Living through history

Past, Present and Future: Making meaning of this moment

Arise and go now to the city of slaughter;

Into its courtyard wind thy way;

There with thine own head touch, and with the eyes of thine head,

Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay,

The spattered blood and dried brains of the dead…”

The haunting words of “In the City of Slaughter,” Hayim Nachman Bialik’s epic poem immortalizing the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, are meant to invoke despair. They are a diatribe aimed at Diaspora Jewry, a reckoning and a warning that the status quo of Jews in Europe, in particular in the Pale of Settlement, is not sustainable against the dark specter of antisemitism that has been omnipresent throughout world history.

They are words out of history, reminders of dark moments of the past. Never, from the privileged perch of a Jewish educator in New York in 2023, would I have thought they would be relatable.

Only with hindsight are able to recognize the end of a period of normalcy, but now it’s clear: Oct. 6, 2023 and earlier is now officially a “before” time. Before the massacre. Before pogrom became a contemporary reality. Before many of us fully grasped the depths of hatred and evil that have left over 1,300 Israeli civilians and soldiers dead and over 100 in captivity. As of Oct. 7, the city of slaughter is no longer a moniker for Kishinev alone. We have new place names that will now be spoken in hushed tones: Kfar Aza. Be’eri. Nir Oz.

“… The open mouths of such wounds, that no mending

Shall ever mend, nor healing ever heal…”

We have seen the blood. We have seen the pictures of broken bodies, juxtaposed with the vibrantly alive photos taken of the victims in the time before. There is no anonymity. These are not numbers. We are learning people’s names, their stories — each individual once a whole world, now frozen — as we huddle together, crying and screaming and posting and sitting mutely in silence, in the “after.”

We watched the pogrom in real time. We don’t get a year to reflect, and to find the words, and to make meaning out of the unthinkable, like Bialik did. We don’t get literal centuries to find the lessons in destruction, like the Talmudic sages did. As each moment unfolds, we need to provide commentary, lessons, reflections and a sense of comfort.

To make Jewish choices in the world of after is to be grounded in the past, straddling the complexities of the present, shaping the world of the future. Never before has Jewish education required so many lenses. 

To make meaning of this moment requires the past. If we look at this moment of existential pain and fear in a vacuum, we do a disservice to all that has come before: The history of the Jewish people, and our journey from destruction to power to this feeling of vulnerability and loneliness. The history of Israel, the attempts at peace, the realities of war and the ever-evolving status quo. The wisdom that grounds us in our humanity and the hard-earned knowledge that will ultimately shape so many of the choices being made.

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To make meaning of this moment is to stay true to the present. It is a present where each day’s headlines bring more tears, but also where each day sees more moments of solidarity and connection than many of us have in a long time. Where the needs of our community are ever-changing, both timely and timeless. People want to feel seen. To feel useful. To understand. To be connected. To be safe.

To make meaning of this moment is to shape the Jewish future. We are at a turning point. The Jewish choices being made today will be lasting. Some people are making the choice to cling to the Jewish community, craving connection and understanding like never before, while others are shutting themselves down to try to block out the pain. Those who are feeling the silence. Those who are filling it with words. The work of today is to wind the thread between all of the above.

Kishinev was our past. The Simchat Torah massacre is our haunted present. Jewish education, and our Jewish choices, will shape our future. 

Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath is the senior director of knowledge, ideas and learning at The Jewish Education Project.