Jews must focus on rich culture, not the past, to survive

They came to Washington and London and Paris and Berlin and Moscow last month to remember — to laugh with joy about the victory 50 years before, to cry with tears about the war that came before that day of victory.

The anniversary of the end of mankind's cruelest, most costly, most destructive war was marked with an outpouring of pomp and circumstance. Fifty years, after all, is a major milestone. Fifty years is also likely to be the last milestone that gets noticed.

And so, in a real sense, the story of World War II has finally come to an end. The world now is a very different place than it was in 1945 and no one can even imagine what it might be like in 2045. And like the soldiers of the American and British and Russian armies, the Jews who survived the camps are getting older and will soon no longer be among us.

The question is, what comes next? How should we remember the Holocaust now that the last great milestone has passed, once the last eyewitnesses have gone?

There is, as with all things, a Jewish way to find guidance for this. We are instructed that there are to be different stages of mourning, each with its own purpose.

The most intense of the mourning periods is shiva, during which a mourner is to spend all waking hours feeling nothing but loss. Shiva is to last seven days. A loss of the magnitude of the Holocaust calls for the Jewish people to observe a shiva not of seven days but of seven years. And not only of seven years but of seven times seven years.

So we have. For seven times seven years, the Jewish people have been sitting shiva, stunned, shaken, trying to make sense of the overwhelming sadness of the Holocaust, thinking not about the future but only about making it through the shiva. That was right and necessary.

But Judaism teaches us shiva must come to an end so that we are not consumed by our grief. It teaches us we are to honor those who have gone but not to pull ourselves into the grave with them. And so I believe it must be for us as a people.

Judaism is not a religion, not a way of life, that is meant to be lived in gloom and fear. The way we can best honor the memory of the Holy Ones who died is to do what they were deprived of doing — live Jewish lives, strengthen the Jewish people and the Jewish future.

I fear, however, that we are moving in the opposite direction. More and more, I see disturbing signs of our obsessing over what was, distorting what Judaism is.

Last month, the Jewish community of St. Louis dedicated a Holocaust memorial. Next year, New York will do the same. London is in the process of building two Holocaust museums. And on it goes. Virtually every Jewish community is putting up some Holocaust memorial or museum that serves as the centerpiece statement about the Jewish community to the world.

Moreover, such memorials are all too often the centerpiece of our own self-perception. We are seeing Judaism more and more as a religion of persecution, equating Judaism with being hated, chased and killed.

What we are doing is telling ourselves that the Holocaust tells us who we are. We are telling our kids that the more they identify as Jews, the more Jewish they feel and act, the greater likelihood they will be exterminated. It is no wonder, then, that they are opting to leave the fold, running to assimilate, eager to intermarry.

But Judaism is about more than the Holocaust. It is about the Sinai and Shabbat, the Talmud and Sandy Koufax, bagels, lox, cream cheese and the Kabbalah, Chagall, Einstein, Golda and Freud. It is about Rambam and davening and Purim and Yom Kippur and Mel Brooks.

Judaism is about a life meant to be lived in serenity, happiness, peace and spirituality, a life meant to be embraced, not dreaded, a life in which we find that the more Jewish we are, the more human we become.

Fifty years after the Holocaust, it is time for the Jewish community to ease back into life. We must not continue to build headstone after headstone. We must put our energies and our creativity and our money and our focus into Jewish education and Jewish culture and Jewish learning.

We must not continue to mentally wear the yellow star labeled "Jude" branding ourselves, as our enemies branded us, as targets, as victims.

In this regard, we can learn much from the Jews of Europe. Though living on blood-soaked ground, they have been giving new life to Judaism, building synagogues, holding classes, celebrating holidays. Those with the most reason to be fixated on the past are the ones most working to build the future, understanding that the best way to deny Hitler his victory is to bring Judaism to life.

The next 50 years promise new opportunities. Ethiopian and Syrian Jews and Jews from the former Soviet Union are now living in freedom. Anti-Semitism is no longer a real factor in our lives. In Israel, they are talking peace, not fighting wars.

There is nothing to stop us from making the most of all that except ourselves, except our damaging distrust and sense of persecution.