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A More Meaningful Way to Remember the Holocaust

Creating a new, deeply Jewish liturgy for Yom HaShoah, drawing on the Passover Haggadah

Dara Horn
February 03, 2023
Courtesy Shalom Hartman Institute
The Hitkansut takes the form of a Haggadah, with a consistent core text supplemented by many varied additional readings and explicit points for participation and discussionCourtesy Shalom Hartman Institute
Courtesy Shalom Hartman Institute
The Hitkansut takes the form of a Haggadah, with a consistent core text supplemented by many varied additional readings and explicit points for participation and discussionCourtesy Shalom Hartman Institute

Last week, an editorial in Kentucky’s Courier-Journal newspaper went viral for its sheer absurdity. In it, a group of noble public servants explained to primitive dolts like me that International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not, in fact, a day to remember the Holocaust. Instead, it is a day when we must “remember all the hate speech and all the violence that is perpetuated against religions, races and genders, all those acts committed in the past and those that continue to this day,” because “for one group, for one person, to claim that the hate and violence towards them is more important than another’s, only encourages more acts of violence against others.” Most of all, as the authors put it in their middle-school-worthy topic sentence, “Jews do not have a monopoly on persecution and atrocities.”

I don’t need to do the work of shredding this deeply antisemitic take, because the good people of the internet did it for me—pointing out that Genocide Prevention Day already exists, for instance, or that “with Black History Month coming up, it’s good to remember there are more races than black,” or “This September 11, we should also remember all those other plane crashes over the years.”

This low-rent spectacle, part of a genre of stupidities that tend to pop up like early groundhogs every Jan. 27, reminded me of how International Holocaust Remembrance Day always takes me by surprise. Why does this day even exist, I catch myself wondering every year, when the Jewish community has its own Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah? But the difference between these two commemorations exposes the deeper problem with the non-Jewish world’s way of remembering the Holocaust, and also the idea lurking beneath the self-righteousness of articles like this one. Fortunately, this Yom HaShoah, there is a new way for American Jews to find a more meaningful path to remembrance.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom HaShoah are fundamentally different, and not only because one is “international” while the other is Jewish. The two days commemorate different things—in fact, opposite things.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorates the date of Allied (in this case, Soviet) forces liberating Auschwitz. The revelations of the Holocaust’s magnitude and subsequent trials of Nazi war criminals ushered in a postwar international human rights framework that, in theory, entrusts international institutions with preventing and punishing such abuses. The idea that international cooperation and commitment are required to protect human rights was a central “lesson of the Holocaust” for much of the non-Jewish world. Many Jews today are skeptical of this idea, for numerous reasons. But for Jews, the problem with International Holocaust Remembrance Day runs deeper. At its root, it celebrates non-Jews “liberating” Jews, while honoring Jews precisely for being passive victims with no agency—a condition that happens to make human dignity impossible. The world often seems to prefer its Jews that way.

Yom HaShoah is exactly the opposite. The day’s full Hebrew name is Yom hashoah vehagevurah, or “Holocaust and Heroism Day.” Its spring date does not commemorate Jews being “liberated” by others, but rather the heroic and doomed Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on the first night of Passover in 1943. Its placement on the Jewish calendar shortly after Passover was not merely to avoid conflicting with the biblical holiday, but also to connect it to the modern Israeli observances of Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s memorial day) and Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel’s independence day), each also charged commemorations of Jews as actors shaping their own collective destiny. This approach generates its own large problems, of course. But at least those problems don’t involve dehumanizing the dead by removing all their agency.

In recent years, American Holocaust educators panicking over the deaths of the last survivors have embraced increasingly desperate tactics to reimagine Holocaust education for the future—most famously, by transforming now-dead survivors into artificial-intelligence-enabled holograms. In Israel, where survivors have also been fixtures of Holocaust education and commemoration, the same problem looms. But there, cultural leaders have chosen a different path. And as of last week, American Jews have a way to participate in it.

Ten years ago, the acclaimed Israeli novelist, poet, and theater director Michal Govrin foresaw the problem presented by the deaths of survivors, including her own mother. But unlike Holocaust educators in the U.S., she didn’t dream up a hologram or a VR Auschwitz tour. Instead, she drew on several thousand years of Jewish experience in dealing with this problem, and did what Jews have always done: She gathered together dozens of Jewish creative minds and built a liturgy and a ritual for the future. It is called the Hitkansut, or the Gathering. The Hitkansut, which Govrin developed along with a diverse group of artists, rabbis, scholars, psychologists, and educators, is by now well-established in Israeli public life, where it serves as a common Yom HaShoah ceremony in institutional settings like schools, army bases, prisons, and hospitals.

