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What it Means to Me to be Jewish: Reflections on Auschwitz by Aharon Blevins

Updated: Mar 31

"Barbed wire at Auschwitz" Image by Dariusz Staniszewski from Pixabay

Old Questions: What and Who is a Jew?

In 1965 Morris N. Kertzer wrote a book, What is a Jew? In 1987, Jacob Schochet posed a different question: Who is a Jew? Since October 7, 2023, I have wrestled with the level of antisemitism that has manifested itself in the world. As I talk with my Jewish friends and read security alerts, I believe another question has arisen. The question is not what or who is a Jew, but what does it mean to be a Jew?

 

October 7, 2023

The attack on October 7th had an unintended consequence. Instead of Jews around the world hiding their Jewishness, many have stepped forward to reclaim their Jewish identity in ways they have not expressed in the past. Young and old, have a new appreciation for their Jewish heritage and Judaism.


New Question: What does it mean to be a Jew?

Aharon received a request from his Rabbi to speak at the afternoon session of Yom Kippur. The Rabbi asked him to speak about what it meant to be a Jew. The congregation is part of the Reform movement within Judaism. After the noon prayers, the congregation remains at the synagogue to participate in study sessions and listen to speeches. The following is a speech delivered by Aharon on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

What It Means to Me to Be a Jew

This year, the theme of our Temple is sharing our stories so that we might learn more about each other and increase our sense of community. I hesitated because anytime a person “shares their story” you are vulnerable to being embarrassed, misunderstood, or even unintentionally, offending someone. But as you may already know, it is hard to “just say no” to either of our rabbis!

 

Plus, it is hard for me to be vulnerable in front of a crowd of people. Rabbi asked me if I was nervous. I told him, “No, I am not nervous. I am terrified!” Rabbi assured me everything would be okay. Naturally, before I agrred to speak, I asked him for clarification.  “Just what are you asking me to share with the congregation?”

 

1.)    He did not want to know - Why I am a Jew?

2.)    He did not want to know – How did I know I was Jewish?

3.)    He did not want to know – Was my mother Jewish or was my father Jewish?

4.) He did not want to know - Was I a convert to Judaism?

5.) He did not want to know - What branch of Judaism I was raised in.


These are generally the routine questions one is asked about one’s “Jewishness.” He wanted me to share, “What it means to me to be a Jew?” I said “yes” before I thought about it.  After all, I was leaving the next day for an Eastern European tour. Leaving for vacation, my mind was focused on the really important stuff of life such as: Can I still fit into my summer shorts? How many pairs of socks and underwear do I need to bring? And where did put my camera the last time, I used it?


Each day and evening of the tour was planned. Included in the trip were walking tours of  Berlin, Warsaw, Birkenau, Auschwitz, Budapest, and Prague. I intended to take hundreds of pictures, grab a few historical books and DVDs, and obsessively write down everything that the tour guide said about the cities, the camps, and WW II.

 

That was NOT how it went. No one else on our tour was Jewish so I did not think about Yom Kippur or this talk until we arrived at Auschwitz. As my group walked ahead of me, I paused. I peered at the sign above the entrance and read the German phrase:

 “Work Makes One Free”

I realized I was no longer looking at pictures in a history book or watching a documentary on T.V. I was on hallowed ground. As I walked the outside grounds of the camp and tried to imagine the confusion and fear innocent Jews felt as they tried to comprehend all the events that led up to their imprisonment.

 

Taking notes did not seem important. Capturing that special photo seemed shallow. I struggled to wrap my brain around what was before me. And what was the crime against them? – They were Jewish! In my mind, I Could Hear the Question: “What Did it Mean to Them to be Jewish?”


As I entered the various buildings, there were entire rooms full of luggage. I read the family names and the places they came from.

Auschwitz suitcase room

Hundreds and hundreds of pictures of the men and women lined the hallways. Striped clothing, jaunt faces, and piercing eyes stared back at me as I walked the hallways.

Auschwitz photo wall of prisoners

Other rooms contained more pairs of shoes than my mind could calculate. Mounds of hair shaved from the heads of the victims filled the next room. Suddenly, I entered two rooms that captured the enormous number of human beings just like me who had entered this camp. On display before me were thousands of pairs of eyeglasses haphazardly intertwined. another and hundreds of crutches, braces, and prosthetics.

Auschwitz rooms stacked full of shoes, hair, glasses, and braces.

