My maternal grandfather, a refugee from Poland and Russia, had a curious ritual. Even though he spoke only Yiddish and arrived in this country past the age of 50, he mastered the English language sufficiently to read the New York Times cover to cover every single day. It was an astonishing sight. He had home delivery (one of few luxuries he allowed himself) and first thing every morning he would bring the paper over to the dining room table and read it out loud.
Often at a certain point in this ritual he would get excited and scream out, “Lies, lies, lies!”
He was referring of course to the venerable newspaper’s coverage of Israel, which he and many Jews like him considered harsh and biased or skimpy or minimizing. Occasionally, in a pique of disgust, he would toss the A-section of the newspaper into the wastebasket.
“Zayde,” I once asked him. “You pay good money for the New York Times. Why read it if you don’t like it? There are other papers… how about the (now-extinct) Long Island Press, Newsday, or the New York Post?”
He turned to me with a big smile and wagged his finger back and forth. Then he said in heavy Polish-English, “You dun’t hunderstand. Lies yes, but lies like this you cannot buy for no money!”
For a lie to be beautiful, like a New York Times lie, it had to be told artfully and in pretty language. For my grandfather, any attempt to dim the brightness of the Jewish claim to its specialness in the world was a ‘lie.’ He was convinced that was exactly the intent of the New York Times: to use beautiful language to take everything down a notch. To take passion and tragedy and minimize it, to cool outrage and reduce it via sweet reasonableness. In New York Times-speak, then, a pogrom in Europe becomes a ‘disturbance.’ The liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto received a paragraph or two buried in the middle pages.
For my grandfather and so many like him, the Holocaust was personal and it was seminal. Like the story of our exodus from Egypt—the parting of the Red Sea, the receiving of the Ten Commandments, manna and the 40 years in the wilderness, and the carnage we suffered at the hands of Amalek—it was all a testament to our intimate relationship with God. And it bore seemingly endless repetition because like the exodus, it was a story of birth—how we were born as a people and how centuries later we were born and reborn through untold suffering that culminated in the improbable founding of the modern state of Israel.
It was an emotional, moving experience, not a stagnant recitation.
“Remember to not forget” what Amalek did to you, the Torah enjoins us, because remembering is exactly that—a re-attachment of our members, a re-suturing of our limbs—pieces of us that were broken off and separated in the attack against us. Some even say that the word “Amalek” is a conjoining of two words: “am” (nation) and “malek”—from the Hebrew word, “melika,” meaning to sever. Amalek could be any nation or entity that seeks to sever the heart from the head.
The Nazis were Amalek incarnate, a “nation” that enjoyed a perverse, sadistic intimacy with the Jewish people. The obsessive, intimate, unrepentant hatred of Jews by the Nazis and the complete irrationality of the Holocaust as a national objective is precisely what led some to see in it the hand of God—and was exactly what drove my Zayde mad about the New York Times in those days. He felt that their cool detachment and reportage would sever the “head” from the “heart” of history.
The Nazis, on the other hand, were not at all detached from their quest. It was said that Mengele always knew which Jewish holiday was which and that Julius Streicher, one of the architects of the Third Reich and a Nuremberg defendant, reportedly went to the gallows with the word “Purimfest” on his lips. Thus with his last breath he linked his fate with the proverbial Haman, descendant of Amalek, and unconsciously with the Jewish people as well.
“You must remember what Amalek did to you when you were weak in your belief in God.” It is easy to forget Amalek; it is impossible to forget Amalek. It is easy to forget God; It is impossible to forget God.
Perhaps this is the reason that the Torah enjoins us with the strange wording, “You must remember to not forget…”
Related: Gelt Complex: A Tale of Two Zaydes