By Steve Kahn
I am a Jewish educator, and not because I’m a former English teacher and present Academic Dean and college counselor at a Day School, or lead a minyan on campus, or speak with students about their Jewish sense of self and how it’s fostered in our program and might continue to be fostered after they graduate. No, I comprehend myself as a Jewish educator because of what Judaism teaches, and what I have learned from my studies and practice, about context. That it’s weighty. With significance: Judaism compels us to consider how multiple forces act upon thought, feeling, experience, and in so doing contribute to the total formation of each. Which is why I say, after having accompanied the senior class at my school on their culminating socio-cultural educational voyage – amazingly, two years ago already this past spring – to Poland and its death camps before departing for the vibrancy and spirituality of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, that I’ve now gone to Israel for the first time twice.
The same me has not traveled to Israel any time I’ve gone. The ideology that undergirds what it means to read and understand a daf of Talmud tells me so. The page is text and counter-text, both. A recitation of, as much as an invitation into, discussion, consideration, participation. To read is to learn how to read – to understand that words written are meant to be interacted with, and that readers are to become, in M.M. Bakhtin’s conceptualization, “partner-interlocutors” with what’s before them – and with ourselves, too. We don’t read to consume (though we do); we read to react to and against. Even more to the point: we read with the understanding that we have something to contribute to the words we’re taking in – a contribution we, thoughtful we, are authorized to make, and by none other than our individual selves and our individual life experiences, while we’re reading as much and as readily as after we’ve “finished” a sentence or paragraph or page or chapter, let alone the gestalt of the work as a whole. Or, in other words, consider: completeness is not; rather, it is ever-becoming. As much so as the self that’s doing the completing.
Which – further – means that the daf begs us to conceive of how both the it and the I aren’t whole entities, per se, because the it is only understood through the history of thought brought by the I, and which that I can’t escape. The daf, with all its surrounding commentary from all those rabbis from all those ages of human history, makes evident that context exists, and must be accounted for, and brought to bear, even, on what is extant. This I, as a Jewish educator, revels in the notion that the daf, rather than defining an entry point into itself, invites entrance. Forces a pause, too, on the following: that the page does not circumscribe its own beginning. Where, in the face of passage after passage, are we to commence reading? The center? The margin? If there, then from the top? Which? Top left? Top right? In medias colloquio? And if amidst, how did we find ourselves drawn to that point of personal origin? What caught us and made us say, “yes: here is where to begin because here is where I am?” It is, of course, I believe, entirely consequential and in no way incidental that on the daf, text is ringed by text. Additionally equally significant is that what we see is not circular argument, but the circle of space for classroom discussion, where views are offered, heard, responded to. Present before us is, in effect, a circular argument of the best sort, one that essentially remains an open area, welcoming, even, for one’s personal orientation to, inside, the swirl of conversation.
The Jewish educator in me (or who is me) privileges, and appreciates modeling, the opportunity to theorize, to exegete. Engaging in such behavior is the way I live my daily life, and is the mode of thought I brought with me when accompanying our school’s senior class on their excursion, as much physical as metaphysical, to both Poland and Israel. I found myself, therefore, hardly surprised when the Israeli educators who lead our program insisted, “you can’t understand Jewish life during the Holocaust until you understand Jewish life prior to the catastrophe. And you can’t understand Israel until you understand Jewish life in Europe before the existence of the state.” Context, they said. You must find an entry point into the conversation about Judaism and Jewish practice and Jewish identity formation – both who and how embraced it, and who and how was repulsed by it. The Israeli educators placed before us a challenge. Were we open to considering, would we be able to consider, that while the Holocaust could be central to understanding what it means, and meant, to be a Jew, was the Holocaust the center, the hub from which extends all post-catastrophic self-conception? That perspective, that delimitation, our educators, our roshei yeshiva, our chevrutot, suggested is something we should wonder about…
Throughout our journey,I found myself, as it were, on their page. And especially so in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. We’d arrived there in the late afternoon after spending the previous hours of the day at Majdanek. And I do mean spending. We left spent. Diminished. Lesser. More insubstantial. More waiflike. Ghostly. We could only feel decreased, and our hunched shoulders made evident the emotion, the self-recognition, in the face of “Bad und Desinfektion.” Never mind entering the actual hallway that led to the actual concrete chamber, empty now, where the corpus, breath-taken, became animus. The sign outside the barrack was enough. For now. Because we didn’t comprehend – couldn’t – what lay ahead, on the far southern end of the acreage, under the dome the Russian liberators built to cover – to cover, not to house, not to contain – when they entered this zone of death. Reaching the rotunda, ascending it, I was reduced to panting, breath gone, in the face of the rounded tonnage of ash that lay mounded, almost molded, before me. I gulped air, grateful for the ability. And wailed. Wailed that my lungs could contract and expand in the present and before the silent. Wailed that I could exhale with the expectation of inhaling. Wailed, too, at what lay half a kilometer away, behind a wall. A graveyard. With stones upraised and prominent. A place for the individual dead. Not a pile of amassed remains, forced back into the dusty form they took in Eden before the rise of man could conceive of the barbarism to which I now was bearing witness.
