Sho’a Nightmares

In April of 1997 I wrote (as an aside) to a forum of col­leagues:

I think every teenage Jew­ish child ought to have a week of Sho’a relat­ed night­mares. If we can reen­act the Exo­dus and liv­ing in Sukkot, why not the Sho’a?

Only one per­son respond­ed. How­ev­er, that response was quite intense. I will not quote from that response, but para­phrase some of the exchange that ensued

My cor­re­spon­dent strong­ly dis­agreed with my sug­ges­tion that we “impose” Sho’a night­mares on chil­dren. Sug­gest­ing that it is one thing for an indi­vid­ual to make a con­scious deci­sion to engage in the par­tic­u­lar painful exer­cise, and quite anoth­er to impose it on some­one. My cor­re­spon­dent sug­gest­ed that (while cer­tain that I had not intend­ed to con­vey such an idea) none of us are put on earth to cre­ate new night­mares or forms of abuse.

And so, I respond­ed. Here is my think­ing:

I decid­ed in the ear­ly 1970s that each Jew­ish child should have a week’s worth of night­mares. Of course there is lit­tle that I can do to “enforce” this, but I can make expe­ri­ences avail­able that can enable them. I recall being at a Zion­ist youth move­ment camp in the mid ’60s and shown the movie “Night and Fog.” The film had graph­ic footage of the death camps. At home I had books my par­ents had brought into the house with still pho­tos of the hor­rors. I had spent hours explor­ing these images.

I was old­er (about 20 years old) when I tried to get into the life of the boy with his hands up being led from the Ghet­to. I spent months with him, I kept his image before me dai­ly, his image turn­ing a fiery red as the black closed in on him. [You know he did­n’t die in the Sho’a!]

And I wore a lapel but­ton with a yel­low star in iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

yellow star button

Of course this was all self imposed and vol­un­tary. Did it scar me? I think not. Per­haps col­leagues who know me could respond bet­ter.

I have not changed my mind. I still find noth­ing abu­sive in this.

A week dur­ing a life­time is a brief span.

To imag­ine what it means or feels like to be a Jew­ish infant tossed into the ovens alive because the Nazis want­ed to save the 0.5 cent the pri­or gassing would have cost.…

To imag­ine for a week what life was like for a teenag­er liv­ing through the Sho’a.…

This is not a ter­ri­ble bur­den on a child. I know chil­dren who have night­mares from see­ing a pop­u­lar Hol­ly­wood movie, they all live through them. Do we pre­vent our teenagers from see­ing such films because they might have night­mares after­ward?

If my chil­dren can iden­ti­fy with these chil­dren of the Sho’a, learn from them and rec­og­nize the holy spark that exists in each per­son, regard­less of age, gen­der, social stand­ing, loca­tion in the world, I don’t think I’ve ter­ror­ized them hor­ri­bly.

Again, the point I made was in con­text of expe­ri­enc­ing (par­don my translit­er­a­tion):

B’Chol Dor vaDor Chayav Adam Lirot et Atz­mo K’Eelu Hu Yatzah miM­itzray­im

and I add:

B’Chol Dor vaDor Chayav Adam Lirot et Atz­mo K’Eelu Hu Yatzah miAuschwitz

In order to K’Eelu Yotze miM­itzray­im we need to expe­ri­ence some of what Mitzray­im was.

On con­tin­u­al­ly retelling the Sho’a… I remem­ber an anec­dote from Isaac Deutsch­er’s book “The Non-Jew­ish Jew” in which he wrote of a Melamed with bright red hair who sat at his desk. Every day all he did was tell of the cross­ing of the Red Sea. Each day the sto­ry was new as dif­fer­ent details emerged from his telling. Each day the Kinder expe­ri­enced the won­der of redemp­tion.

Our cor­re­spon­dence con­tin­ued with an exam­i­na­tion of my quot­ed text.

Our rab­bis tell us that in order to qual­i­fy as a Chacham we must take on the respon­si­bil­i­ty of see­ing our­selves as if we had been lib­er­at­ed from Egypt and that if we delib­er­ate­ly exclude our­selves this makes one a rashah! My desire to have our teens expe­ri­ence the Sho’a in a sim­i­lar way sug­gests that if they do not, the are r’shaim.

