Friday, July 27, 2012

27-Jul-12: Reflecting on the power of memory

The park; the youth club building; the banner across the street.
The entrance to our Jerusalem neighbourhood today

In the world of Jewish memories and experience, this time of year has an especially stressful character. It’s a very hot Friday here in Jerusalem at this moment. The Sabbath will settle in as the sun sets, and the following 25 or so hours of disconnect from the surrounding world, always welcome, will be especially so because of what follows it on Saturday night: the observance of the ninth day of Av.

Av is a difficult month for people who live by the traditional Jewish calendar. The ninth day of Av is when the Babylonians destroyed the one-and-only Jewish temple in Jerusalem, bringing an end to independent Jewish life in what we call Israel today and killing some 100,000 Jews while exiling almost all the others. Some 640 years later, in the year 70, it was the turn of the Roman empire to conquer Israel and for the second time the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This time, some two million Jews were killed; a million more went into an exile that lasted many centuries. An independent Jewish nation in its own land did not arise again until the establishment of modern Israel 64 years ago.

Av the ninth is marked by a sunset-to-sunset absolute fast that begins this coming Saturday night. There are mournful prayers, deliberate physical discomfort and a great deal of personal and community introspection. Beyond the ancient history aspects, the same date has been associated with some of the Jewish people’s blackest moments: on this day, the entire Jewish community of Spain was expelled in the fateful year 1492. On this day in 1942 in the city of Warsaw - one-third of whose entire population was Jewish at the time - the Nazi Germans began to liquidate the ghetto and send its inhabitants to their deaths in the Treblinka factory of death.

Once the ninth of Av is safely behind us, the rest of the summer for most religiously observant Jews gets easier and more enjoyable. The relaxation doesn’t quite reach our family, unfortunately. In 2001, our eldest daughter Malki, 15, was killed in a Hamas terrorist outrage in the center of Jerusalem. Even as most Jews breathe a sigh of relief with the end of the fast (this year, that means this coming Sunday night) we prepare ourselves for the annual pilgrimage to her grave and the public commemoration of the anniversary (called the azkara in Hebrew) of her murder.

We feel indescribable pain, but we are not morose or neutralized. We’re terribly sad, even overwhelmed by the feeling of loss. But we have full and constructive lives to live.

It’s not self-evident. With so much death and anger around, and a full-time industry of propagandists declaiming about the unbearable insults suffered by their pride, a person might be forgiven for thinking that in a community like ours here in Jerusalem, where hundreds of young people were killed in terrorist attacks, the mood would be characterized by vengeance and confrontation. It simply isn’t so.

Malki died alongside her best friend. They were two beautiful young girls, busy with a day full of good deeds, standing at the counter of a bustling pizza shop at lunchtime. For the past eleven years, they lie side by side in Jerusalem’s soil. Their friends from the neighbourhood and from their youth organization – many of whom were as close as teenage friends get to both girls – suffered an incomprehensible double blow.

I have heard people say over the years that they could easily imagine passionate young people reacting to the vicious and deliberate killing of their closest friends by resorting to their own acts of hate-based violence. The reality, as anyone who knows anything about Israeli society, is far from that. Here is what the friends actually do.

Every August for the past ten years, the graduating group at Malki's youth organization (it’s called EZRA) sits down and organizes a public fun fair and bazaar. It runs from mid afternoon until late at night, and it takes place in a small and pleasant public park just near where we live on Jerusalem’s north side.

The park happens to abut the building that serves as the clubhouse for EZRA in our part of town. When the building was still just a few weeks old back in 1997, we rented it for an evening and held Malki’s bat mitzvah party there. On the awful night of August 9 eleven years ago, the same building was filled with hundreds of youngsters conducting a prayer vigil while the search went on for the two girls in other parts of our city. We knew by then that Malki and her friend Michal had both been inside Sbarro that afternoon. But it took some hours (12 in the case of our daughter) for the friends and the families to learn the bitter outcome.

