Sixty years after the Holocaust, Yom HaShoah is entangled in secular and spiritual tension: Should there be a megillah, telling a story; or a haggadah, with participatory action; or rituals having nothing to do with the synagogue at all?
The Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly and The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies have launched a new megillah, Megillat HaShoah, attempting to shape the holy day's future. First published last year, but not soon enough for more than a handful of synagogues to use on Yom HaShoah, 2004, the megillah is looking at its first season of widespread distribution, with more than 50,000 copies in print, said Rabbi Jules Harlow, English translator of a Hebrew text by Avigdor Shinan, a professor of Aramaic and Targum at Hebrew University.
The new Megillat HaShoah is more akin to the Book of Lamentations (Eicha), the story of Tisha B'Av, than it is other megillot such as Esther or Ruth. Rather than a linear story, it alternates points of view through six chapters (15 English pages with additional readings), incorporating the cadences and haunting cantillation of Eicha in sections, with the rest simply to be read aloud.
There are several effective, beautiful moments in this megillah, such as the testimony ending Chapter Three that ends ominously in mid-sentence, leaving the reader to imagine the final punctuation to the witness's life.
The text, says Rabbi Harlow, is based on the memories of survivors and one journalist who visited a ghetto, but this megillah is considerably more discreet than Lamentations or the journalists who reported from the liberated camps. In Lamentations, for example, there are two depictions of starving women who cannibalize "the babies they have tenderly nursed. merciful women [who] cooked their own children." The first Associated Press reports from Bergen Belsen similarly reported men so starved that they cannibalized the dead.
This megillah doesn't go to such dark places. Similarly, it skirts the collaboration and cruelty of some Judenrats (Jewish ghetto governing councils) and kapos (Jewish overseers in the camps). Many kapos were remarkably cruel but are only described here as "sour faced." The megillah describes the Judenrats as "those unfortunates into whose hands were entrusted the lives of their brothers and sisters without the power to save them."
In fact, there has been testimony from the Lodz Ghetto, the second-largest, that Chaim Rumkowski, the Judenrat chief, lived with far more material comfort that anyone else and used his powers of life and death to demand sexual favors and other perks from the desperate. No, there's no need to go into detail, but you can't bring up kapos and the like and then just dismiss them as "gloomy."
But another rabbi, not associated with the project, told The Jewish Week that survivors themselves could be part of the problem, having memories of their own they would like to see forgotten, leading the all-too respectful writers of Shoah liturgy to be exceedingly polite.
Steve Bayme, the American Jewish Committee's director of Jewish communal affairs, told The Jewish Week, that the delicacy of interpretation is legitimate. "There is a need for honest historical confrontation," says Bayme, "but the role of religion is to inculcate a sense of empathy and compassion."
It is hard to validate Rabbi Scheim's claim that as survivors die, Shoah awareness does too. In the past 15 years, there have been more books and films on the Shoah than in the first 45 years after the war. But several rabbis insisted to The Jewish Week that there has not been a lessening of interest in the Shoah but a lessening of interest in Yom HaShoah programming.
Rabbi Harlow, who also edited and translated of Sim Shalom, the popular Conservative siddur, said, "There should be some permanent text."
But if anything has marked Yom HaShoah, it has been impermanence. Even the date itself (27 Nisan), is an anniversary of nothing. In the first six years after the war, there was no rabbinic or secular date of observance. Secular Israelis were drawn to the April anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt. Orthodox Jews mostly folded Shoah memorials into Tisha B'Av. The Knesset, in 1951, set the date, as politicians will, by compromise, close to Passover, when the Warsaw uprising began, but not on Passover, out of respect for tradition. Linking Yom HaShoah to any one event would only antagonize those whose memories lay elsewhere, and so the date is linked to nothing, more political than inspirational.
The first major ritual, in the 1960s, was a non-denominational one - a siren that eerily broke the mid-day routine. Storekeepers would freeze behind their counters, pedestrians would stop walking, drivers would turn off their cars and stand at attention in the middle of the street. Bnai Jeshurun's Rabbi Rolando Matalon recalled being in Israel, studying a text: "I was alone-and then the siren. I stood up. There were no words, but it's the deepest I ever felt" on Yom HaShoah.
That minimalism is what Rabbi Matalon brings to his synagogue on Yom HaShoah: No megillah. No haggadah. Just silence as people wait in line to read the names of loved ones, while congregants hold two Torahs that survived the Shoah.
"I like the idea that each community searches for what fits them," says Rabbi Matalon. "We're still too close. Someday there will be something formal [and canonized], but at this point I'm not sure there should be."
Decades after the Shoah, rabbis are trying to piggy-back liturgy onto the secular date but no liturgy, out of more than a dozen, took hold, not even a Reform megillah co-authored by Elie Wiesel, in 1988. Among the Orthodox, Rabbi Avi Weiss continues to sandpaper a haggadah that he began developing several years ago, featuring participants removing their shoes and watches, and children separating from their parents.
Ironically, the Orthodox community, most comfortable with ritual, has been the religious group most resistant to formalizing a liturgy, with many synagogues commemorating in purely secular ways - a speaker, or a film. Bayme said there is "a sense that the liturgical reminders of the Shoah should not intrude upon the month of Nisan," the month of Passover that is considered a festive month in its entirety, celebrating redemption, not its absence.