Last year, through the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, I was privileged to join a design team that adapted this liturgy and ritual for North American Jewish communities, and the final product is now publicly available. It is exactly the opposite of the generalized goodwill that infests International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Hitkansut is deeply Jewish. And to my shock, it is deeply moving, in a way that I had forgotten that I could be moved.

The Hitkansut avoids the passivity problem of International Holocaust Remembrance Day by choosing Passover as its model, instead of the more obvious Jewish communal mourning model of Tisha B’Av. Its liturgy takes the form of a Haggadah, with a consistent core text supplemented by many varied additional readings and explicit points for participation and discussion; like a Passover Seder, every group, family, or institution can take this script in different directions driven by participants. Most importantly, the Hitkansut liturgy also follows the Passover Haggadah’s structure in its arc from despair to empowerment. In Hebrew, Govrin and her colleagues named this progression mikinah lekimah—“from lament to rising up.” The Hitkansut Haggadah’s translators and adapters at the Hartman Institute, led by Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield in New York and drawing on scholarship by North American Hartman president Yehuda Kurtzer, searched for similarly mirrored phrasing in English. They landed on language that moves from “the responsibility to remember” to “remembering responsibly.”

The Hitkansut begins with an invitation, or ‘zimun,’ to participants
The Hitkansut begins with an invitation, or ‘zimun,’ to participantsCourtesy Shalom Hartman Institute

Like a Passover Seder, the Hitkansut includes fixed steps, from an invitation (in Hebrew, a zimun, echoing the invitation to traditional post-meal blessings) to an exploration of prewar Jewish life in diverse communities through memoir and music, to a full lament (an homage to biblical Lamentations and other traditional Jewish martyrologies, with an emphasis on individual and collective acts of witness), to discussion-prompting texts in sections about confronting evil and standing in opposition. It concludes with the interwoven Jewish concepts of zakhor and shamor—remembering and preserving—and with traditional calls to the sacredness of life, both individual and collective; the last line is the traditional blessing for the divine creation of the human being. Its many components, replete with the words of Zionists and humanists, religious and secular sources, traditional texts and unexpected ones, are designed to be flexible in the same way that a Passover Haggadah is; different communities will find different resonances in it and emphasize different things. Quotations from the Tanakh, the Talmud and the siddur, along with traditional prayers like El Maleh Rachamim, Yizkor, and Kaddish, are part of the core ritual and are also woven throughout.

Adapting the Hitkansut for a North American audience involved far more than merely translating it (credit for which goes solely to Hartman faculty). The Israeli ceremony was designed to broaden the focus beyond canonical stories of physical resistance to include other spiritual and emotional experiences, and also to include stories of Sephardi and North African victims and survivors for its mostly non-Ashkenazi audience. For North American Jews, we faced a different set of expectations and needs. Our team found, for instance, that Yiddish sources resonated very differently for North American and Israeli Jews, and that different traditional texts were likely to feel familiar to participants; we also added more American-oriented material, like testimony from Jewish GIs. But most of the adaptation work was less about cultural translation than about addressing a much deeper question, one that Israelis, who aren’t immersed in non-Jewish societies, can barely understand. It’s the challenge raised by the veiled antisemitism of a non-Jewish world that proudly calls Jews selfish for wanting to mourn their own dead. We needed to respond, if only for ourselves, to the “wicked son” voices who write things like that pathetic editorial, those who ask, essentially, “What does all this mean to you?”

We wrestled with this, endlessly. We often disagreed. The Hitkansut Haggadah, like the Passover Haggadah, reflects those disagreements, each one its own makhloket leshem shamayim, argument for the sake of heaven. It shares the Passover Haggadah’s obvious written-by-committee ethos, a gathering of irreconcilable contradictions. Like the Passover Haggadah, which doesn’t really work as a “book,” simply reading through the Hitkansut liturgy is an inadequate way to experience it. Its power, like all Jewish practices, comes from being brought to life in community. And that power took me by surprise.

