May 20, 2009

The Power of a Jewish Voice

The Power of a Jewish Voice
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Nicholas Patruno has written that: 

"[During the Sho'ah, the Nazis' attempts at] the suppression of language served as a cruel reminder that there would be no voice left to tell. ...But in Auschwitz, Primo Levi soon concluded that his survival, in physical and moral terms, depended largely on his ability to oppose this Nazi scheme. ...Levi later wrote that 'one can and must communicate, and thereby contribute in a useful way to the peace of others and one's self.' (Memory and Mastery, p.92)"

I was blessed tonight to witness the father-and-daughter dialog between Ben and Charlene Stern at my shul and experienced the truth of Levi's statement, that Ben Stern's determination to contribute his voice has inspired a legacy of both Jewish memory and vision for the Jewish future. 

In the most basic of terms, tonight was a highly charged, unbearable experience of testimony. Embraced and guided by his daughter Charlene's questions, Ben shared parts of his personal story with an audience comprised of shul members of varied generations, many friends from neighborhood Churches and visitors from our larger community. 

As opposed to Jewish ritual-moments of memory, tonight was a conversation, an unscripted sharing of legacy between father, daughter, and community. Ben's narrative spans a simply indescribable journey which led him from a warm home in Mogielnica, Poland to the horrors of the Shoah, from a displaced person's camp to his emigration to Chicago.  He spoke of his defiance of the organized Jewish community's desire to remain quiet in the face of the American NeoNazis' attempted march in 1970 in Skokie, which he helped defeat. He spoke of his commitment to Israel and the American Jewish Community. And he spoke of his decision with his beloved wife to create a new home close to their children, grandchildren, and great-grand-children.   (
Click here for Ben's page on the US Holocaust Museum website.)

Ben spoke of the urgency of learning our People's story of survival and hardship.  While attempting to not agitate those gathered, Ben also (re)focused our attention to the many current incarnations of Anti-Semitism. And, while we refuse to be defined by these, Ben reminded us the serious costs of not learning Jewish vigilance, the perils of not remaining attuned to the challenges facing Jewish world. I believe that this is an often overlooked part of our community's commitment to universal social justice, that the dignity we demand for all people is the same dignity we demand for ourselves.  

The relative ease of living a Jewish life in America is both very recent and, as Josh Kornbluth terms it, "mercurial."  Our communities are are fluid ones, with shifting and nuanced notions of identity.  In the face of all this, Ben reminded us all of the Mitzvah of cultivating Jewish memory.  

Ben told a group of grade school students in Florida two years ago:

"I am destined to be here to teach you the difference of what hatred and racial degradation can create - what can drive a people together to create such a tragedy. Millions of people were killed in World War II, and here I am."

Hinenu - We are here too. And we have much work to do.  

For as Elie Weisel, with whom Ben and other survivors marched during the final days of the Sho'ah, has taught:

"For in my tradition, as a Jew, I believe that whatever we receive we must share. When we endure an experience, the experience cannot stay with me alone. It must be opened, it must become an offering, it must be deepened and given and shared. And of course I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human beings, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways - disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet. Granted, our task is to inform. But information must be transformed into knowledge, knowledge into sensitivity and sensitivity into commitment. (A God Who Remembers, from NPR's "This I Believe", 2008)

This lesson is one that Jonathan Sarna has translated well for modern American Jewish communities:

"[History] is not just a record of events, it is the story of how people shaped events: establishing and maintaining communities, responding to challenges, working for change.  That is the greatest lesson I can offer others: the knowledge that they too can make a difference, that the future is their to create. (American Judaism, p.xx)"

The Jewish decisions we make, the destiny we build for our precious communities, the justice we foment in the world around us, the very memories we remain determined to contain as we continue to dream - all these define our success.

May we continue to grow in strength as we transform memory into commitment, and survival into peaceful, purposeful Jewish pride.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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