September 24, 2018

Between the Shoah and Mimouna

We make a statement by what we choose to feature on the cover. This week, we had to choose between two upcoming events — the Sephardic Mimouna party, which celebrates the end of Passover, and Yom HaShoah, which commemorates perhaps the worst atrocity in human history. It’s a choice between the ultimate light and the ultimate darkness.

We chose darkness.

Had Mimouna been our cover story, you would have seen a beautiful, joyful image on the cover, instead of the haunting one you see now. Mimouna represents the joy of breaking free, the freedom to live as you wish, the unbridled pursuit of happiness.

But while it’s not featured on the cover, you’ll still see plenty of Mimouna coverage. One of the articles is a reprint of a column I wrote many years ago titled, “The Magic of Mimouna.”

“The night of Mimouna was all about bringing good fortune into your life,” I wrote. “After eight days of prohibitions, Mimouna was the night you broke free, the night anything was possible. For the Jews of Morocco, Mimouna was the Jewish holiday that celebrated optimism.”

For the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, optimism was not an option; breaking free was not a possibility. There was nothing to see besides darkness.

Our memories dance between these two impulses — between the Mimouna part of our lives and the Holocaust part, between the craving for light and the unbearable weight of darkness. We yearn for Mimouna because we yearn for happiness, but we’re haunted by Shoah because our memories so easily surrender to the trauma of darkness.

The great irony is that Mimouna glitters at night, under the romance of the moonlight.

It is this darkness we wanted to explore in this issue. At the same time, we didn’t want to regurgitate what you already know. But how does one avoid that with the Holocaust, a subject about which everything has already been said a million times over?

We commissioned a Holocaust scholar and novelist, Thane Rosenbaum, to tackle that very question: What is there left to say?

“Holocaust memory has grown a little stale these past several years, and fatigue has set in,” he writes. “There are, in fact, fewer Yom HaShoah commemorations around the world.  With each passing year, they dwindle, not unlike the number of survivors themselves.”

He adds: “Perhaps the savagery of the world has simply caught up with the Holocaust in a twisted competition for evil supremacy.  We are tragically becoming inured to the atrocious, surrounded by so many contenders.”

For this one, singular moment of unspeakable darkness, “never again” is never enough.

Rosenbaum takes us on a tour of darkness to help us frame the role of memory:

“The Holocaust is being forgotten and exploited — both at the same time.  A surging wave of global anti-Semitism has surfaced with the added aim of pummeling and plundering the Holocaust.  Who knows what will be left when this new period of anti-Semitic fervor comes to an end?”

Despite the enormous industry of Holocaust memory, Rosenbaum concludes that we have fallen short:

“All around the world, even throughout the United States, the grand experiment of Holocaust memory appears to have failed.  Museums and memorials, although still well attended, are perceived as depressing amusement rides, with statistics about mass murder, artifacts from concentration camps, and an occasional cattle car just to complete the necessary ‘real-feel,’ ‘you are there’ experience.

“After departing from such places of ephemeral horror, visitors emerge into the light, and settle upon where to have lunch. Their confrontation with Holocaust memory lasting as long as Chinese food traveling through a digestive tract.”

Perhaps that’s why we chose to put Yom HaShoah on the cover — because for this one, singular moment of unspeakable darkness, “never again” is never enough.

As much as my heart yearns for a time when the joy of Mimouna will dominate our consciousness, the reality of evil keeps getting in the way. Confronting evil while also embracing joy may well be the paradox of the human condition.

On the night of Mimouna, I will taste a few moufletas (recipe inside) and surrender to optimism. But a few days later, I will attend a Yom HaShoah event to commemorate the very opposite of optimism, a moment in Jewish time when Jews were crushed by darkness.

The irony is that Mimouna glitters at night, under the romance of the moonlight. Maybe this is a gentle reminder that even darkness holds the promise of joy.