HOLOCAUST EDUCATION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Today is Tisha B’Av — a good day on which to talk about The Holocaust. Tisha B’Av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, is a day of mourning which commemorates the many tragedies which have befallen the Jewish people. It began yesterday evening and continues through today.


The Holocaust was a big deal in my house when I was growing up. I was born in 1949, just a few years after WWII ended. The Holocaust was fresh in Jewish people’s minds. Friends and relatives were still searching for people dislocated and lost in the chaos of the war. My grandmother still had hopes of finding a nephew who was at college in Moscow while the rest of the family was wiped out by the Nazis back home in Minsk.

Survivors of the camps were still being relocated and were just acclimating to normal life again. The State of Israel had just been created in 1948, which was a needed refuge for displaced Jews from all over the world.

I was lucky. Most of my family from Russia (on both sides) had already moved to the States when the war broke out. My grandmother’s sister and her family were the only ones in the immediate family who stayed in the old country. They, and all the other Jews that the Nazis could round-up, were locked in the local synagogue. It was set on fire. Anyone who ran out, was shot.

None of my immediate family were in concentration camps. But we knew people who were. Every Jew knew someone who knew someone. Two twin friends of the family, Irena and Elena, were from Czechoslovakia. They were fifteen when they entered Auschwitz and seventeen when they were liberated. Auschwitz was known for its inhuman medical experiments and tests on twins were one of their specialties. A camp guard saved our friends. He took pity on them because his wife was a twin. When they were being checked into the camp, he whispered to them to lie and say that they were a year apart in age. That spared them from a certain and gruesome death in the camp ‘laboratory.’

My mother and grandmother believed in “There but for the Grace of God go I”. They brought me up to feel that it was sheer luck that it was my grandmother who left Russia when she did. It could easily have been my branch of the family in that burning synagogue or in a concentration camp.

Armband Jews had to wear in Nazi occupied territory

Many Jews, even in America, didn’t feel totally safe, even after the war. Antisemitism was still rampant, all over the world. America had refused Jewish refugees during the war. America had also waited to enter the war after they learned about the extermination programs and the camps and refused to bomb the camps when they could have done so early in the war.

So my mother exposed me to Holocaust stories from an early age. When I was eleven, she considered me old enough to handle a graphic book on life in the concentration camps. So I knew all about families being separated. I knew about the cattle cars that transported people to the camps. I knew about the initial selection process – camp or gas chamber. I knew about the medical experiments and other forms of torture used on inmates on a daily basis. I knew about the daily possibility of random death that could come in many different forms. I knew about the starvation, the disease, the beatings. All this before I was twelve.

Concentration camp uniform with identification number

I used to lie in bed and plan what I would take with me if the knock came at the door in the middle of the night, to cart me away. I wondered if I would be the type of inmate who shared my food and tried to help others, or the selfish kind bent only on self-preservation.

I think my mother should have waited until I was older to burden me with the reality of man’s inhumanity to man. I think all this exacerbated my existing anxieties. I think it made me more fearful and left some serious scars to my psyche. I don’t recommend exposing young children to real life brutality. I didn’t let my young children watch horror movies or any kind of graphic violence. I didn’t even let them watch Bambi since I was traumatized when I saw that movie.

Concentration Camp

But I did become a passionate advocate of “Never Again!” I made sure my kids, when they were older, understood what the Holocaust meant in human terms. They will tell their children about the atrocities perpetrated in WWII. I talk to my non-Jewish friends about it and make sure that they understand it on a visceral level. I live the saying, “Never Forget!” That is the first step towards “Never Again!”

There just may have been a better way to mold me – when I was old enough to handle it. If we are ever old enough to wrap our heads around the horror of the Holocaust.

FORTY YEARS: MOSES, WALKING IN CIRCLES

So. God wanted to get rid of all those who had experienced slavery and to accomplish this, he made the twelve tribes walk around the wilderness for forty years.

Forty years? Without meaning to be picky, the area isn’t that big. They must have crossed their own path over and over again. If the idea was to get rid of the “slave mentality,” why couldn’t they just make a camp and hang out until the time was up?

