It Took Leaving Israel to Stop Running From the Holocaust

In Israel I never thought too much about the Holocaust. You don’t need to - it’s everywhere you look. Then I moved to New York.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Israelis in downtown Jerusalem observe two minutes of silence as the siren sounds on Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2014. Credit: AFP
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Lately, I’ve been getting recognized. A lot.

“Hey, are you Jewish?” asks a total stranger, out of the blue. It is, of course, a call that Jews here in New York and in so many parts of the world know all too well: the favorite tactic of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries promoting their faith. We’ve never met before, yet it still takes him one look to recognize me as a Jew.

Because I have nothing to do, I decide to engage him. What is it, I ask? How did you know? My new hassidic friend has no idea, he tells me -- he just knows.

Ever since emigrating from Tel Aviv to New York six months ago, I’ve been getting identified more and more as a Jew by other people. There’s no other way to put it: I’ve apparently transitioned from a Hebrew to a “hebe.” Old ladies on the Upper East Side address me as “boychick.” The hassidic “mitzvah tanks” won’t let me go through unless I show them my ID first. And whenever the Holocaust is brought up, I get looks of commiseration.

These looks, a new experience for an Israeli like me, may be the best example I’ve seen of the difference between being Jewish in Israel and being Jewish abroad. In Israel, where non-Jews are in the minority, you don’t get these same looks on Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel, the Holocaust is the great equalizer, the one thing that so many people share. Here, the Holocaust is something that sets you apart.

There’s a big difference between Holocaust remembrance in New York and Holocaust remembrance in Israel. The difference is enough to make you become suddenly aware of your own Holocaust legacy, and think about it.

Which is hard, considering that back in Israel I always did everything I could to ignore it.

Everywhere you look, Holocaust

Let me explain: to grow up in Israel is to be surrounded by the Holocaust. One doesn’t have to think about it too much: It is simply everywhere you look. You are bombarded with it at home, and you are bombarded with it at school: It might as well be the sum total of your high school history classes and literature classes. Sixty six years after the founding of Israel, it is still a dominant element directing Israeli politics and foreign policy. (Think of Benjamin Netanyahu waving maps of Auschwitz in front of the UN general assembly in 2009 as a way of justifying Israeli policies.)

As a result of this bombardment, many Holocaust-saturated Israeli millennials like me find it hard to relate to the Holocaust. While studies show that the trauma of the Holocaust has carried into the so-called “third generation,” many just prefer not to think about it. They rent or stream movies on Holocaust Memorial Day, to avoid the dreary Holocaust programs on TV, and generally avoid going outside. A survey by Media Shivuki in 2013 found that 18-29 year olds in Israel “respect” Holocaust Remembrance Day, but avoid viewing related content on TV, radio and news sites.

Some, of course, relate to the Holocaust in a big way. There are people who tattoo their grandparents’ concentrations camp numbers on themselves, or bring a Holocaust survivor to their living room. But many of the young people I know would prefer the avoid the topic altogether.

I, for one, was definitely of the avoiding kind. To this day, I have no real idea what my grandparents went through. I know the essentials: my paternal grandfather survived the Nazi death trains, but his father, who was with him at the time, didn’t. My maternal grandfather was slapped hard across the face by a Nazi officer in one of the labor camps. I know this, because, he told me, with tears in his eyes, that it was the most humiliating experience of his life, even more than the forced labor itself.

Over the years, the desire to not think about it became a kind of obsession. An ideology of sorts. To me, my grandparents represented something foreign, alien even. I’d get the same feeling when talking to Jews from other countries. They talked different. They sometimes looked different. They used 100% more Yiddish than my peers in Tel Aviv.

At 18, I got a tattoo of the symbol of the Canaanism movement, a literary and political movement that operated in Israel-Palestine during the 1940s and called Jewish youths to renounce Judaism and create a “Hebrew” civilization disconnected entirely from the Jewish past. It was my own form of rebellion, a statement of purpose: call me not a Jew, but a Hebrew. One lives in Israel, the other lives everywhere else.

Outside Israel, you're a yid

Then life brought me to New York, where people approach me in coffee shops and ask if I can recommend a good Chinese restaurant for Christmas. If I order a bagel, no one even bothers to ask me if I want it with lox. In Israel you can call yourself whatever you want, but what I’m finding is that outside of it, you’re a yid.

Unwanted lox bagels aside, having relocated here has allowed me to make peace with my Holocaust legacy and forced me to confront my Jewishness. Israeli Jews like to think of themselves as a separate breed of Jews. In campaigns to promote immigration to Israel, Israel is marketed as the place where one can shed his diasporic “Jewishness” and become something else. But having made the opposite move from the classic Israeli narrative, one learns to quickly shed those distinctions. We really are one people, bound together by the weight of shared trauma.

Unfortunately, my own grandparents died before I realized that.