The Gift of a Jewish Mother
When I was ten years old, my parents took me to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The first exhibit we walked through was Daniel’s Story, which is meant to explain to children the horrors of the Holocaust without graphic imagery, without analysis of antisemitism, and lacking sufficient information on the destruction of European Jewry. Needless to say, I was calm, cool and collected, along with the other children around me. I remember feeling confused as to why the other children did not follow me into the rest of the museum.
Once my family entered the elevator that takes visitors from Daniel’s Story into the “adult section,” we were presented with a photograph I will never forget, and all feelings of ease slipped away. It was the first picture of a concentration camp I had ever seen, showing General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General George S. Patton standing over an array of immolated corpses at Ohrdruf. I immediately burst into tears. Despite my visible pain, my mother, a Holocaust educator who had introduced me to survivors at an even younger age and had lectured her students on such books as “All But My Life” and “Why Do They Hate Me?” stayed true to her convictions. She held my hand tight and told me we were going to walk through the rest of the museum regardless of how hard I cried. It didn’t matter that the children were gone. My mother’s child was going to stay.
As I recall this memory, I look over Hilton Beach in Tel Aviv, where Jewish descendants of Hitler’s victims lay out in the sun as their children splash in the waves. I am on Taglit this week, also known as Birthright, a free ten-day trip to Israel for Jewish young people. As we hike Masada, float in the Dead Sea, and connect with other participants on the beaches of Haifa, we are meant to strengthen our connection to the Jewish people, to our own Jewish identities, and to the miracle of the State of Israel.
While I touch the Wailing Wall and lay stones on Herzl’s grave, my mom meets with townspeople whose parents ransacked their Jewish neighbor’s property the second they were deported.
Coincidentally, at the same time as my trip, my mother is touring the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the mass graves of Gliwice, and the ghostly towns of Dresden and Bedzin which teem with the memories of murdered Jews. In other words, I am celebrating Jewish life while my mom reflects on Jewish death. While I become more convinced of my decision to make aliyah – to move to Israel – this upcoming autumn, my mom is thrown into the abyss of the consequences of Jews not having Israel. While I touch the Wailing Wall and lay stones on Herzl’s grave, my mom meets with townspeople whose parents ransacked their Jewish neighbor’s property the second they were deported. Our two excursions represent a remarkable dichotomy.
My family is not religious, nor do we descend from survivors, nor do we have any Israelis at our Seder table. There is every reason to believe that we, like many American Jews whose ancestors fled Europe over a hundred years ago, would define our Judaism by bagels and lox and perhaps a Yom Kippur service and nothing more. And yet, my mother and I have made ourselves vulnerable to the story of our people, continuing it and contributing to it as if out of impulse. We have time and again exposed ourselves to the complexities of Judaism without any pressure from our home country or from faith to do so.
I have often contemplated where this sense of responsibility comes from, so profound that this summer it sends one member of the family to Israel and another to Poland. I am not of the belief that G-d instills in all Jews a sense of deep connection with the rest of the nation from birth — this is made evident by the state of ambivalence that many Jews my age have fallen into, especially in the Diaspora. I also do not believe that the Jewish people need a confrontation with antisemitism in order to feel tethered to something greater than themselves.
Rather, I feel that the yearning to investigate the contours of Jewish peoplehood, at least in my family, comes from sensitivity. My mother and I are both emotional people, which is constantly mocked by more stoic members of the family. We feel deeply, wearing our hearts on our sleeves, never afraid to show both other people and the world that we care for them. There is not one cause we will not lend our voices to if it entails the suffering of innocents or injustice perpetrated against the powerless. Consequently, when suffering is inflicted on our own blood, on our own brothers and sisters cut from the same fabric, it is absolutely certain that we allow it to consume us, and that it will be the focus of all our endeavors.
When I began to weep upon seeing the photograph of dead Jews at the Holocaust museum, and when my mom grabbed my hand and cautioned against escaping back to Daniel’s Story, she expressed a mutual understanding that what I was about to experience would be difficult, but it was a necessity that I saw it — for that difficulty would give way to purpose, and that purpose to good deeds like fighting antisemitism and raising my children with a sense of Jewish pride.
There are far too many families who stop at Daniel’s Story, in order to avoid seeing their children cry. There are far too many Jews who read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and are done with all of it — they “get the gist” and balk at allowing the memory of the Holocaust to inform their outlook on life. This is comfortable; this is what renders us calm, cool and collected. Indeed, American Jews have become numb, drugged by the euphoria of the American Jewish experience, which misleads us into thinking that crying over our people’s story is unnecessary. This is a recipe for dwindling support for Israel, dwindling synagogue attendance, and receding participation within the Jewish community.
In order to rebel against this and to change the trajectory, we must tap into that emotion, that sensitivity and melodrama for which Jewish mothers are infamous. We must cherish Jewish mothers who cry at graduations, who hold their babies close when they wallow in the despair of a breakup, and who cover their eyes so delicately before lighting Shabbat candles that it sends a chill down the spines of everyone at the table.
If my mother did not bear such a bleeding heart, she certainly would not be educating her sixth graders on the gruesome evil of the Nazis, and she certainly would not be subjecting herself to a tour of Wannsse, where Hitler and Eichmann devised the final solution to the Jewish question. If my mother did not feel, if she did not ache at the sight of her children in anguish, she could not have seen the importance of what comes from such anguish. If my mother did not cry at the stories of Jews whose lives were stolen from them, I would not be pursuing a career in writing about the Jewish people, I would not be on this Birthright trip, and I definitely would not be moving to Israel to begin my life anew.
For this, mom, though I don’t tell you enough, I am grateful.
Blake Flayton is New Media Director and columnist for the Jewish Journal.