Maya Zinkow is a lifelong Ramahnik and returns this summer for her 2nd summer as Rosh Bogrim and her 5th summer on staff. She holds a B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from Barnard College, and is currently spending the year studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where she will return next year with a Pardes Fellowship. Maya recently returned from a trip to Turkey, where she and other students spent a week teaching and engaging with the Jewish community of Istanbul. Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) was observed yesterday.
Reflections on Parashat Shemini by Maya Zinkow
Every Yom HaShoah, I am transported back to my eighth grade English class.
Amidst a sea of plaid skirts, headbands, and decorated notebooks, I am the only Jew in my class. Open on each desk is a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. I feel the familiar discomfort wash over me as we begin our discussion of the assigned reading. As we read passages aloud, I feel protective of this girl I’ve never met, but whose personal diary has become the gateway into Holocaust education. While I could recognize the historical and educational significance in reading this relic, I did and still do feel so much sadness for this girl whose layered internal life, contained only in this little diary, is the world’s to read. In that eighth grade classroom, I felt, for a moment, as if the pages of my own life were open on each desk.
While many key aspects of my identity blossomed and were developed in my secular high school, I cherished every summer spent at camp for a single, profoundly important reason: camp was an immersive Jewish identity playground, classroom, religious space, and home. At school I performed in musicals; at camp, I did the same while singing in Hebrew. At school our student council organized class events; as a madricha I developed programs that were fun and exciting, but also served to develop campers’ Jewish selves. At school we attended assemblies on Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Day to commemorate and celebrate what we share as Americans; at camp, we assemble lakeside each Friday evening to communally welcome Shabbat, celebrating our shared joy for tradition, song, and the divine.
As I contemplate Yom Hashoah, I think also of the harsh tragedy that this week’s parsha brings. Aaron and his sons, Nadav and Avihu, step into their roles as kohanim, bringing their offerings to God and blessing the people of Israel. Bnei Yisrael begin to sing and praise God for accepting their offerings, and in the next breath, Nadav and Avihu bring forth “foreign fire,” which God did not command, and flames immediately consume them. It is a shocking shift in the text, one that brings us from absolute joy at God’s presence to utter confusion. Immediately, we want to ask: what could Nadav and Avihu have done that was so terrible to deserve such a punishment? Indeed, the rabbis attempt to answer this question, yet as I began to read through their explanations, I realized that I had no desire to justify this sudden death of two spiritual leaders.
I choose to interpret the bizarre tragedy of Nadav and Avihu by what comes after: Moshe instructs Aaron not to dwell on his loss, and God continues to give commandments that will serve as building blocks for the development of Jewish lives. God’s presence remains among the Israelites, Aaron, however downtrodden, continues to ritually lead, and the children of Israel remain communally bound by space and spirituality. While mourning a loss is indeed crucial, it is equally incumbent upon a mourner to honor the memory of the dead by living life as fully as possible. For Aaron and the Israelites, this meant moving forward in the face of unspeakable tragedy by continuing to build a Jewish community.
However alone I felt in that eighth grade classroom, I could never imagine the constant pain and loneliness in a world without places that celebrate Jewishness in colorful, musical, engaging, and meaningful ways. While Anne Frank’s identity remains contained within the pages of a miraculously preserved diary, camp offers the chance for us to continually grow in our Judaism. We unravel and find ourselves in our ancient texts, but also in living color every day. On Yom HaShoah, as we mourn, remember, and commemorate, we must also recognize the wonder and miracle of contemporary Jewish spaces that allow us to develop as individuals, foster community, and ensure our future as a Jewish people.