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Learn, Practice, and Perfect Your Hebrew: Talking About the Holocaust

The StreetWise podcast from TLV1 in Israel tells us how the word ‘sho’a’ is being used in a number of contexts

Rose Kaplan
May 03, 2016

Tomorrow is Yom HaShoah in the United States, a day during which we commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. It’s a serious topic, of course, yet sometimes the way we remember or invoke tragedies evolves and shifts over time. Enter this week’s episode of TLV1’s StreetWise Hebrew podcast, where Guy Sharrett shares some fascinating everyday idioms and metaphors that have begun to take their place in the Israeli lexicon—all of which relate to the Hebrew word “sho’a.”

“It just shows you how words and conventions change,” Sharrett says in the episode. “It doesn’t mean anything about respecting less the victims or survivors.”

First of all, the word sho’a has biblical origins, where it’s used to mean “total destruction” or “catastrophe”—how this word came to be used for the Holocaust is not hard to comprehend. However, as Sharrett explains, in Israel today, many norms around Holocaust terminology have shifted: Sharrett recounts a story of being in a business meeting with who positively compared a carpenter to Germania ha Natzit, or Nazi Germany, because of his punctuality and dependability. Sharrett notes that while he found the comparison to be in poor taste, he seemed to be the only one who was shocked by it.

Even the word sho’a itself, Sharrett says, is now often used in everyday situations (and even by Israeli politicians). For example, he says, someone in line somewhere might say, “ani bator ba’bank, sho’a po” (”I’m in line at the bank, it’s like shoa’a here.”) This provokes a strong feeling of discomfort inside of me. But in Israel, Sharrett says, these sorts of associations are not so uncommon, and likely mean something along the lines of, “There’s a lot of people in line, things are really chaotic and unpleasant.” (Sharrett also mentioned the adjectival form of the word, sho’ati, or “Shoah-esque.”)

“As our society changes, we allow ourselves to remember in different ways,” Sharrett concludes. This is something to keep in mind this week as we do our own remembering and commemorating.

Throughout the episode, Sharrett plays haunting musical selections by Israeli composer Shem-Tov Levi, used as the theme from Amud Ha-esh, or “Pillar of Fire,” a documentary series produced by Israeli public television in the early 1980s on the history of the nation, including one episode that focuses specifically on the Holocaust, featuring interviews with many survivors.

Rose Kaplan is an intern at Tablet.