Tonight I shook hands with a Holocaust survivor, for the first time in my life.
Dr. Rabbi David Weiss Halivni's story is as profound as any I've ever heard. From being deported to Auschwitz as a teen, to becoming one of the most respected Talmudic scholars in the world, a Rabbi with a Ph.D - his story is a great account of personal triumph to hear during the week before Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Rememberance Day). He arrived in the USA in 1947, a child prodigy, already a scholar and already ordained... but without having finished even elementary school. For the next decade, he completed elementary, high school, and bachelor's degrees, as well as two master's degrees and a doctorate. Then he became a lecturer and eventually a full time Professor at Columbia University.
To pretend I could carry about my evening as usual after this lecture tonight would have been foolish, indeed. I figured I would instead share a few feelings on the blog, helping me to process my thoughts and sharing them as part of the process.
Joining Rabbi Halivni on the stage was another iconic Ph.D. Rabbi, Dr. Michael Berenbaum. He was the creator of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the President of Stephen Spielberg's The Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
This lecture was, as all lectures at the JCCSF tend to be, inspiring, intense, eye-opening... and opened with some sort of intellectual humour. :) The way that Rabbi Halivni opened the lecture was interesting, hilarious, and so very Jewish. He said, "I'll start with a story." (I'll do my best to repeat it here from memory.) He talked about a young boy, awakened by his father at a very early time in the morning. The boy wanted to sleep, "as children do", but his father said he must get up so they could go to the Synagogue in the early morning to start their prayers. As they walked to the Synagogue, the boy found a coin in the street! He was very excited, and his father said to him, "You got up early to come to Synagogue, and see, you've been rewarded!" He said in response to his father, "Yes, but the man who dropped it got up even earlier than me!"
Everyone in the audience laughed. Rabbi Halivni then, without missing a beat, said, "I am only here today because of all the people who got up earlier than me." With one sentence, he turned (on a dime, as it were) a humorous story of father-son time, into a poignant recognition of all the scholars and historians that have come before him and an appreciation for the giants on whose shoulders he feels that he clearly stands upon. So after the first 30 seconds of the lecture, I knew this was going to be one to remember.
He spoke with Rabbi Berenbaum about how faith, prayer, belief, even daily thoughts and actions have changed since the Holocaust. Something I found very interesting is that they were both very comfortable with the often-discussed idea of "Never forget" - they spoke with certainty that due to "modern technology" (a sort of indirect reference, I think, to the work of Stephen Spielberg's Shoah Foundation) , that yes, sure, most certainly, the historical accounts of the Holocaust have been carefully and accurately preserved. (Specifically, Spielberg's foundation filmed 50,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors.) I found it quite motivating that they spoke almost casually that this truly incredible milestone has already been achieved and those memories have been preserved. But as always, there is more work to do. They both spoke with incredible passion about the necessity not only to recall the history, to read it in a book or to take a college course and write an academic paper on the Holocaust ("I've seen enough papers in my time", Rabbi Halivni quipped), they spoke about the importance of having an emotional connection to it. They spoke about how the Holocaust needs to be remembered "with great care, in a world that is not careful with things."
The lecture was not bleak or negative at all, but in fact rather hopeful, and more of a sort of intellectual and emotional wake-up call: a pointed reminder that active, passionate remembrance is our duty. We have the incalculable fortune of being born at a time in history when being a Jew is not a crime worthy of relentless persecution. I think it's our job to remember this fortunate circumstance, as taking this freedom for granted would be a tragedy.
Well, what else can I do? I think, for me, personally... writing this blog entry tonight is something. You, thoughtful reader, have hopefully learned something new or been inspired to learn more. That, maybe, is one of the things that I can do.
At the end of the lecture, I bought a copy of Rabbi Halivni's new book, "Breaking the Tablets: Jewish Theology After the Shoah." I was first in line, waiting to say hello to the Rabbi, to shake his hand, and to have him sign my book. He asked for my name, "Mike", I said, "Mordechai". He said, "No, no, your family name!" I wrote it down for him, "Jutan." Figuring he'd be interested, I then followed, "My parents are from South Africa, and then moved to Canada... and before that...", and then at the same time, I said "Lithuania" and he said, "I bet from Lithuania." How interesting that he would know that. Although if you're a Rabbi with a Ph.D. with as much determination and relentless spirit as Dr. Halivni, then I bet there's not a lot you don't know. How unassuming and humble a character, for a man who has lived through so much and has made his life's mission a search for truth and understanding.