I Could See the Question Before Me. It was not what or who was or is a Jew, but “What Does it Mean to Me to be Jewish?”

 

Before me lay the physical evidence of brutality. On display were the silent testimonies that spoke volumes of the atrocities carried out during that terrible period of history. Before me, were the visual reminders of the sacrifice paid by so many Jews.

 

At that time, I could not put into words what or how I was feeling. I did not know if I should just end my tour and sit outside the building or leave and wait for the group at the gate. I looked for a way out but got turned around and found myself standing before a glass enclosed display of black striped talliot. The prayer shawls of the faithful hung on display.


Auschwitz Tallit Display

The talliot before me once belonged to men from vibrant, Jewish communities. As I gazed at the tattered and worn prayer shawls. I imagined people reciting the prayers so many years ago. I recalled the blue, purple and red striped Tallit that was woven for me many years before and given to me as a gift. Of all the things I own, would a be like these men? Would I make sure I took my Tallit with me?

 

I’d never worn my Tallit at a synagogue service. 

I’d never taken the time to learn the prayer associated with my Tallit.

I’d never donned my Tallit as a member of this or any other Jewish community.

 

Now, I Could Hear the Question More Clearly: “Aharon - What Does it Mean to You to be Jewish?”

My struggles have been insignificant in comparison to the trials and tribulations that millions of men, women and children endured and the great sacrifice paid by so many simply for being Jewish.

 

There I stood that day all alone with my thoughts. At the same time I knew I was in the midst of large crowds who came to tour the camp. It was as if the crowds were not there, but I was aware a great cloud of witnesses from heaven above surrounded me. The souls of the dead echoed, "Never forget."

 

In that instant, I clarified my understanding of "what it means to me to be Jewish." Now I could see clearly through events in my life. I could connect the dots! No longer did it matter that my family waited until I was 32 years old to inform me of the circumstances of my birth and my forgotten Jewish family. 


Why did it not matter? Because I remembered the Peace in my Soul on Fridays as the choir and the congregation recited Hebrew prayers. I remembered the first time I had the honor of opening and closing the Ark, I remembered feeling so close to God.

 

I remembered a wise man of this congregation that shared this insight. Aharon, I come to this conclusion. In the world we live in today. If anyone is bold enough to say out loud “I am a Jew,” well then that’s good enough for me regardless of what form of Judaism they observe or do not observe.

 

In fact now, my story wasn’t that important anymore. The bus ride back from Auschwitz to our hotel was very, very, quiet for all members of our tour group. I imagine we were trying to understand what we had experienced and what we would have done if we would have been one of the innocent Jews led through the gates of Auschwitz.

 

I pray that this year: I will learn from Torah and the example of this community how to always honor my family as they embrace Judaism. I will learn from Torah and the example of this community how to be a blessing to my children. I will learn from Torah and the example of this community how to always operate my business with integrity. I will learn from Torah and the example of this community how to use the Talit that I wear this afternoon.

 

My prayer for this new year is that in all these things, I will represent Adonai in the best light possible and all the Jewish values and ideals I’ve learned since becoming a part of this community. Amen.


“Rabbi, I am now prepared to answer your question,

“What does it mean to me to be a Jew.”

 

Everything!

 

Note: Aharon originally wrote and delivered this at the afternoon service of Yom Kippur on Saturday, October 4, 2014. A few years later, he added pictures to the speech. His intention to leave this behind for my children to read to their children one day after he has departed this earth. His prayer? His children and grandchildren will be proud of their Jewish heritage and serve Adonai faithfully.

 

References

Kertzer, Morris N. What Is a Jew? Macmillan Publishing Co., 1965.


Schochet, Jacob Immanuel. Who is a Jew? 30 questions and answers about this controversial and divisive issue. Shofar Association of American, 2nd ed., January 1, 1987.

 

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Convidado:
19 de mar.

Thank you for your heartfelt response. I enjoy reading your responses. Terry

Curtir

I can relate to Aharon’s experience walking through Auschwitz’s when I visited Yad Vashem. Being from Michigan I have had a great deal of teaching on the history of the Jews. Every year in school we visited our Holocaust Museums and read stories by Eli Weisel and Anne Frank etc. it was not until I was in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem that I was shocked at how complacent and involved the US was in the Holocaust. I always knew the US was capable of atrocities because I am Black American… our country completely ignores my community’s pain and turmoil. However when I walked into the room where all the shoes were in the floor. I was overwhelmed. I also was…

Curtir
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