December 5, 2013 by jewish journeys
You probably cannot get further away from the land of the Maccabees than where I am for this Channukah. I have celebrated Channukah before in lands distant and in communities small, but this must be the furthest and the smallest of them all.
I took a taxi into Wellington New Zealand a few days ago around four in the afternoon in the driving rain. A twenty minute drive (or so I was told) took about an hour and a half. The rain of course was not totally unseasonable, but it did stand in stark contrast to the weather in Jerusalem yesterday which, according to my children Elad and Maya who live there, was summery. But here, “summery” means anything from bright sunshine through blustery winds to driving rain.
My introduction to the tiny little Jewish Community which makes its home in this beautiful town, the capital of New Zealand, was via lovely young women, three in all, who give of their time on a regular basis to try and keep the young (and wild, in their description) Jewish children of this community connected to being Jewish.
“Why”, I asked Sapeer my host for today, “continue to be Jewish? Surely, if people have chosen this remote island locale as the place to live, they must be in some way saying goodbye to their Jewish Identity? What keeps them connected? What makes them Jewish? Why struggle? Why care?”
God? Israel? Holocaust?
Pride? Guilt? Inertia?
I went to sleep last night in my hotel room quite bewildered by what on earth could it be that keeps this small community Jewish, and I woke up this morning with that question on my mind. After breakfast in one of the great cafes that the locals are justly proud of (why is it that every barista in Oz and NZ makes far better coffee than the mighty US chains of coffee shops which will remain nameless just in case they decide to shoot down my “star” to make some “bucks”) the sun began to shine and possibly because of this today was a day of small miracles and I am filled with admiration for this local Jewish community as I fly off out of Wellington.
I am filled with admiration for three young women, who are just 20, who are prepared to give of their time to pass on their positive experience of being Jewish. “What is it”, I asked Sapeer, “that makes it so special for you to remain Jewish?” Her answer was fascinating. What it boiled down to was a feeling of not being able to be the other.
It really got me thinking again about one of the questions which fascinates me and possibly drives me to do the work that I do. What is going to be the essence of Jewish Identity going forward for most Jews in the modern world who do not have a theological connection (and most do not); were not alive during the powerful experiences which forged Jewish Identity in the 20th Century (and most were not); and who have to cope with a world which now views Israel through very different lenses (and I am not going to try and deconstruct this one here)?
But my visit to Wellington does not stop there. One final visit really called up the ghosts. My last stop in Wellington was to the gigantic (by any standards) Jewish community center consisting of the Orthodox synagogue, the communal hall, the New Zealand Holocaust Center and the empty classrooms of what was once the Jewish Day School (one of which is used by Habonim Dror for weekly youth activities). I will reflect in a future piece on the still powerful presence of the Holocaust in these distant communities but, suffice it to say, it looms large both in the accents of some of the community and in the thinking of many of the people both survivors and second generation and beyond.
Two scenes from this particular visit stay in my mind. My meeting with Inge Wolfe, an impressive woman who directs the center and whose first name gives it all away. She is dedicated to teaching the lessons of the Holocaust and when I arrived the center was filled with a class from the local high school. Young, mainly blonde New Zealanders, learning the lessons of long ago and far away. Led by a history teacher who was sent with community funds to Israel to learn both about the Holocaust and about what we have created in Israel since those awful years and possibly in response to those awful years.
But it is the second scene, so pregnant with possible layers of symbolic meaning, that really stays with me in the days since my visit (I am writing this last paragraph a few days after Wellington). The classrooms of the Jewish School now stand empty and silent. There are so few Jewish children left here as to make it impossible to run a Jewish school. Only one thing fills these silent classrooms. A collection of one and half million buttons collected by the Jewish children of Wellington over the past few years of the school. One and a half million buttons of all shapes and sizes in memory of the one and a half million Jewish children who were murdered in the Holocaust so long ago and so far away from Wellington.
One and half million buttons fill them.
And in one of the classrooms, the young people of Habonim Dror hang their shirts from Summer Camps and trips to Israel.
Pride? Guilt? Inertia?
Perhaps we have no choice except to be; be who we are.