Why did they have to keep walking? Was there a fitness or exercise requirement? Was it like jail where you have this hour or two a day during which you have to keep walking and walking and walking? Why does the idea of walking in circles for 40 years make me laugh hysterically? Garry says we have this same conversation every year, immediately following our ritual viewing of “The Ten Commandments.” It must be pretty funny, because I’m still laughing.

And because this never stops making me laugh, please enjoy. Life with the Twelve Tribes … with WiFi. If it doesn’t play, try http://videocloud.aish.com/movies/Google%20Exodus.mp4


Happy whatever you celebrate!

THE RETURN TRIP

When I was immigrating to Israel, I asked my friend — a rabbi — whether or not Jews believe in reincarnation.

He said “Which Jews? Where? When?” Beliefs in reincarnation transcend religious, ethnic and historical borders. Almost every known religion has incorporated it at some point and in some place.

Teepee as kaleidoscope

Since Jews have no dogma pertaining to the afterlife — or even if there is an afterlife — we can choose to believe as we like.

I’ll take Reincarnation, thanks. With a side of Heaven in case I need a vacation.

CHRISTMAS FROM THE OUTSIDE

Being a non-observant Jew is effectively no religion. It isn’t like being an atheist because it doesn’t imply a belief in no god. My mother was an atheist. I understand what it means. To me, atheism requires as much certainty as any other faith. You have to know something you can’t really know. It’s faith, even if it’s faith in nothingness.

75-PosterCommons_091

Given my upbringing and personal preferences, I’m mildly uncomfortable celebrating all religious holidays, including Jewish ones. I feel as if I’m wearing someone else’s clothing. Even when they fit well and look good, I know they aren’t mine. Every year when Christmas rolls through town flattening everything and everyone in its path, I bow to its power and supremacy. I enjoy the lights, music,  gifts and season while remaining aware it isn’t my holiday. When everyone is sharing their warm fuzzy memories of Christmas as a child, I have no equivalent memories to share. Not of Christmas or any holiday because my mother, atheist that she was, celebrated nothing. As a kid, I yearned to be part of Christmas. All my friends had trees and got a zillion presents. I would wander around to my various friends’ houses, stay a little while, aware I wasn’t really welcome. Then I would go home. I felt so left out.

When I married my first husband, his family was almost as religious as mine. They were pretty sure they had been — at some point in the past — something, but they weren’t sure what. They celebrated Christmas with enormous energy and enthusiasm, without any bothersome religious overtones. It was an alcoholic’s dream holiday featuring eggnog that might actually kill you. And very tree-ish. My father-in-law hauled in the biggest trees I’ve ever seen in a private home. Paul Bunyan would have been impressed.

That first Christmas (1965), they pulled out all the stops. They had a Jew to entertain. How exciting. A new audience. Jeff passed away twenty years ago, but his mother — she will be 104 in February — still sends a Christmas present. I have one in the living room right now waiting to be unwrapped.

The nine years I lived in Israel gave me perspective. There was no evidence of Christmas. Chanukah was a holiday, but not like Christmas. Passover and Sukkot were big festivals. It was comfortable to be a Jew in Israel. That sounds redundant, but the freedom to live by a Jewish calendar was no small thing. Even if you were entirely non-religious, you didn’t feel the pressure to be involved in what is — theoretically — a Christian holiday, but is — as practiced — Pagan. I like the Pagan part.

Basically, I have no religious affiliation. Jewish by ethnicity and history. And I know a lot about Judaism, admire it, but I don’t practice it and never have. I thought seriously about practicing it but it didn’t fit better than anything else. I’m skeptical of everything, certain of nothing. I have no answers.

So to all of you, Merry Christmas. Have a cool Yule and a grand Solstice. Whatever you celebrate, please — enjoy it! I’ll sing along because I know all the words.

Traveling slowly through time

Without a machine or a wormhole we travel through time every day of our lives.

When I was perhaps ten, I read about Halley’s Comet. I learned it would be visible in the heavens on my 39th birthday.

“Wow” I said. “I’ll be so old and I will see the comet on my birthday … when I am thirty-nine.” I couldn’t imagine ever being so old … or seeing Halley’s Comet.

