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Memories and Memorials

by R. Berel Wein

The month of November is replete with memories and memorial ceremonies. It is the month of Kristallnacht and of the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin and of Balfour Day as well. As time passes from the occurrence of these important events, the question arises as to how to properly perpetuate the memory of these pieces of the Jewish story. After all, we are aware how time and its attrition have seriously winnowed the ranks of the Kristallnacht victims of sixty-five years ago. The question therefore, of how to preserve the memory of Kristallnacht is an acute one. Its particularity has been subsumed in the general question of how to preserve the memory and record of the Holocaust. Only time will tell if the present Holocaust memorials - museums, books, films, educational courses and materials - will truly be effective in a world in which we can expect Holocaust deniers to increase and anti-Semitism to continue to thrive. But the main question, in my mind, is how to preserve these memories in the Jewish world. And I am a skeptic as to the long-range historical efficacy of such purely secular means of memory. Secularism has little or no memory, emotion or heart. Its memorials and ceremonies are in the main cold, artificial and eventually very easy to forget and ignore. Judaism and the Jewish people know no way to meaningfully and eternally commemorate great historical occurrences except by granting them a religious motif and attaching some sort of Jewish ritual to them.

The method of the commemoration of Rabin's assassination has become a matter of public debate. The obvious politicization of the event by the Left, the failure of Oslo and all that it falsely promised, the gradual erosion of Rabin's memory and policies in the public mind have all taken their toll. Nevertheless, again in my opinion, it is the blatantly secular nature of the form of commemoration that is causing it to become less and less of an event every year. Gun salutes, lowered flags, entertainers singing songs, bonfires and wreaths, all will not preserve memory and teach anything to the future generations. And that I feel is the tragedy of the matter, that we have somehow forgotten how to preserve Jewish memory and pass it on to the ages.

Gedalya ben Achikam was a viceroy of Judah, appointed by Nebuchadnezer to head the small remaining community of Jews in Judah and Jerusalem after the destruction of the First Temple. Zealots accused him of being a collaborator with the Babylonian conqueror. They assassinated him "in the name of Heaven." This killing occurred on the second of Tishrei. The rabbis declared a fast day in memory of Gedalya and also, just as importantly as a moral reminder to all of Israel, of the damage and immorality of this foul deed. Since the second of Tishrei is the second day of Rosh Hashana, the fast day was deferred by one day to the third day of Tishrei. It was given ritual instruction and religious meaning. It was linked to the Ten days of Repentance and to the holy day of Yom Kippur itself. And thus over twenty-six hundred years later, Jewish children remember Gedalya and what happened to him and are reminded of the dangers of zealotry and the unacceptability of violence in a truly Jewish society. That individuals choose not to obey that lesson in no way invalidates the lesson itself.

For many centuries, Ashkenazic Jewry commemorated the twentieth day of Sivan as a day of fasting and mourning. It was on that day in thirteenth-century Blois, France, that their Christian neighbors - who also believed that they were acting for “the sake of Heaven”, massacred a number of innocent Jews. The later mass massacres of 1648-9 by Chmielnitzky and his cohorts were added to the commemoration of the twentieth day of Sivan. These events that occurred centuries ago were kept alive by Jewish ritual, prayer services and fasting. Therefore, they still survive. However, events, no matter how momentous, tragic or historical, that have no framework of Judaism, that borrow unsuccessful methods of commemoration from the non-Jewish world, have an uphill battle to remain memorable or remembered in the future.

Reprinted with permission from



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