Monthly Archives: January 2022


We are blessed with extraordinary brains that store a remarkable number of memories. Two or three notes of a song and we remember where we were when we heard it and who was there, 50-60 years later. A particular aroma, from perfume to chicken soup, and we are drawn back to when we smelled it the first time.

I have a picture that sets off a flood of memories. It’s my father at age 14, posing with a group of boys. I don’t know who took the photo; I obviously wasn’t there. None of the kids are smiling. They all look so weary. They’re wearing frayed shirts and their pants are held up with rope. My father’s jacket is 3 sizes too small; the sleeves ride way up on his arms.

These boys are all residents of the Auerbach Jewish Orphanage in Berlin, Germany. The year is 1940. They have fled Germany and they are on the run in the French countryside. France has just surrendered to the Nazis. The boys know that time is not on their side.

I look into my father’s deep-set eyes. They are dark with fatigue and fear. I know he’s seen people shot and killed. He’s ducked for cover during bombing attacks. He’s gone to bed hungry. He has experienced radical powerlessness. His parents are dead, and his older sister is hiding out somewhere back in Berlin. He is fleeing, but to where?

The Holocaust was a time of deep, unrelenting despair. So much suffering; an infinity of loss. Millions lived through it – who knows how. Many survivors were deeply traumatized, losing a part of themselves in the camps, in the forests, on the road, in hiding, and never fully regaining who they had been. Some of them were able to live a life of meaning, a life of substance and joy. Others were broken, stunted, unable to extricate themselves from experiences that marked them like the tattoos.

Yesterday, January 27th, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was established by the UN in 2005 in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Drawing from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, member states are called upon to condemn all forms of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief” throughout the world. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not to be confused with Yom HaShoah, which was established as a day of mourning by the state of Israel in 1949.

For survivors and children of survivors, remembrance days are superfluous.

A survivor once said to me right before a Yom HaShoah Shabbat service, “Rabbi, every day is a remembrance day. Every day, for as long as I live, every day! I recite kaddish. And if I live to be a hundred and twenty, it will not even begin to be sufficient.” Or as Yitzhak Zuckerman put it, a leader of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw, who survived Treblinka and saw untold numbers of friends and comrades die: “If you could lick my heart, you would die from the poison.”

So if International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not for survivors, who and what is it for? Perhaps it’s a means by which the stories of the Holocaust are preserved. Perhaps it’s a way to remind the world that there was a time and place of infamy and evil. Will the rest of the world dare to listen?

After Colleyville

We get up every morning, God willing, and follow a general plan for the day. We think about our obligations at work. We figure out the needs of our family members. We have to pick up dinner, or bring someone to the doctor’s office or wait for the appliance guy, or whatever. It’s how life rolls, with the assumption that an errant asteroid won’t slam into Earth. Or that a volcano somewhere in the middle of nowhere that no one has ever heard of won’t erupt and cause a tsunami a thousand miles away.

If we were to consider any number of potential calamities befalling us every time we left our homes, we would end up crushed by enormous fear. This is why we live from minute to minute believing that every little thing will be alright. We have to make assumptions along the way.

So when something does happen, something so outrageous and frightening and seemingly impossible, it shakes us up, rattles us to the very core of our being. It forces us to consider the randomness of evil and its malignant power. Those “there but for the grace of God go I” experiences are sobering.

Neither the folks gathered at the Beth Israel Congregation yesterday for Shabbat services nor those who were tuned in via Facebook or Zoom had any reason to imagine a violent, deranged man would take hostages at their shul to make a political statement about a jailed terrorist named Aafia Siddiqui. But the unthinkable did indeed occur.

A small community of American Jews living between Dallas and Ft. Worth, who never even heard of Aafia Siddiqui, ended up connected to her incarceration in the twisted logic of the hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram. It seems preposterous that this man would target Jews in Colleyville, Texas because Beth Israel was the closest synagogue to DFW Airport. But that’s how he found them.

I had just come home from a wedding last night when I got texts from two people. My sister, Marta, who lives in Austin, Texas, and who, for years, sang at Beth Israel for High Holy Days, wanted to let me know. And I heard from my dear friend, Anna Eisen, a founder of Beth Israel who along with her husband, David, helped build the synagogue. They were not among the hostages. But Anna could’ve been there. And, I suppose, any one of us could’ve been there.

I considered the number of people – people I knew – who had once belonged to the synagogue where I served in Arlington, TX, and were now members of Beth Israel. I might know the hostages. I knew the rabbi, a kind and compassionate leader who courageously upheld progressive Jewish values in the buckle of the Bible Belt. As I watched CNN’s coverage, I suddenly realized that the tsunami from this terrorist act had arrived at my front door.

This event is another reminder of the prevalence of antisemitism and the hate and brutality it inspires. It forces us to consider the bleakness of our world. We are, of course, rattled by this incident. We don’t know nearly enough to begin analyzing what happened and how. But we will learn from this incident and incorporate whatever facts that emerge into our already vigilant security procedures. Living in a free country, where the doors of our temples are open to all, is a risk. But barring the doors, requiring reservations, searching anyone who enters is an even greater risk.

We are all deeply thankful and so relieved that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and the other hostages emerged unharmed. We are beholden to the folks who set them free. On this Martin Luther King Day weekend, it’s worth imagining what he would have us say about Beth Israel in Colleyville: It is dangerous to proclaim freedom throughout the land. It is true that there are those who despise us simply because we are Jewish. But no act of terror will cause us to back down and hide. We will not diminish our commitment to our tradition and our history and our culture – and our future. We shall overcome.

The Maze of Memory

There have been times over the course of my life, when someone shares a memory with me. They describe a certain incident or experience and say, without hesitation, that I was there. They will be very certain of my presence. I smile and nod my head. And all the while, I am wracking my brain, desperately trying to get some foothold of recall. Because I don’t remember.

In those moments – in fact, in any situation where I’m accessing memories – I can and do get very impatient with myself. Certainly, it should be simple, like looking up a file on my computer, clicking it, and instantly obtaining the info. When I can’t do it, it feels like a failure of brainpower. And as anyone over age 65 will tell you, every memory lapse, every blank page where some history is supposed to be but isn’t, creates a little ripple of anxiety.
But neuroscientists have shown that each time we remember something, we are reconstructing the event, reassembling it from traces throughout the brain. Psychologists have pointed out that we also suppress memories that are painful or damaging to self-esteem. We could say that, as a result, memory is unreliable. We could also say it is adaptive, reshaping itself to accommodate the new situations we find ourselves facing. And the older we get, the more traces we must choose from.
There are other times when I am so sure of a memory, only to get incontrovertible facts that utterly belie what I always assumed was a true and accurate recollection. I could’ve sworn that I was watching Bobby Kennedy celebrate his big primary win live from the Ambassador Hotel in LA. I was so certain that I had watched him thank the crowd, turn, and walk back to his headquarters through the hotel kitchen. The scene when he was attacked: so chaotic and so horrifying, people screaming as he lay on the floor, shot in the head and yet vaguely conscious. I watched it in real-time.
Or so I thought. But then I began researching for this essay. Kennedy spoke to the crowd at the hotel just after midnight, Pacific Standard Time. It was June 6th, 1968, a Thursday, and a school night. There’s no way I watched it as it happened. It would have been 3am for me.
Yet it is lodged in my memory as a fact. I was there in front of our tv. Which is, I suppose, a reflection of the impact of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Two months before, Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis. The wounds were deep, the loss a true national trauma. I felt robbed and betrayed, as did so many other baby boomers. We were bereft. It was the end of innocence, at least it was for this 14-year-old.
I don’t think California Governor Gavin Newsome purposely announced his decision to deny parole to Sirhan Sirhan a couple of days before we observe the birthday of Martin Luther King. But there is a synchronicity to it. Newsome’s statement made it clear that history is significant, and that justice must stand. The nonviolence Dr. King taught did not and does not mean a lack of accountability for our actions. I support Governor Newsome’s decision

Over 50 years later, the family of Bobby Kennedy wrote words regarding Sirhan Sirhan that MLK would endorse, “Our family and our country suffered an unspeakable loss due to the inhumanity of one man,” the family wrote in a statement. “We believe in the gentleness that spared his life, but in taming his act of violence, he should not have the opportunity to terrorize again.”
Time has eroded so many teachings that held the promise of a new day. Is the world more cynical now? In my memory, I seem to recall that once it felt like brighter days were ahead. At least, that’s how I remember it.