Rabbi Brett Krichiver:
Reflections on Nightwords
Opening reflection on the make-up of The Circle – our introductions became part of the ‘text’, we are: Hispanic, German, Buddhist, Jewish, female, Christian, Sikh, Black, Gay, Straight, Muslim, Mexican, White, American, male. And together we owned the story of the Holocaust, the Shoa.
There is no easy way to talk about the Holocaust, or genocide. The facts are numbing, six million only so many zeroes on a page. The only way to access such devastation in through a single story, a melody, we begin to see events as through the eyes of a child, as if for the first time.
Nightwords does not offer guard rails along the way, we are confronted with the raw images, the brutality, and we must struggle with its meaning, on every layer. For some of us, even the words are unfamiliar, the references obscure. Our task is to sort through the bones, and try to make what sense we can.
We begin with an ancient Jewish theme called Akedah – the Binding of Isaac, from the Bible. We are told that each one of us is responsible when children are sacrificed, regardless of the biblical decree that God saves the child, albeit at the last moment.
This piece presents a compression of history, the folding of the Abraham story into the 20th century. And tales of many other persecutions intertwined with the names of European concentration camps. For Jews in the room, what does it feel like to hear Abraham’s voice with a German accent?
Abraham’s journey mingles with another ancient trope, the mystical search for the Lamed Vaveniks – the 36 righteous people who keep the world turning in every generation. In our age we use this text to remind us to treat all people with kindness, for they could be (YOU could be) one of the 36.
But in the shoa, the Holocaust, where were they to be found?
There is no answer to the ultimate question – where was God? How could God have let this happen. Except in our script you hear the Mystic ask, the Philosopher ask, the Investigator ask, even the Prophet asks - and the answer comes from the Magician, that God can TURN GOD’S BACK, even the tiniest fraction of an inch, for just the tiniest fraction of time, God turns God’s back, and the history is Auschwitz.
I want to leave you tonight with a few questions based on this experience, so that we might talk more of these things, and allow this shared moment to increase our understanding of, and communication with one another.
You were each asked to remove your shoes when you entered, and at first you must have imagined that we were re-constructing a well-known exhibit of discarded shoes at Auschwitz. And then the text confronts us with a very different reference, that of Moses at the burning bush – he is asked to remove his shoes for the ground upon which he stands is holy ground. What does it feel like to you to be stripped of your shoes? Does this ground become sanctified? Or does it become defiled by that act?
Is it liberating, comforting, or does it increase our feeling of vulnerability? To sit without shoes?
And for those who participated in the reading, how does that feeling compare to having a number written on your arm? Does that moment exist for you in the present, or does it evoke powerful memories of the past?
It occurs to me, watching, that the act of inscribing a number on an arm is an act of almost unimaginable intimacy, each small step in the process. The rolling of a sleeve, the unclasping of a pen, or needle. The firm yet steadying grasp of an arm. And the realization, over and over again, of what those symbols mean, and what the act of inscription means. This week in the Jewish community we have listened to survivors and their families describe the dehumanization, the degradation, the destruction that accompanies that number. The aftershocks ripple, and ripple.
Our Cantor chanted in a sacred melody, which for Jews is among the most sacred rituals in our tradition. To hear that beautiful melody used for the description of the Chemelnitsky massacres of the 17th century, is deeply unnerving. It allows each of us to enter into the story as a first person account, as much of the text is the testimony of individuals.
We end with shofar calls – in our play they were rendered “tekiah” – which would normally be responded to with the call of the ram’s horn, calling our community together. But tonight the response was silence, and we are left calling out, searching for answers to endless questions.