Fourth-year rabbinical student Zach Zysman presented "Vayidom Bubbie," his sermon for Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 – 11: 47) on Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 16, 2015 at HUC-JIR's Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.
Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, an ongoing oral history project suggests, “When you hear the kind of story that is authentic and pure, that speaks about kindness, courage, decency and dignity, it can sometimes feel like you are walking on holy ground.”
I’d like to tell you such a story.
My Bubbie was like a character from a Shalom Aleichem story.
Born Serla Berkowitz in Gruetz, Poland on May 3, 1919, her incredible life story reads like a novel, while her reality was filled with sorrow, war, adventure and survival. Her childhood and early years were filled with great memories, including a husband, Joseph, and a daughter, Helen, until Hitler's Nazis invaded Poland and sent her family to the Warsaw ghetto, where they were all separated and murdered along with her parents.
Bubbie survived Warsaw and was shipped by train to Auschwitz. She survived due to a little luck, a lot of courage and intelligence, and a whole lot of grit, this indescribable quality she possessed that was 50% intelligence, 50% common sense and 100% her tough, little yiddisha self.
Bubbie, along with her second husband, would eventually own, live, and ultimately die in an apartment building on 919 N. Alfred St. in West Hollywood. This was my family’s own private shtetl; our kibbutz, and would play a key role in all of our lives. This building stands as a symbol of success, family, and legacy built from Bubbie’s grit and hard work. At 85 years of age, if the building had a leak, Bubbie would go up to the roof by herself to check it out. Her dedication and caregiver nature illustrates her essence as a survivor.
During her time at the camp two little girls attached themselves to her and insisted that she was their mother. “Nein kinder, nein kinder,” I remember Bubbie called. “They’re not my children!” The girls persisted, so Bubbie took care of them in her special Bubbie way. The dreadful day arrived when they were split into different lines, the two girls in one and Bubbie in the other, and Bubbie never saw them again.
These girls were the daughters of a man named Meyer Gutman. Word had gotten back to him about how an extraordinary woman had taken such good care of his daughters before they were murdered. After the war Meyer went from village to village looking for Bubbie. He went looking to thank her. In the end he, she became his bride.
For the next 60 – 70 years, neither Bubbie nor Papa Meyer ever truly spoke about their experiences in the Holocaust with me, their other grandchildren, or even their two daughters, my mom and aunt. I imagine they just couldn’t talk about the horrors even if they wanted to. They had to move on. So, for almost 70 years that is exactly what happened. They did not speak about their experiences. For almost seven decades, “Vayidom Bubbie,” and Bubbie was silent.
We read in parshat Shmini:
“Vayidom Aharon,” and Aaron was silent. These words from Vayikra 10:3, describing Aaron's condition after the deaths of his two elder sons ring true. Nadav and Avihu have been consumed by fire sent forth by Adonai. Eskenazi/Weiss comment, “There is not much that one can say when confronted with the awesome power of God.” Many people, in fact, mourn in silence. Frequently we observe a collective moment of silence in honor of those who have died.
Can Aaron’s silence help us understand Bubbie’s? Silence is and can be a powerful response to tragedy. Rabbi Pamela Wax teaches, “Not all silences are equal. There is angry silence, and there is stymied silence. There's silence that is imposed externally by oppression or trauma, and there is the holy silence of contemplation and inner quiet.” What kind of silence was Aaron’s? Blu Greenberg, an American writer specializing in modern Judaism and women’s issues, offers, “Aaron responded with a profound, shattering silence, a stunning and shocked silence…Total silence.” Rabbi Wax continues:
Aaron’s response is the profoundest human and religious response to the reality that there are times when good people die unjustly or are consumed in tragedies that seem to be arbitrary, shocking, without justification, and with nothing to ameliorate the pain and loss of those who love them.
This silence describes the silence of my grandparents. After the atrocities of the Holocaust what could they have possibly said? Perhaps they actively chose to remain quiet, whether out of protest, or from a lack of words to describe what they were feeling or what they went through, or maybe out of protection for us.
Remaining silent can be extremely powerful, even more so than speaking out. For what words can describe the loss of a daughter? The loss of one’s true love? The loss of an entire community? Shimon, son of Rabban Gamliel, teaches in Pirkei Avot, “All my days I have grown up among the wise, and I have found nothing of better service than silence.”