96-Halleyscomet-1986

When my 39th birthday rolled around, I was living in Jerusalem. On my birthday, as I had planned when I was 10 years old, we went out into the Judean desert and saw the comet. It was Rosh Chodesh, the new moon which has special significance in Judaism. One of our group was Orthodox (the rest of us were not) and he had a lot of praying to do before we went to see the comet.

The Jerusalem Post had published the exact times when the comet would be visible and where on the horizon to look. Sure enough, there it was, low on the horizon over Bethlehem. It turned out, when we got back to the house, we could see it perfectly from our balcony. When we knew where to look, it was easy to locate. halleys-comet-1986

That was 27 years ago. I remember knowing the comet was coming and I planned to see it on my 39th birthday. I did see it on that birthday, in a different country on the other side of the world. Now, in my 66th year, I remember the knowing, the seeing. I have the perspective of a child, a woman, and the grandmother. I have traveled through time. Slowly. Without a machine, without a wormhole.

It is no less time traveling than in a science fiction story … just a great deal slower.

Life is a trip through time. Mine, yours, everyone’s. We won’t bump into our younger or older self, but we carry each of these selves. They are as real and alive as the memories we keep.

Jewish Jokes

My father was not a really nice guy, but he was a salesman and spent a lot of time on the road. Consequently, he had an enormous repertoire of jokes. Some I can’t repeat, not because they are dirty, but because they were mostly in Yiddish and they don’t translate, but others are universal.

That’s the thing about ethnic humor. It really isn’t “Jewish” or “Italian” or any other group. It is human. From group to group, there is often more truth in the jokes we tell about ourselves than in any other form of communication.

Mea Shearim in 2006 — Photograph by Ahron de Leeuw

The Nature of the Jewish Husband-Wife Relationship

So one day, a surveyor comes to the home of an Orthodox couple and asks if it would be alright if he asked a few questions about male and female roles in the household.

“Sure, why not?” says the Lady of the House.

“My first question is,” says the surveyor, “Which of you is in charge of making the important decisions about your family or do you split them up?”

“Oh,” says the wife. “We are very traditional. I do the unimportant decisions and he takes care of the really important ones.”

“What unimportant decisions do you make?”

“I decide how we will pay the bills, where to send the children to school, whether or not we need to move to a different neighborhood, how we will handle our healthcare, what we will eat, making sure the children learn about God and attend to their religious duties. That sort of thing,” she explains.

The surveyor is puzzled. “So what,” he asks, “are the important things your husband handles?”

The wife smiles. “He decides what relationship God has with mankind, how we achieve peace on earth, and the nature of righteousness.”

Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee — Israel Ministry of Tourism

Judaism and Jews

Twelve Jews are stranded on a desert island. They are there many years. When finally a ship comes by and they are rescued, the rescuers are surprised to discover that there are 13 synagogues on the island.

The ship’s captain is puzzled. “I can understand,” he says, “why you might have 12 synagogues, but what’s with thirteenth?”

Replies everyone in concert “That’s the one nobody goes to.”

(Note: Whether or not you find this funny depends on your ethnicity.)

Dead Sea – Israel Ministry of Tourism

An Israeli Joke

An Israeli man who studied in Texas gets an email from his old school mate saying that he’s going to visit Israel and can they get together?

Avi is delighted and prepares to show his country to his Texan friend. But while he’s giving his friend  “the tour,” every time he shows something to his friend, the friend says that his father owns, or has built something bigger and better in Texas.

He shows him the Old City in Jerusalem and his friend says “why we’ve got ghost towns on our ranch bigger than that.” When looking at the Sea of Galilee, the Texan comments that “there are puddles bigger than that on our ranch.”

Finally, in near desperation, Avi takes his pal to the Dead Sea.

“You see that?” he says, pointing at the body of water.

“Yup,” says the Texan.

“My father killed it,” says Avi.

Happy Chanukah!

Chanukah, Chanukkah or Chanukah), also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE.

While not one of the major Jewish festivals, it’s proximity to Christmas has given it more prominence than it’s religious or historical importance would normally support. But for all that’s, it’s a fun holiday, especially for children and lovers of jelly donuts and potato latkes.