June 4, 2012

I have been to the magnificent Holocaust museum and education complex at Yad VaShem on the outskirts of Jerusalem many times, but it never fails to have an unanticipated emotional impact on me.

There are always new stories and facts to learn about the Shoah, but what is startling is the way that the power of the experience enters your consciousness in strange and surprising ways.

So it was during our visit Sunday morning to Yad Vashem, which is both a world-renowned research and educational center and a deeply affecting museum display. The pyramidal shape of the halls and the feeling of directed inevitability to the viewers' path through the museum, the varied and carefully ordered and sourced exhibits, the power of the stories told in the displays all create a coordinated pedagogical process of learning both intellectually and emotionally. You come to understand the facts of the Holocaust, the systematically directed nature of the greatest atrocity in human history and its direction against the Jews, but you also gain an appreciation for pre-War Jewry in Europe, and a growing sense of the horrific process that degraded and destroyed 6 million Jews and scarred all who remained. For both Jewish and Christian members of our group this is an unforgettable and profound experience.

For a first-time visitor the effect is stunning and often overwhelming, and so it proved in our group. But even for a veteran of many Holocaust museum experience, and for a rabbi who began singing Yiddish songs about the Shoah before bar mitzvah, there were moments when the displays and the process struck me in new and fresh ways. Everyone visits Yad Vashem, and there were large groups of Birthright Israel college kids—by the way, they include several Israeli kids of the same age in each group, and when they attend national sites like Yad Vashem they must dress in their IDF uniforms—as well as visitors from everywhere in the world, and from Israel. What always gets to me is the section on the Partisan fighters and those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto and in other uprisings against the Nazis, defying impossible odds. But the stories of the children are also nearly impossible to hear without being overcome.

Our fine guide, Muki, told us he has now discovered the name of the German officer who was responsible for his grandparents' death in a Lithuanian forest in an Einsatzgruppen action, those mostly undocumented actions, as at Babi Yar, that killed more people than died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. There were personal elements for many of our group, reminders of family who died in Poland, Germany, Russia, Hungary, Rumania and elsewhere.

We held a short memorial service after the tour through Yad VaShem, with both Jewish and Christian members of our group participating. It was intense, and moving, and beautiful.

The afternoon of the day was a great contrast, probably a necessary one. We drove to the huge, active archeological site of Beit Guvrin in the hills past the Elah Valley, where a young shepherd named David fought and killed a giant Phillistine named Goliath. These hills are honeycombed with extensive caves, basements quarried out of the soft sub-level of clay by residents 2200-2500 years ago or so. They dug rock for their homes from the clay, which dries and hardens when it is exposed to light, and this left extensive basement areas for cisterns, storage, dovecotes, and living areas. Interestingly, the residents were not Jewish, but Edomites, Idumeans in the Greek, who occupied the area after Jews had left after an invasion. When the area was to be captured by the Hasmonean (Maccabee) King John Hyrcanus in the 2nd century BCE they were given three choices: convert to Judaism (the only record we have of any forced conversions to Judaism in history!), leave and go back to Edom, or die. They seem mostly to have chosen to destroy their own homes and leave, and the remains of their homes were shoved down into their huge underground complex of halls and rooms.

We had the pleasure of engaging in the old Israeli national hobby of active archeology, digging and sifting through the dirt and finding pottery shards, animal bones, shells, and various other items of interest to the giant dig project, now in its 26th year. Their findings are fascinating: apparently the Idumeans practiced circumcision, ate no pork, and had many customs we believe to be Israelite and Jewish—but they definitely worshipped idols. The relationship between the neighboring tribal countries and Israel was clearly more complex than we have believed until now, or than the Bible tells us it was.

We also had the opportunity to do a little spelunking, caving through unexcavated rooms and seeing columbaria, niched rooms used for housing doves and pigeons for ritual sacrifice, food, and fertilizer production, cisterns, and bedchambers 23 centuries old. Fun and extremely interesting, if a bit dusty...

The dig co-director, Dr. Ian Stern, gave us a great class in how to find artifacts, and filled us in on a paper he will be delivering at Oxford soon at a conference dedicated to the findings at Beit Guvrin. Very cool—as were the caves, on a hot day!

Being in Jerusalem also gave us some time to visit with local friends, and I had dinner with one who took me to what he claimed is one of the last non-kosher restaurants left in Jerusalem. A continuing theme among both secular Israelis and Reform Jews here is the steadily increasing influence of the ultra-Orthodox on the way that Jerusalem functions, and its impact on the flavor and desirability of living in the City of Gold, Israel's capital. While Jerusalem certainly does not feel like a theocracy, and it very much resembles a continually rebuilt version of the city I lived in 20 years ago, there are more ultra-Orthodox on the streets and, well, everywhere. It definitely is changing the city in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Jake Gordon and I were preparing for his Bar Mitzvah in the hotel lobby when an older couple from England overheard us and joyously wished us mazal tov and asked many questions about his simcha. There are some universal Jewish experiences, and the joy of bar mitzvah is certainly high on that list.

L'Shalom v'Rei'ut,

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

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