The Hitkansut liturgy also follows the Passover Haggadah’s structure in its arc from despair to empowerment.

Last spring on Yom HaShoah, I and other contributors gathered for the North American Hitkansut’s pre-publication debut, with a small group of educators and elderly survivors at the Hartman Institute in New York and hundreds of participants online. As we prepared to “go live” with the ceremony, several people on the team expressed how nervous they felt, even though all of us were seasoned public speakers. “I feel the yirah,” one participant said, using a biblical Hebrew word that literally means “fear,” but refers to a goal of Jewish spiritual life: fear of heaven, trembling before the divine. I was startled to notice that I felt it, too. In the moments before we began, Rosenfield reminded us that despite the camera crew and the hundreds gathered online, “This is not a performance. This is our Hitkansut. We need to be present.”

We were present. During the rehearsal, I found myself suppressing tears; during the Hitkansut itself, all of us were openly weeping behind the camera, barely holding ourselves together as we took turns at the microphone. I hadn’t previously considered the people watching online, whom I’d thought of as a passive audience. When the liturgy first prompted them to share a memory or thought about life before the Shoah, there was a pause, long enough for us to worry that no one had anything to say. Then the online chat suddenly erupted, pouring forth hundreds upon hundreds of names and images and ideas—things as general as “the entire town of Baranovitch” and as specific as “my parents’ wedding in Salonica in 1939,” along with the names of schools and synagogues and books and plays and films and Hasidic dynasties and socialist youth groups and Zionist soccer teams. When the ceremony prompted people to share names of those who were murdered, the list of names continued pouring in for the entirety of the gathering, ranging from famous people to obscure artists to countless unnamed people like “my grandmother’s first baby,” a bottomless well of souls. Later, people refused to leave the Zoom, remaining online and sharing thoughts long after the actual event had ended. We didn’t have the heart to turn it off.

An excerpt from the ‘The Hundred Thousandth Book,’ one of the readings that make up the Hitkansut
An excerpt from the ‘The Hundred Thousandth Book,’ one of the readings that make up the HitkansutCourtesy Shalom Hartman Institute

The moments that shook me were unexpected. One reading, titled “The Hundred Thousandth Book,” described a celebration held in the Vilna ghetto in honor of the hundred-thousandth book checked out of the ghetto library. As an author, I’d naturally been delighted to include this passage, which appeared in the Israeli text, too. But hearing it read aloud at this gathering of American Jews, amid a broader American culture where sustained reading is simply not a value, hit me hard. No one at an International Holocaust Remembrance Day event would ever include something like this, I realized, because Jews celebrating books is as countercultural now as it has always been. I broke down completely during the singing of Eili, Eili, a poem by the would-be Jewish rescuer Hannah Senesh. I’d long dismissed the song, a staple of institutional Jewish life, as painfully sappy. But here it was sung by Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl—who, three months earlier, had calmly and effectively fielded phone calls from a violent antisemite holding Jews at gunpoint in a Texas synagogue, an attack that ended when the American Jewish hostages largely rescued themselves. No one pointed out this extremely recent history. It was simply there, like the ancient Hebrew liturgy was there, and we were alive within it.

Near the Hitkansut’s end, Rabbi Justin Pines, in remarks of his own (because like a Seder, the Hitkansut is not intended to remain a static script), spoke about his survivor ancestors as well as the biblical story of the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Pua, who defied the Egyptian genocidal decree to murder Jewish newborns, because “the midwives feared God”—they felt the yirah. He cited the Torah verse saying that God rewarded these midwives by establishing houses for them. “I am of the house of Shifra and Pua,” he said.

All Jews are, because Jewish communities only exist thanks to the bravery and devotion, in good times and bad, of those who came before us. There are no “lessons” here, just a deep and painful mourning for the dead and a profound and ancient awe before the eternal. Beneath every preachy international Holocaust remembrance and every cavalier erasure of Jewish experience lie millions of dead Jews, whom we are allowed to mourn, along with living Jews who are feeling their ancestors’ yirah anew. The exhausting effort of defending against this self-righteous onslaught has left little room to mourn, and even less to rise in awe. The world can have its International Holocaust Remembrance Day and celebrate how All Lives Matter. But on Yom HaShoah, we can gather together like those devoted midwives, ready for the future.

Dara Horn is the award-winning author of five novels and the essay collection People Love Dead Jews.