Tisha B’Av, Walls, and the Work We Do

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By Erica Nadelhaft, Northern Maine Educator

Read at Maine Tisha B’Av Statewide Service on July 29, 2020, hosted by Center for Small Town Jewish Life, Jewish Community Alliance, and the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.

Good evening everyone and thank you for having me. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Erica Nadelhaft and I am the northern Maine educator at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.

Tisha b’Av is traditionally a time of remembrance. It is a day of fasting and a culmination of a three week period of mourning. We gather, sitting on the floor or low stools, to read Eicha (Lamentations) and remember the times of tragedy and destruction that befell the Jewish people, particularly the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. We mourn the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt, the start of the Crusades, and the many expulsions of Jews from European countries. Remembrance and mourning of the Holocaust is also part of this day.

This day has always been a difficult one for me. It is a day when we are so immersed in the tragedies that have befallen us that it often seems as if persecution and suffering is all that exists. It is a day when the pain brought upon us by the outside world often makes me want to draw inward, to remove myself, to put up walls. Walls, often painful, always emotional, resonate in Jewish history: there is the Kotel – the Wailing/Western Wall in Jerusalem, all that is left of the twice-destroyed Temple.  A wall with so many physical, emotional, and spiritual layers. A wall that symbolizes destruction, but also hope and rebirth.

And there are the walls that we remember from the Medieval ghettos, the beginning of a long history of the outside world choosing to lock us away. There are, so much more recently, the walls of the ghettos during the Holocaust. The walls surrounding the ghettos, many of them built by the Jews themselves, were made of barbed wire, wood, brick, and, in some cases, gravestones taken from the local Jewish cemetery.These were walls forced upon us by others, who saw us as different and ultimately undeserving of life itself. 

But there is more to Jewish history than persecution and suffering, so much more. The walls that we remember and the walls we long to forget, the walls between us and them, between me and you, between those with power and those without, need to be exposed and dismantled. Walls perpetuate misunderstanding, and difference, and hatred.

Much of our work at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center connects to this idea of walls. As an institution we focus on education and outreach. Among other things, our programs aim to help students, teachers, and members of the public identify and examine the walls that we all build and know. As we examine our own walls, we look also at the walls built by others. If we can acknowledge and understand these walls, we can work to take them down.

Our programs are varied. A number of them deal specifically with the Holocaust. Decision Making in Times of Injustice, for example, looks at the decisions taken by different groups in German and European societies in the 1930s and 40s to show how those individual decisions, taken together, lead to the Holocaust. Understanding the impact that our decisions and those of others can have helps to teach students about the dangers of staying silent or neutral during times of injustice – whether those times of injustice are local, such as in their own schools or communities, national, or on the world stage. Through intense conversation and thought about how and why people chose to respond, or not respond, to the othering of the Jews and the figurative and literal walls being placed around them, students come to examine their own walls and their own roles in creating, perpetuating, or dismantling injustice. Our goal, ultimately, is to give teachers and schools the tools they need to continue the work without us.

The COVID 19 outbreak abruptly disrupted our usual way of working, as it did for pretty much everyone, I would guess. It put an immediate wall between us and the teachers and students we are so used to interacting closely with. In other ways, though, COVID has broken some walls for us. I will be the first to admit that I do not love working on Zoom. I much prefer the intimacy that in person conversation allows. But while Zoom creates distance in some ways it reduces it in others. As we have reworked our programs and put them online, we’ve been able to reach a larger and more diverse audience. While some of our online programs have been specifically for teachers and students, others have been open to the public at large. People who would not have been able to travel to Augusta for an in person event have been able to log in and participate remotely. People who would not normally come together have been able to do so.

Our summer programs, in this new format, have allowed us to continue the work of breaking down walls. We are running a number of teacher training seminars – two that deal specifically with the Holocaust (Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior and Teaching Night). On Monday we begin a two week seminar on Confronting Bias and Antisemitism, aimed to help teachers identify and work through bias, racism, and antisemitism in the classroom. These programs are specifically for teachers (and we have teachers participating not only from Maine, but from other states, and even from other countries). Alongside them we have held and will hold online panels that are open to the public. These panels, which cover topics such as the rise of racism, anti-Asian bias, and antisemitism in response to COVID; the experiences of immigrant students in Maine; and confronting bias in schools,continue and broaden our work of raising awarenessand addressing issues of division, injustice, and walls in society.

In a few minutes we will hear about the HHRC Walls exhibit. Along those lines, I feel I need to add that while walls so often serve the purpose of distancing, othering, and separating, there are many instances when they have been co-opted, so to speak, by artists and others as a means of protesting the very walls themselves. Mexican artist Enrique Chiu, for example, has been painting murals on the Mexican side of the border wall since 2016. In 2019, seesaws were placed through holes in the wall and children from both sides were filmed playing together. And not just the Mexico-United States wall: remnants of the Berlin wall have been preserved with artwork on them and, one of my favorites, crop art has been plowed into the fields on both sides of the Poland-Ukraine border.

I would like to end by circling back to Tisha b’Av. As we read Eicha, two verses stand out to me. The first: “Let us search and examine our ways” (3:40) and the second “Our fathers sinned and are no more; And we must bear their guilt.” (5:7). As we mourn the Temples; as we mourn the Holocaust; as we mourn the many walls between and among us, and as many of us mourn the world we find ourselves in today, these words from Eicha give us direction. Let us look inward and examine our own walls; let us look outward at the walls our country and its history have erected. And let us make change.

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