We Jews were all at Sinai – and in the death camps


by Meredith Jacobs
Managing Editor

Last week I attended a lovely lunch hosted by the German embassy. They had invited Dr. Rafael Seligmann, publisher of The Jewish Voice from Germany, to the U.S. and this was one of several events in major cities where diplomats and journalists would get together to chat about Jewish life in Germany. Founded a year ago, The Jewish Voice is a quartely newspaper with over 50,000 in circulation that “focuses on the long, complex and sensitive connection between the country and its Jewish citizens who were ‘Germans’ until the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 turned them into ‘Jews.’ “

He said that even though the Jewish population of Germany is among the fastest growing in the world, there is still a “phantom pain,” referring to the pain felt after a limb has been severed from the body, of the Jews missing from Germany. One of the young diplomats at the table spoke about how wonderful it is to see Jewish stores and kosher butcher shops return to the streets – of how much the Jews have been missed and how joyful it is to see Jewish life return.

When I asked him about the recent Jew in the Box exhibit at the Berlin Jewish Museum, he said it was “a good provocation.” But when I asked about Holocaust-related topics he said, “The Diaspora focuses on the Holocaust but it is not a Jewish achievement – it’s a catastrophe.” He continued to say that by focusing on the Holocaust, by making our Diasporic identity hinge on the Holocaust narrative, we are, in a sense, letting Hitler win.


Seligmann contends that this doesn’t happen in Israel. In Israel, he believes, Jewish identity is based on Jewish values, culture, law and not so much the Shoah.

I thought about what he said. Is it true? It felt true for a moment but I think only because we were fresh off the 20th anniversary of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yom Hashoah. We had just written so many stories in our paper about the museum and interviewed so many survivors, I was beginning to wonder if there was truth to what he was saying.

But only for a few hours.

Later that evening I attended an event at the Washington Jewish Music Festival. It was a sing-a-long to Broadway show tunes. They had arranged for real Broadway performers to come and sing everything from Oklahoma’s “I Cain’t Say No” to Wicked’s “Defying Gravity,” displaying the lyrics on a screen behind them and encouraging us to sing, rather than listen.

It was so much fun. The room was sold out.

Like Oscar Hammerstein and Stephen Schwartz, composers of the above titles, many of the songs and the plays themselves, represent the work of Jews.

Before the songfest, Washington Jewish Week sponsored a wine and cheese reception. Again, celebrating Jewish and Israeli culture through the kosher wine. I remembered being there just months before for the film festival and years ago as an author at the literary festival.

The next day, I had a meeting with staff from The Federation to discuss plans for the Israel@65 upcoming food festival. And later this week, I will be interviewing musician, Arturo O’Farrill about his upcoming From Bagels to Bongos featuring Steven Bernstein and Anat Cohen, part of next month’s DC Jazz Festival.

Yes, we have festivals focusing on Jewish literature, music, food, dance and dramatic arts. But more significantly, each week our calendars have the potential to be filled with opportunities to celebrate Jewish contribution to culture and arts.

Organizations like AVODAH, Jews United for Justice, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and countless more, work to better the world using Jewish values and ethics.

I can’t speak for what is going on in Germany or other places in the Diaspora, but here in the U.S. we don’t define ourselves by the Holocaust. Yes, we must remember it, we must teach it, we must learn from it and must honor the memory of those who survived and those who perished. It is part of our narrative and inextricably part of who we are.

I disagree with Seligmann. Our focus on the Holocaust is a story on Jewish achievement because it’s a story of our survival. In the same way we are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus, not because it is a story of Pharoah’s successful enslavement of the Jews, but because it is a story of our survival. Our enslavement made us a people who are even more sensitive and attuned to the suffering and enslavement of others. Our Shoah made us a people who fight to stop genocide from ever happening again to any people.

Hitler didn’t “win” because we have allowed the Holocaust to shape us. Reality is, it did. Who we are now and who we will be was forever changed by Hitler. And by Pharoah. And we are stronger for it.

And when we tell of these events, we have this communal sense that we were there. We were there with the slaves. We were there in the desert. We were there in the camps. We were there in the gas chambers.

But what we know in the Diaspora is that what keeps us strong, what makes us survive, is that we were there at Sinai.

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