Me: “So, tell me what you have already learned about the Holocaust?”
My class: yawn.
With yesterday being Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), I had the challenge of figuring out how to talk about the Holocaust with my 5th-7th grade students at Cool Shul. One wouldn’t think it would be a challenge, but it is. Now that in many schools a study of the Holocaust is part of the curriculum, some of my students seem almost “over it.”
It’s odd to think of anyone (even a pre-teen) being “over” learning about the Holocaust, but it’s true. We are so grateful that such an education is no longer kept to the synagogue or the dinner table. We want generation after generation to be well-educated on the subject and to make sure that not just Jews, but all people, understand what took place so they can lead us into a future without such atrocities. And yet, once it is part of the curriculum, it isn’t “special” anymore within a Jewish education context, and sometimes kids have a Been-There-Done-That feeling… probably because at some point they had to take a test on the subject rather than just experience it.
This is where art comes in.
What captures the joy and agony of the human spirit better than art? As I became frustrated that my students weren’t glued to every word during my lesson about the quality of life for children in the Ghettos, I realized that what did move them was the poetry and art works left behind by those children. It was the stories, the sounds, the music, the paintings, the written words that finally moved them and took them out of their hormonal slumber and into engagement (if you want to check out the website we used, go to http://ghetto.galim.org.il/eng/ and be patient, it takes awhile to load).
Another artful moment was the evening before when I attended a Yom HaShoah event at the synagogue where I used to be the Cantor. Once again, it was music and poetry and stories that lifted us out of ourselves and transported us through time. The Rabbi (and one of my mentors), Neil Comess-Daniels, asked a minister to read the following poem that Rabbi wrote back in 1996:
Twelve is a small number.
We purchase items in increments of twelve.
Twelve million of anything is unfathomable.
How much the more so twelve million murderers?
Six million Jews and six million others…
Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally and physically “imperfect”,
The politically and/or morally abhorrent.
Twelve million is as unknowable as one dozen is certain.
Yet, we must know this number, this twelve million, for this number knows us.
This number has shaped us.
Everything we are and can be will be measured in increments of
It left me and everyone else in the room speechless.
I was honored to sing during that event, and one of my offerings was a stripped down version of one of my most favorite choral pieces, written by Michael Horvit in honor of the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. It is the setting of a poem found written on the walls of a basement in Cologne, Germany, left there by someone hiding from the Gestapo (you can hear me sing it by clicking the poem or the picture at the bottom of this post [and yes, that’s my dog jingling in the background]):
I can’t sing this piece without feeling the tears start to swell. How can three sentences pack so much emotional depth and complexity?
Perhaps the most interesting art piece for Yom HaShoah this year is an unbelievably creative project by @eva.stories. This Instagram account is following the true story of a young girl with the premise of: what if a Jewish girl living during the Holocaust had Instagram? No, it isn’t a piece of music or a poem or a novel, but it is an attempt to reach today’s teens with a thoughtful, artful, contemporary look. Although it has drawn some criticism, I totally appreciate this attempt at a modern take on Holocaust education and art. As an educator, I love the audacity to try a new “art” form.
So, what does this all mean? It means…
Whether you are a choreographer, songwriter, composer, painter, storyteller, photographer or film maker (and ya don’t have to be a pro, a dabble will do!), keep documenting our times so we can express what is happening today to future generations. We may not be facing anything like a Holocaust in the U.S., but we are facing historic and troubling times. Many of us don’t know what more to do than what we are already doing to bring more compassion to our nation and the world. Many of us fear that most of our efforts are demonstration rather than action. But when we feel that way, let’s turn to our imaginations. Let’s create, and create, and create to capture our thoughts and experiences and the stories we are told. As we know, sometimes it is just one image, one lyric, one frame that can change the hearts and minds of America.
It may be a splatter on a canvas, a turn of a phrase, or even a bit of comedy that will alter the course of history. Why not from your hand?