Art as Spiritual Resistance

17 April 2015 
28 Nisan 5775 

Shalom Chaverim,   

It is hard to believe that spring is actually here and that school is in the home stretch, as we returned this week from Passover break to a full week of learning, Senior/Faculty Academic Convocation, and spring sports actively underway.  

Yesterday we observed Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, with a moving ceremony and a powerful one-woman performance The ceremony, created and facilitated mostly by students, included a performance of the song-prayer “Acheinu”, the lighting of memorial candles, and the reading of quotes from victims and survivors of the Holocaust. 

 On Yom HaShoah, in addition to remembering the millions of lives lost, we also remember the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the physical resistance of those who chose to fight for their lives. The State of Israel was in many ways founded upon this value of Jewish physical resistance and bears witness to the fact that our people can defend and stand up for ourselves, even in the face of those trying to destroy us.   

In his framing of the ceremony and the day, Matt Conti, Chair of Jewish Life, posed several questions to our students. “What are the other forms of resistance that took place during the horrors of the Shoah?  What about the parent who refused to leave his child, those who went into hiding and who helped hide others, or those who wrote and made music? How do we understand the concept of resistance, and what forms of resistance are we remembering and honoring today?”  

 These questions powerfully framed the performance we were about to see, named “Etty” after its main and only character, Etty Hillesum, a 21-year old Jewish woman who lived in occupied Holland and eventually was deported to Auschwitz, where she was killed. Not so well known in the Jewish community, Etty was a secular Jew who kept a diary of her inner thoughts during the first several years of the Shoah and who wrote letters that also give us insights into her experience and struggles to make sense of her life and the events unfolding around her.  

 Etty speaks extensively to God, her inner journey a form of theological discourse, which our students were invited to process and discuss afterwards. Most distinct, I thought, was Etty’s refusal to see herself as a victim, even in spite of her own personal depression and the horrific fate she would ultimately suffer. For Etty, like for so many artists, her writing was a form of spiritual resistance as she accesses and actualizes the divine, creative force within her. Refusing to allow the darkness of the world to blot out her inner light, she held onto and gave voice through her creativity to a belief in the beauty of the world and in the goodness of humanity.  

 As with many artistic creations, one of the most powerful aspects of the performance was that the medium itself was the message. The artist, Susan Stein, who wrote and performed the play, wrote the script entirely of Etty’s own words, drawn from her diaries and letters. In this sense, because of Ms. Stein’s deep sense of responsibility to stay true to Etty’s words, the play was not merely biographical, and the audience did more than remember Etty.  The actor and playwright brought Etty to life, and the audience was able to experience her, interact with her, become inspired by her.  

 During the question and answer session after the play, it was no wonder that many of the first comments were made by girls who are themselves poets and actors. They had just witnessed a performance about a young woman-artist-spiritual resistor who lived and died during the Holocaust and who was re-created and played by a contemporary woman-artist-spiritual resistor, both of whom inspired us to think deeply on this Yom HaShoah about art and resistance, about memory and creativity, about theology, suffering, and hope.  

 Etty’s life and this show were lessons for all of us about the role that arts can play in our lives and our world. As we think about what it means to remember the Shoah, especially with fewer and fewer survivors able to tell their stories, this is a powerful way to fulfill the mitzvah, the obligation on the next generations, to remember and retell.  

 Shabbat Shalom,  

 Rabbi Marc Baker  

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