I didn’t know that my constrained breathing could become rhythmic again. Not until I entered the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, and found myself not fending off asphyxiation but rather sighing with relief. Steadied, I snapped a photo as soon as I passed through the gates – because before me were graves and markers. And not markers, but tombstones. And not tombstones, but monuments. And not monuments, but chiseled designs. And not chiseled designs, but ornate symbols, really, that told, pictorially, of lives lived and lived with purpose. A giver of tzedakah here. Someone pious there. A protector of the community farther ahead, indicated by the lionine figures of the ariyeh chopped in bas relief from the granite that sat atop the site. In front of me: the grand indicator that here rested Ester Rachel Kaminska, with deer and bear and eagle and the cupola of a theater on the monument to the theatrical establishment in Warsaw she left behind, living on in recognition though long returned to her place in the earth. I knew, at this moment, not that I had left Majdanek, but that I was gone from it. Here, in a place of places, I realized as my back straightened, here was uplift. I was not among the anonymous dead. I was among person after person, individual upon individual upon individual, who represented, singly and collectively, those departed who had passed but not away. Without opening a tractate of Talmud, I knew I was experiencing the forcefulness of context vivified; this beit almin was, is, the counter-argument to the Lublin cemetery abutting Majdanek that caught my eye. A heap is inappropriate for, inconsistent with, finality. In the Warsaw Jewish cemetery, right next steps were rightly taken: ensured here was a locus of residence where what was could remain, bounded in his or her own territory even while being gathered to individual ancestors, to patriarchs and matriarchs, to the heroes of their family lineages regardless of whether or not those people, who no doubt fought battle after battle to varying degrees and of various significances, witnessed a final victory for their efforts.
I carried these thoughts about heroism and ancestry with me upon entering Har Herzl. There, on Yom HaZikaron, I found myself fully in the presence of a knowledge that those who fell in battle, whether 69 years ago or six months ago, and the memory of them, the lives they lived and the deaths that were thrust upon them, make that day of their recollection a day of pain. Pain because remembrance requires contortion; thinking, feeling, in the name of reminiscing, mandates twisting around realities that might better be left to lie. But not on this national day of mourning, when the entire country seems, as one, to be reciting the prayers of the Yizkor service. Standing on Har Herzl, though, I found myself, as I had in Poland … at ease. At attention, yes. To the graves of the 60,000 around me. To the 100,000 in attendance, to honor, commemorate, memorialize. To the siren. To Hatikvah. To el maleh rachamim. To sniffles and tears. But I was – with all respect, and as awkward as it feels to say – not devastated at the loss of life. Immersed in somberness, I found that the comfort that both washed over and upheld me when I felt I was among those alive in my memory in Warsaw was a comfort I brought with me to this holy location at this holy time. Because here, as there, lay anything but an enumerated mass. Here, as there, was a spot and a specific space that bound within it a one, a unique singularity, a who who resided among even as he or she was gathered unto. Here, as there, I found myself in a place of places. And in the pages not of the Talmud but of the Haggadah. “Go,” our educators told us – “lekh” they might just as well have said – “and find someone to talk to. Listen to the stories that are told, that want to be told.” How could I not find, if not relief, at least respite, in the request which was also directive and hopeful suggestion? Find people who want to talk. Hear what they have to say. Don’t feign silence. Deny the tendency towards staidness. Open your ears. And open your mouth to ask questions, to permit your ears to open even wider. Doing so meant doing what everyone was there to do: make sure that, not all of the buried, but rather each of the buried, was heard about and, in that way, attended to. Was guarded. Not from the unknown. But from being unknown. I was comforted, I have said: in and by the presence of presiders, of those who made certain no grave was unaccompanied, that no body at rest rested solitary. To this I stood at attention, fully understanding the purpose of orange and kumquat trees that grow on these grounds: they, like lives, are fruit made sweet by the nourishment of recollection, of true tales told, heard, loved. These citrus are not sentinels, though they oversee and overhear. No, they are planted as reminders that their kin, in marketplace after marketplace, indoors and out, in Super Sol or Machneh Yehudah, reach forth in their abundance to a country entire, and impart to young and old alike the flavor of a shared heritage, whose flavor lingers long after the fruit is eaten – an eating and a lingering both of which sustain.
Finding sustenance on this sojourn was challenging, and in part because the story of the destruction of Polish Jews and Jewry in Poland I found too massive to cram down the gullet of my capacity to comprehend. The numerical figures are mythic, as large and daunting as the Mythic Ancestor Chaim Potok invents for young Asher Lev to contend with – by running from the giant who Asher feels is stalking him while tromping across the landscape of his dreamscapes. We, too, like Asher, and too often, find that in the face of the intimidatingly massive, we can only shrink from feeling its heft and girth. 80,000. 450,000. 1.1 million. These are numbers, yes, and objective. But they are also assertions – and ones context demands that we reply to. Mine is this: the cemeteries in which I found myself stand out to me now, in retrospect, in reflection, in remembrance, as places to be appreciative. I came to this conclusion when, functioning as my own chevruta, I reviewed the journal entries I recorded along my journey: “The only number that matters is one,” I’d written. I praise the G-d that opens the eyes when they might otherwise be blind.
Steve Kahn is Dean of Academic Affairs at San Diego Jewish Academy.