Looking for a Way to Commemorate Yom Ha-Shoah?

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Ben Greenfeld

Two years ago, I wrote the “Seder ha-Levayah le-Yom Ha-Shoah” (A Yom HaShoah Funeral Service), an attempt to create a ritual for the day that was religious, emotive, and infused with the substance of Jewish tradition.

Most Jewish communities commemorate Yom HaShoah the way they might commemorate a local civic holiday: a speaker, a lecture, the somber formality of a timed moment of a silence. It could be American Veteran’s day. It could be 9/11.

The Holocaust—perhaps the twentieth century’s most religiously significant event—is remembered without religious sentiment, or even religious language. The tones are institutional, the palette secular, and the effect much external fanfare and sparse internal fervor.

Two flaws bar the standard Yom Ha-Shoah experience from the realm of authentic Jewish grief experiences. First, unlike traditional fast days, Yom HaShoah leaves us without that all-important sense of involvement. How does one “participate” on Yom haShoah? Yom haShoah lacks a traditional set of rite and activity, leaving us worse than baffled: simply unaffected.

Second, despite the aforementioned passivity of the day, our Yom HaShoah experience is typified by the lingering taint of over-involvement: man-made moments of ersatz service, casting a newfangled blot on a ageless calendar. We chose the day and we determine how to mark it—in fact, we still feel free whether to recognize Yom haShoah at all. Even when we opt to observe, we find a mourning day which offers too little personal participation for meaning but far too much for authenticity.

The Seder ha-Levaya takes its inspiration from the most participatory, most authentic-feeling rituals available to us: the funeral/shiva cycle. It runs about an hour from start to finish and, at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, it is how we’ve commemorated the last three Yemei Ha-Shoah.

The Seder proceeds as follows:
1. Keri’ah. Tearing off that which adorns us.
Lights are dimmed, furniture removed. In the YCT Beit Midrash, we remove the cover off the Bimah as well as the parohet from the aron. All participants remove their shoes, placing them into a pile. In settings that allow, rings and jewelry are also removed and piled.

2. Aninut. The silent response.
A yizkor candle is lit, and we respond by taking seats on the floor and holding silence for two or three minutes.

3. Levayat ha-Met. Company for the abandoned.
We rise, one participant takes the yizkor candle and begins to circle slowly around the space. The other participants accompany behind, reciting Psalm 90 (yoshev bi-seiter elyon) and pausing seven times along the way. With the Psalm complete, the candle is placed on the ground, in the center of the room, and a few participants read aloud the Tzidduk Ha-Din (The Rock, His work is perfect … Blessed is the True Judge … We know, Lord, that Your judgement is right … the Lord has given, the Lord has taken, may the name of the Lord be blessed.)

4. Hesped. Tell their story.
We sit for a narrative reading. The canon of compelling Holocaust narratives from which to choose is unfortunately rich. At YCT, we recite as our base text three chapters from the gorgeous and sorrowful Megillat Ha-Shoah, composed by Avigdor Shinan. Some passages are read out in English, others in Hebrew with the Eikhah trope. A few participants take a section to recite out loud, the rest of us follow along inside a printed text.

5. Se’udat Havra’ah. Eating that is mourning.
We each take a single hard boiled egg, find a corner to ourselves, and sit for a silent meal of egg dipped in ash.

6. Nihum Avelim. The only comfort is talk.
We gather in seated clusters of four of five. Each member of the circle has two or three minutes to speak, on their personal connection to or current personal reflections on the Shoah. The other members listen, in silence, responding the same way at the conclusion of each reflection: Ha-makom yenahem etkhem be-tokh she’ar avelei Zion vi-Yerushalayim.

7. Kimah. Nowhere to go but out.
We rise from the floor, return our shoes to our feet, and re-don our jewelry. Lights are turned on. We leave the building, for our first walk outside, around the block, returning back inside to continue our day.

Ben Greenfield is the Rabbi of the Greenpoint Shul, in waterfront Brooklyn, and he serves on the Talmud faculty at the Ramaz Upper School.