And it was in that same park, on a hot September night some thirty days after the Sbarro massacre, that we held a public memorial event there, an azkara, to allow our friends, our neighbours and us to express our grief, collectively and privately, at the loss of two such beautiful, innocent, good lives. The agony of that evening was greatly sharpened by the events that had kept most of us glued to our televisions throughout the afternoon and evening leading up to it: this happens to have been the night of September 11, 2001.

The EZRA fun day is held annually in memory of Malki and Michal, and with the stated intention of giving all the proceeds to charity. This year’s will be the tenth such fair. It is set for Monday afternoon, July 30, and will run from 4 in the afternoon until 10 at night. The banner announcing it is already stretched across the road leading into our community to create awareness (photo above). The Hebrew words state the message of the fair: “To give when you love”.

It’s a message which puzzles me, year after year. Why do the children in our community here in Jerusalem who have lost parents, siblings, friends to acts of overt hatred, respond by doing acts of charity, declarations of love? It’s not so obvious. They’re busy kids. The boys are weeks or months away from starting their army service, so they probably are grappling with complicated thoughts. Most of the girls will be starting their national service (most girls of religious orientation do this in place of army service, but some do go into the military) and are aware of the challenges ahead. Still, when they take time out to do something as a cohort of friends, a collective action, it’s about charity and remembering and – their choice of word – love.

It’s hard not to make invidious comparisons with what we see in the news from other parts of our region: grief stricken young men and women, strapping bombs to their chests and expounding on how anger and pride demand that they kill people and perhaps themselves as well. We’re all too familiar with the horrifying dynamic.

But over here, the dynamic is about recruiting vendors who will set up tables to sell school books, pens, small household appliances, decorative objects and works of art, clothing and gifts. They find jugglers, food-stall operators, people who will install inflatable bouncies in the shape of castles or large animals which delight the toddlers who are brought by their mothers. The volunteer team, all of them barely out of high school, advertise the event by flyers distributed throughout Jerusalem; by ads in bus stations, synagogues, message boards and other key locations.

It’s not just in our neighbourhood either. People of all ages have addressed the painful memories of their own lost loved ones by creating worthy undertakings, concerts, park benches, small libraries, and on and on throughout Israel. Our Malki, all of fifteen years old when she did it, served as youth leader for a group of nine year old girls in a city that is an hour’s bus ride from here. This coming Monday, the youngsters of that city too are holding their own memorial fair (proceeds to charity) in Malki’s memory as they do year after year. The cohort of friends now taking charge were only seven or eight when Malki was alive, so they cannot really have known her. Yet they understand the symbolism and it clearly resonates with them.

There is an apocryphal tale told about Napoleon who was walking in the streets of Paris on the 9th day of Av. His entourage passed a synagogue and the sounds of wailing from within caused him to send an aide to ask what terrible thing had happened. The aide enquired, and reported to Napoleon that the Jews were in mourning over the loss of their temple. Napoleon asked with indignation: “How could this happen without me being informed? When did this occur? Which temple?” The answer given by the aide was that the loss occurred on this date 1,700 years ago and in Jerusalem. Napoleon was silent for a moment, and then is famously reported to have said: "A people that mourns its loss through countless generations will surely survive to see the rebuilding of its temple.”

A society that chooses to honour the lives of its murdered children through constructive acts of remembrance, joy and charity has a special resilience. Their pain is not removed or even lightened; their hopes and dreams are not necessarily granted to them; and the men (and women… and children) with the bombs strapped to their chests are not thwarted. But the strength of a society that knows how to remember is something to behold. It is a privilege to be living in its midst.

Click here for pictures of last year’s EZRA charity fair in memory of Malka Chana Roth and Michal Raziel, of blessed memory, which was attended by nearly a thousand people. For information on times and locations for Monday’s two charity fairs (one in Jerusalem, one in Maale Adumim), please email us at

The Hebrew banner adjacent to the local EZRA youth organization branch reads "Latet K'sh'ata Ohev", "To Give When You Love". That has been the slogan of the annual bazaars in memory of Malki and Michal for ten consecutive years.

No comments: