Religion & Beliefs

Holocaust, Couldn’t Care Less

I still remember the first time I sat down at Yad Vashem in Israel. I wasn’t yet a Jew, hadn’t even found the rabbi with whom I would spend a year studying one-on-one. Nevertheless, on what was an idyllic summer … Read More

By / December 17, 2008

I still remember the first time I sat down at Yad Vashem in Israel. I wasn’t yet a Jew, hadn’t even found the rabbi with whom I would spend a year studying one-on-one. Nevertheless, on what was an idyllic summer day, I strode into the Children’s Memorial with all the desire in the world to join the people whose mass slaughter was commemorated here. The memorial candles, projected ad infinitum by an array of mirrors, flickered all around me and I was as moved as any other visitor.

Joining me on my excursion were a group of fellow newspaper editors, some Jewish and some not. After touring the museum we all sat down with members of Yad Vashem’s staff to discuss the Holocaust and its impact on our identities. I should say, we all sat down to listen to the Jewish members of the group discuss how the Holocaust impacted their identity. All of this was fine, of course. Some of them had lost family members to the Nazis. Most of them told how the indelible mark of the Holocaust was deeply ingrained in their sense of Jewishness.

I sat, quietly, and with an odd sadness. The Holocaust, then and now, had virtually no impact on my Jewishness. It played no role in my desire to convert. The irony was that my relationship with the Jewish community had became a very public affair when I, as a college newspaper editor at Georgia State University, helped end the yearly printing of Holocaust-denial ads. The local Hillel, which served all of metro Atlanta’s colleges as well as the University of Georgia, invited me to receive an award. There was a standing ovation, and like a good politician I delivered brief remarks deflecting any sense of honor onto the memories of six million.

Even when my Jewish studies evolved into a need for a formal Jewish identity, and even when two trips to Israel caused me to temporarily (and misguidedly) conflate a militant pro-Israel advocacy with my emerging Judaism, the Holocaust never intruded into my sense of self beyond those early brief remarks against Holocaust denial.

Yet there I was, in a room at Yad Vashem, having just walked through as moving a memorial of slaughtered children as has ever been erected, listening to a group of Jews my own age talk about the Holocaust and themselves. And there I sat, in the corner, quietly wondering to myself if I could be Jewish absent such a strong link to the seminal event of modern Jewry.

I got over it. I made a point of making myself as well-versed as possible in the details of Holocaust scholarship, but I was never able to connect emotionally with the Nazi genocide as so many of my fellow Jews do. All the moral outrage any sane person, Jew or non-Jew, can summon in response to genocide exists in my brain. I shudder at the sight of emaciated bodies, even after witnessing them countless times.

Still the Holocaust, the Shoah, whatever you want to call it, does not define even a modicum of my Jewish identity. Israel, with which I have a begrudging and awkward sense of emotion, matters more to me than the crimes of Germans (and Austrians, and French, and so on and so forth) committed almost a half-century before I was born.

Is that callous? Is that shameful? I do not know, other than to say I’m not ashamed of it. Hitler’s brutality is repulsive to me, but I’ve never been able to latch my brain around why it should define me as a Jew, or for that matter why it should define any Jew as a Jew.

Which is I’m somewhat happy to see a recent survey of Jews even younger than I am. It found only 21 percent of the Jewish teens in the survey (aged 15 to 17) “indicated they are Jewish in relation to the Holocaust.” Nine out of ten of them said the Holocaust had an impact on their worldview, which is fair. A genocide on such a scale should have an impact on all of our worldview, but a fraction of these young Jews let it define their Judaism.

I’m on record (somewhere, if I could find the right link… here’s the wrong one) stating my displeasure with the way the Holocaust and Israel have propped up Jewish identity for so many whose Judaism runs less than skin deep. I’ve never made a secret of my desire to see a greater philosophical and liturgical debate amongst Jews as opposed to the endless campaigns in support of Israel and the rote memory of the Holocaust. But I’ve always been a little fearful of admitting how little the Holocaust has to do with my own Jewish identity, even when I became more comfortable distancing myself from the Jewish state.

Thanks to some Jewish teenagers – 79 percent of them anyway – I’m a little less so today.