Family and friends attend a ceremony and a prayer for Israelis abducted by Hamas terrorists in Gaza a month after the October 7 massacre, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, November 7, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90
Malkie Hirsch on Masada with a friend from TJJ Moms

By Malkie Gordon Hirsch

I stood in the middle of the Ghetto Fighters Museum we visited this summer with the TJJ program and listened to the various accounts of the women whose family members had gone through the war. We walked about the room observing the various collections of personal effects that belonged to families persecuted in Europe. We sat by a mini architectural rendering designed by a survivor who managed to come out of the Treblinka death camps alive and tell the stories that millions of victims could not.

At first glance, you would never know that these women’s relatives had a similar story to my family’s. But as they spoke of the stories of their youth, and as we looked around the room at the enlarged photos of Jews that had been stripped of everything they owned, it was clear that we had a lot more in common than I had initially thought.

When you think of an impossible number like 6,000,000, it doesn’t leave much room for the ones who remained unscathed from those atrocities, and at that moment, I experienced an epiphany.

I looked around at the fifty women who looked the same as anyone you might see on any random street, and realized that what their parents and grandparents had done was to try to make sure that the persecution they had suffered and lived through would never happen again.

They decided that being Jewish is all well and good as long as no one has to know about it. They would assimilate and blend in to make it harder to discern who was or wasn’t Jewish. They would send their kids to public schools and universities, wear the same clothes as everyone else, and do whatever necessary to not call attention to themselves. The decision to become an American and not an overt, observant Jew is something they felt they needed to do in order to preserve the dignity of their future generations. For people who came out of the hell they witnessed, blending in became a matter of life and death.

Not able to face the lingering stares of people who noticed the modest clothes, covered heads, and other characteristics of our identity, these women were a product of people who wanted their kids to be protected above all else. And a way to protect them was to hide their Jewishness, to have them blend in and look the same as everyone else.

Like anything that’s practiced day after day, month after month, year after year, habits are established and over time they forget who they are and where they came from. They would hear stories from a distant past and know that while things might have started out differently for their parents and grandparents, they no longer practiced the same Jewish religion and their kids knew very little about the Jewish heritage that was rightfully theirs.

And then the unthinkable happened. Things that won’t protect more observant Jews from less ones. A hate towards our people that encompassed us all and won’t discriminate between those who keep certain laws and those who don’t. A Jew is a Jew, in pants, a wig, with tzitzit or without. Anti-Semitism rears its ugly head and there are one of two ways that people can react. Either they remove their religious articles and try blending in, reverting back to the old practice of hiding their essence. Or they amp things up and proudly mount an Israeli flag on the front of their house. They attend rallies and start fundraisers. Occasionally they do something crazy like setting up a table in the middle of Times Square with a sign that asks passersby how it feels to be Jewish today. Yes, I’m talking to you, Nachi.

They take on new mitzvos, and while we thankfully exist in a country that doesn’t force us to wear a star like our grandparents did, we all proudly wear them around our necks because we are privileged to be a part of a nation that’s really more like an extended family rather than a bunch of people who happen to practice the same religion.

A loss is collectively felt by all. We feel their pain like we feel our own. A victory is felt by all of us. If you start up with one, prepare to take on a few million of his family members.

We don’t fight for the sake of fighting. We do it to protect ourselves and to preserve the peace. We don’t hold days of rage; we don’t wish to hurt anyone. We don’t tear down signs of kidnapped hostages as if to erase the memory of the terrible crimes. We will not forget this atrocity just like we won’t forget the atrocities that came before this.

But we will not take unprovoked abuse from anyone. Those days are over and will never happen again. We turn pain into purpose by leaning into the gift of Judaism, something that’s been here all along that we might have been overlooking as we were busy living our lives.

Every week night, our TJJ group signs onto a Zoom call at 9:00 p.m. to get a little chizuk, say some Tehillim, and say Shema. Some of these women are discovering this newfound love of their religion as we gain a momentum that won’t end. For the first time, they’re channeling the sadness and frustration they feel into prayer and praise. Fighting the darkness with light, as we do.

There’s no longer any difference between Chareidi, Chasidish, Yerushalmi, or Ashkenazi. Between less observant, ultra-Orthodox, or Yeshivish. There is no time to focus on the trivial matters when there’s so much more at stake.

We’re living through a time that will be something our children and grandchildren will read about one day. But I do hope that it’s written somewhere that we all came together, every Jew on earth, no longer seeing or caring who wore what, what they did or didn’t do before this moment, only focusing on how we finally came together in a way we have never before seen. How we transformed this pain into a purpose that G-d could look at and be proud of.

May the memory of the fallen, both civilians cut down in the massacre, and the chayalim who died defending them, be a blessing.

 

Malkie Gordon Hirsch is a native of the Five Towns community, a mom of 5, a writer, and a social media influencer.

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