I grew up learning about the Shoa in the most unfiltered manner, from a survivor who was still in his early 40s processing his experiences out loud in front of me and other children. We didn’t know what we were hearing, and, looking back, I’m not sure he knew who his audience was. We were loud and obnoxious 11-year-olds living in the US, attending weekly Jewish lessons at the Temple. most of us had parents who had also been born somewhere in the US. Privileged and bold, we played and climbed trees and swam in the great lake. Our Indiana childhoods were completely and radically different from his own in anti-Semitic Poland. My experience of Judaism was joyous and enriching and, sometimes, a little boring… His was one of terror.
This experience of joy sets me apart from many of the participants in the chevrutah sessions for the Jewish Manifesto who grew up one or two generations separated from a survivor of the Shoa. As one participant told us, “I never heard any happy stories of being Jewish.” They went on to say:
I don’t know any happy stories. I don’t know how to be Jewish and be happy.
In our third chevrutah, we watched films taken of Jews in the Netherlands before World War II.
1938: The beginning of the Sabbath in an Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam
1925: Amsterdam, The Jewish neighborhood in color
1939: Joodse wedding in Leeuwarden
We discussed the emotions and thoughts these films invoked. The participants were a mix of mostly European Jews, with the odd North American sprinkled throughout (raising my hand). A couple of the participants were coming to a Judaism after discovering their Jewish roots or Jewish soul. One participant discussed how their family had been forced to convert before the war and how that saved some of them during the Shoa. They called it a “form of hiding.” The path to reconnecting to their roots was both “alien” and “comforting:”
Coming back to Judaism is particular experience – It feels very much at home and very alien at the same time.
The grief and mourning had been deferred by the silence of grandparents. Some of whom had hidden away their Jewishness even from their own families, others who had encouraged secrecy from their children and grandchildren.
My grandma was raised as an orthodox Jewish girl and after the war she said nothing about this to my mother or to me. How could she have put it away? Maybe my grandmother gave me things, but I don’t know what they are. We became Jewish when I was a kid.
Being Jewish is Like Theater
The broken connection to the Jewish past and to its traditions, joys, and rituals left some struggling with the feeling of play-acting Jewishness:
My mother made big steps towards Judaism when I was a child and now I have kids and I wonder how I can make those steps for my own kids. Sometimes I feel that being Jewish is like theater.
Grief and Mourning
Maybe we all need new collective grief rituals. The practice of Judaism is filled with opportunities for historical grief. There are guidelines for mourning. And yet, they don’t seem like enough to grapple with what has been lost to us: the lives, the traditions, the messiness of our peoplehood. One participant said:
One thing I like about Judaism is the process of grief. It’s so straightforward with a time table and all. And it sounds like Jews as a people need a grieving process for the whole people.
Seeing the films made us realize how much of the day-to-day life of being Jewish surrounded by other Jews we have lost. It reminded us of the rich ordinariness of Jewish life in Jewish neighborhoods. One participant summed it up for all of us:
There is so much focus on the loss that we forget the vibrancy and joy.
We sometimes forget that Jewish life is joyful: that there is also resilience and joy and beauty. There’s a lot of vibrancy and community.
Can we bring joy back to Jewishness? Well we’re sure as $&!$(* going to try. As one participant said:
I want to stop the trauma. I want my kids to have happy Jewish stories. I want to have a happy Jewish story.
Amsterdam is Mokum
The final word goes to a participant whose family has lived in Amsterdam for generations and had been forcibly converted to Christianity:
Being Jewish is said to be tied to the land and mine is tied to Amsterdam. And the loss here has continued and continued in so many ways, with politics, with gentrification… We were always mourning the loss of Amsterdam. I have books and books and books on loss. At Pesach [Oy Vey held a Pesach seder in 2022] I saw these kids mouthing off to their parents, and I thought this is Amsterdamse. I was surrounded from people from all over the world, and I felt like this is Amsterdamse. And I felt that joy again. Here is Amsterdam, the old Amsterdam. It’s in Jewish people.
We need your voices. You can join the discussion and help us build vibrant, joyous, and meaningful Jewish communities here in the Netherlands.