Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Is the war over?"

In Everything is Illuminated, an old woman, isolated in a field of sunflowers and a house full of memories, asks her first visitors since the end of the Holocaust if the war is over. The old man reassures her that it is, before he leaves the past behind, and drives his grandson and Jonathan back to the present day.

For me, this is one of the most powerful lines in the story, and one of the most powerful statements about Jewish memory. I've said before that the way I remember is more Jewish than the way I keep Friday Shabbat. But what brings this to mind right now is the way my mother and grandmother reacted after I had my passport photo taken for my trip to Israel.

We were discussing my upcoming journey over Sunday brunch (also a Jewish American tradition) when my mother said "Did you hide your Star of David necklace under your shirt for the passport photo?" "No," I said, suddenly defensive. "Why?" My grandmother shook her head. "You should have. If they round up all the Jews..." "They'll figure out you're Jewish by looking at your passport," my mother finished.

This is also why we didn't have a mezuzah on our door when I was growing up.

For them, the war is not over. To our knowledge, no one on my mother's side of the family was in Europe during the Holocaust. They came to America from Russia and Ukraine in the early 20th century. It was on my father's side that branches of the family tree that withered and burned in concentration camps.

Why the fear? It's interesting in the context of the article K sent me, in which a scholar argued that if there is another Holocaust, there will be no systematic rounding-up of Jews. It will be a nuclear weapon, and it will be Israel.

Ominous thinking, a few months before I leave, and a few minutes before I head to an Israel-Palestine discussion on campus. I haven't attended one since my freshman year, when it was so emotionally draining, that I decided not to revisit this topic in public again. I'm feeling brave. We'll see how it goes.

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