by | Mar 22, 2013 | Other News

The word my mother, Linda Gissen, sculpted so beautifully, for every congregant to see and be reminded: REMEMBER. Remember the Holocaust. As very young Jewish children, our hearts and minds were indelibly ingrained with images and histories of the Holocaust. We were inundated with graphic stories and photos; even our songs such as The Last Butterfly reminded us to remember. What meaning can we extract from remembering?

As a child, I watched my mother create a menorah of molten metal faces engulfed in flames. My mother, expressing her own anguish through her art, spent a large portion of her career creating Holocaust memorial sculptures. They can be seen throughout the country, from synagogues and private collections to the Rachel Weeping for Her Children, at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Richmond, Va., a collaborative effort between the late Bishop Walter Sullivan and my mom.

As a Jew, in talking with other Jews, I know I am not the only one who is tormented by thoughts of remembrance. I’m sure this was not the intention of those who taught us, yet now that we do remember, what do we do with those shared memories? At times, images flow through my mind…the trains, the barracks, the pits of bodies, the skeletal figures behind barbed wire, the ovens…“remember,” “remember.”

Like many, I have visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., and volunteered with the local Holocaust Commission. It’s the least I could do. It is my obligation to keep the suffering alive. Isn’t it? Is it our obligation as Jews to keep the suffering alive? Is this how we must honor those who perished? Must we tour the camps through, “March of the Living?” Is it our spirits that must continue to suffer the deep sorrow, pain, and anguish regarding incomprehensible inhumanity? What would those who suffered and perished want us as Jews to remember? To continually retrieve the horror they endured? What would the Nazis want us to remember? Do the Nazis “win” when remembrances of their inhumanity fill our waking hours and haunt our nightmares with fear and despair?

How can we have a collective paradigm shift in our psyche and outlook? Our religion is not the only one that sees the redemptive power of suffering, yet what are we doing to make the suffering redemptive? How, as Jews, can we fill our souls with joy and compassion, rather than continually torment ourselves with memories of pain and suffering? Judaism has always been about remembering and the lessons we can learn in remembering. Isn’t that why Jews reread the same biblical stories year after year? Somehow remembering, especially remembering the suffering, became equated with sanctity. And we may reason if we remember the Holocaust without continuing to suffer, if we fill our hearts with too much joy, we are no longer pious.

Our generation of Jews will never forget the horror we were taught, nor should we. Yet, as Jews we owe it to ourselves not to compound the suffering. Many Jews have “left the fold” because of Judaism’s emphasis on suffering. We eat horseradish and gefilte fish and search for broken matzah, remembering our ancestors as slaves, while our Christian neighbors eat chocolate bunnies and search for plastic eggs filled with jellybeans.

In addition to being taught the horrors of the Holocaust and slavery, we are taught to remember Masada, the Inquisition, and the pogroms. Are we more pious because we have suffered and we keep the suffering alive? Must we feel guilty if we let this personal attachment to suffering go? Can we as Jews break this cycle and retain what it means to be Jewish? What is the essence of Judaism without all of its historical attachments to suffering? If the essence of Judaism is monotheism and compassion, than what makes our religion unique? That we have suffered in the name of Judaism? Can we retain our Jewish values, heritage, and culture without our inherent attachment to suffering? Are we so attached to our historical identity as sufferers that we can’t let the suffering go? Are we afraid to let the suffering go? Are we afraid to truly enter the “Promised Land” of internal liberation, free from the shackles of fear and suffering? Can we at least allow ourselves to set foot on the fertile soil of joy?

How can we do this? We remember the suffering. We can’t stop remembering. It is the nature of our humanity, but it does not have to be our identity. We can take this collective suffering and transform it, not only by cherishing our lives and the lives of those lost, but in recognizing that we can make life better for others. Tikkun Olam. Repair the Earth. This concept is as old as Judaism. Not only is it a commandment, but it can help to transform our personal and collective suffering as well.

What do we do with the remembrance of our suffering? We reach into our collective souls and connect with the living, those who are suffering now, so that we may use the redemptive power of suffering to transform it into compassion and joy, so we may all reach the Promised Land, free from bondage. We can all transform our suffering into joy by helping to relieve the suffering in the world today.

I just opened the door to my house, and there awaiting me on the step was a “richly, brightly, dazzling yellow butterfly.” Remembering can be sanctified. Zachor.

by Emily Gissen Dreyfus