer said that a primary purpose of Jewish liturgy was to abolish time, to abolish the idea of contemporary and past, to abolish borders and differences between people. Then the act of observing Judaism as a religion is the act of making the past present, to living the myth instead of retelling the myth.
Maybe this is why we don’t have the answer to when do you decide to leave and we relive it again and again in every generation.
I understand why my great-grandparents moved into Jewish neighborhoods, largely populated with the same people they’d lived with in Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania. It was more than comfort. It was safety. I understand because the more this happens—Tree of Life, Poway, Halle—the more I turn toward my Jewish community. The more I show up, look into the faces of my neighbors, memorize them like the way I memorize the emergency exits to the synagogue’s sanctuary, and understand that while I cannot change history, I can be prepared for it when it happens.
Prepare for the past, I suppose, is a uniquely Jewish concept.
I spoke with someone recently and said that I felt like it was only a matter of time before it happened to me—that there was a shooting in my synagogue while I was there. Shootings in America are alarmingly frequent as we all know, and adding minority religion raises my risk factor. He argued with me that I was still more at risk of being killed in a car accident because I drove every day. That’s true. Statistically, that’s far more likely.
But if I die in a car accident, I am not being killed because of my heritage and my religion. I am not being targeted.
It is different to feel targeted.
(He did not understand this. I am tired of talking to cishet white people who aren’t minority religions about how this feels. I am so tired.)
But I still show up.
Because that is what we do. We still show up. I think about the 50+ congregants and 10+ American kids in that synagogue in Halle, Germany. I think about the bravery and courage and weighing of history, myth, and memory it takes to be a Jewish person in Germany. That going to synagogue in the country where Kristallnacht happened is courageous. I think about what it must have felt like on the inside of that door.
I feel like I am waiting now.
I hate waiting.
I am taking a stop the bleed course in November. I have ordered supplies to carry with me in case I am in a mass shooting event. I memorize my friends’ faces so that if the worst happens, I will know them. I will know them. And I continue to let myself be distracted from prayer by thoughts of the emergency exits, the children, the disabled congregants, and how we can evacuate. I let them search my bags. I let them wand me down so I can step into the only place in my life where my identity is never questioned. And on the way out, back to my car, I thank the police officer who stands there every Friday night.
This is memory turned action. The acknowledgment that it might soon happen to me, because this is what happens, and this is what I’ve always been told would happen again. And reaching for the tools and things that might keep me alive enough to pass onto the next generation—this is what we do. We remember forward. Generation after generation. L’dor v’dor.
I am heavy with memory and grief of things that have already happened, and things that are yet to come.