In addi­tion we are not oblig­at­ed to expe­ri­ence the spe­cif­ic hor­rors of slav­ery in Egypt but rec­og­nize that we are free from ulti­mate oppres­sion.

Yet, in the Seder itself we do a num­ber of things to remind us of what slav­ery must have been like. We dip karpas in salt water to remind us of the tears our ances­tors shed. We eat the maror to remind us of the bit­ter­ness of slav­ery.

I had not writ­ten about what I felt I had gained from my “exer­cise” and my cor­re­spon­dent found that unfor­tu­nate, sug­gest­ing that when we speak of our own per­son­al expe­ri­ence, we enable oth­ers to find a com­mon thread and build on our ideas, or not. On the oth­er hand, when we tell peo­ple what they should do, we encour­age sub­mis­sion to our “sug­ges­tion” or that they defy us.

We speak of Yitzi­at Mitzray­im as a metaphor for the process of rebirth. Yet (accord­ing to my cor­re­spon­dent) we are not suf­fi­cient­ly far from the Sho’a to appre­ci­ate its metaphor­ic val­ue. My cor­re­spon­dent sug­gests that we haven’t been able to metaphorize the Inqui­si­tion! (I’m not sure of that, I have read a vari­ety of accounts that sug­gest that the Kab­bal­ah of Tzfat is a metaphor­ic response to Grush Sfarad [The expul­sion from Spain].)

It seems that I had got­ten dan­ger­ous­ly close to some very del­i­cate issues. My sug­ges­tion that chil­dren have night­mares raised ques­tions of why we have such con­cepts as harass­ment and abuse. Sug­gest­ing that some of us are more pow­er­ful than oth­ers, and that when the more pow­er­ful tell the less pow­er­ful that they should do some­thing, they are impos­ing it.

OK, let’s take a step back and a deep breath.


I did­n’t have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss the Sho’a with the fam­i­ly. Too busy work­ing out math prob­lems, help­ing with prac­tic­ing La Bam­ba, catch­ing the last 20 or so min­utes of the cur­rent sit-com, you know, the nor­mal things of life. The things that the Sho’a pre­vent­ed.

Can I impose? Yes: I impose a bed­time, I impose a dress code, I impose tak­ing vit­a­mins.…

But I wrote ini­tial­ly: “should” not “must”. Do I feel there is some kind of Mitz­vah to expe­ri­ence the Sho’a? Yes, but that is a metaphor. And here is where I did not make myself clear.

I was asked:

When we say they should expe­ri­ence some­thing, what do we mean?
Why should they expe­ri­ence these night­mares?
To be whole peo­ple? To be com­pas­sion­ate?
To be wor­thy of our atten­tion?
To be good Jews? To be adult? To be decent?
To be clones of us?

To which I respond:

Why do we say that every Jew should con­sid­er him/herself as hav­ing been freed from slav­ery in Egypt?
So much of our texts harken back to the expe­ri­ence in Egypt as a source of lessons.

I don’t need clones. I often see aspects of myself in my chil­dren about which I feel uncom­fort­able… oth­er aspects I enjoy. I know and love the fact that they will devel­op into inde­pen­dent adults tak­ing the tools that my wife and I have made avail­able to them and rework their lives and their world. My task as parent/adult (even rab­bi in the greater sense as in with more than my chil­dren) is to make those tools avail­able to the next gen­er­a­tion (i.e. raise up many dis­ci­ples).

I have nev­er described how I ben­e­fit­ed from my exer­cise of iden­ti­fy­ing with the boy in the pho­to­graph.

How have I ben­e­fit­ed? First, noth­ing appears here on this WWW site oth­er than attempts to cel­e­brate the lives of the com­mu­ni­ties destroyed by the Sho’a and litur­gies that height­en our aware­ness of the Sho’a in the hope that we might incor­po­rate this aspect of our peo­ple’s expe­ri­ence into our lives as we did the expe­ri­ence of Slav­ery in Egypt.

Beyond this I’m afraid I can­not point to any­thing tan­gi­ble.

Per­haps some­one with keen­er insight into me as a per­son would know. It is hard for me to know. The only me I am is the one who has lived this way. What would I have been like had I not done these “exer­cis­es”?

Date: April 26, 1984
Size: ?
Pin Form: safe­ty
Print Method: cel­lu­loid
(along edge):

© Mark Hurvitz
[updated & modified] Originally Posted June 2, 1999

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