I can not help but see similarities in Nadav and Avihu and Bubbie’s stories: the brutal deaths by alien fire and the silences, but also the need for storytelling in order to create some sort of meaningful and coherent narrative. Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Several commentators also have observed the similarities between our parsha and the Holocaust: The silence in both stories is deafening. The alien fire emanating directly from Adonai in Shmini, arises from the depths of Sheol in the other. The silent voices of the six million and their children and their children’s children, of Elisheba, Nadav and Avihu’s mother, of Aaron and all his children.
What would these voices have shared had they lived? Had they not been silenced? Nadav and Avihu, like so many of our ancestors, did not survive to tell their story. What might they have told us about their childhood, their Abba Aaron, their Uncle Moses? They might have shared stories about life in the old country, in Egypt, or how The Israelites escaped from Pharaoh and his army, about Nachshon and the parting of the sea.
Despite Bubbie’s silence about her experiences in the war, I had the privilege of growing up with her voice, thick in accent and rich in wisdom. Never shy to share her opinions, her political views and pop culture commentary. Think about this, all of her grandsons were willing to live in the same building as she. There were obvious perks, you know the rent was good, but what a woman she must have been that we all wanted to be there and be close to her. I am incredibly fortunate that I lived at 919 N. Alfred not only as a child, but also as an adult. I got to live with Bubbie, I got to watch her in action – see her work ethic, witness her care for every tenant and service worker; I got to know her as a woman, not only as a matriarch.
Perhaps the closest connection, however, between parshat Shmini and the Holocaust is NOT the fire, or the silence – rather the theological challenge to our sense of justice. Nadav and Avihu did not do anything that seems to merit a death sentence. Neither did the Jews who perished in the Shoah. Both this week’s parsha and the remembrance of the Holocaust challenge our understanding of God’s justice. Both events force us to examine and reexamine these stories so the reader, the child, the grandchild can make sense of the horrors that took place. Stories, at their best, can help us cope with injustice. Viktor Frankl, Elie (“L.E.) Wiesel, and countless others have all shown how to gracefully and passionately give meaning to the terror that they lived through.
As a Jew, as a husband and father, as a human being, I feel a deep need to share my story. I cleave to the stories of my ancestors, of my parents and grandparents. Our most important prayer, the Shema, urges us, commands us even, to hear, to listen.
Stories create memories. We receive insight and wisdom from them. They connect us through time and space, teach us how to create meaning, and perhaps most importantly, when we tell them, we L’asok B’v’shinantam L’vanecha. We engage in the teaching of our children.
What can the names of Nadav and Avihu teach us? Avihu, whose name means, “He is my father,” and Nadav, meaning “the one who has given,” remind us, in the aftermath of unimaginable tragedy, to tell the story of the generations whom came before us. He is my father, the one who has given me a story to tell. As Jews, we tell the story that our fathers, mothers, Bubbies and ancestors have given us. Bubbie shared her astonishing story with me, and now it is mine to tell. I like to think that Nadav and Avihu urge us to not only tell our stories and the stories of our ancestors, but also the stories of those who no longer are able to tell theirs.
A Hasidic story says that whenever the Jews were threatened with disaster, the Baal Shem Tov would go to a certain place in the forest, light a fire, and say a special prayer. Always a miracle would occur, and the disaster would be averted.
In later times when disaster threatened, the Maggid of Mezritch, his disciple, would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire, but I can say the prayer.” And again the disaster would be averted.
Still later, his disciple, Moshe Leib of Sasov, would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Lord of the World, I do not know how to light the fire or say the prayer, but I know the place and that must suffice.” And it always did.
When Israel of Rizhyn needed intervention from heaven, he would say to God, “I no longer know the place, nor how to light the fire, nor to say the prayer, but I can tell the story and that must suffice.” . . . And it did.
On this Yom HaShoah I will not remain silent. I share Bubbie’s, and all of my grandparents’ story. Bubbie, Papa Meyer, Grandma Faye, Grandpa Mike, the other 5,999,996 Jews might have Vayidomed, they might have remained silent, but today I share their story with all of you. How do we move through horror and tragedy? We attempt to make meaning in the most human and ancient way possible. We tell stories.
Soon there will be no more 1st hand accounts of the Holocaust. It is on us, as Jewish professionals, to tell the stories of those who have been silenced.
As I stand before you today I look out and I see Jewish professionals who will go off to be vibrant leaders in communities across the world. In the end, Bubbie’s silence, her vayidoming, turned into my storytelling. Whose silence will turn into your story? How will you honor the echoes of those who came before you? Bubbie and Aaron illustrate that silence is a powerful tool, it can after all, be golden. Nadav and Avihu, alternatively, compel us to tell the story. If we do, perhaps we too, will walk on holy ground.