The Privilege of Learning History That Isn’t Your Own

L’shana tovah!
Today is Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the Jewish new year.

Rosh Hashanah Apples And Honey GIF by Lawrence Family JCC

My Jewish friends often get a kick out of me — a Chinese-American, and more key here, non-Jewish person — keeping up with major Jewish holidays. But I grew up in a school district where Jewish holidays were school holidays, due to what I’m assuming was a large Jewish population in my town. I still remember moving to a different school district and expressing surprise at having school on Yom Kippur, a high holiday!

Recently, The Guardian published findings from a study that found a startling amount of ignorance about the Holocaust among Americans:

  • Nearly 2/3 don’t know 6 million Jewish people were killed during the Holocaust
  • More than 10% believe Jewish people caused the Holocaust
  • Almost 25% think the Holocaust is a myth or exaggerated or weren’t sure
  • 1/8 said they hadn’t heard of, or didn’t think they had heard of, the Holocaust

These findings have been shocking, to say the least, to learn about one of the darkest legacies of modern human history. There are still Holocaust survivors among us.

I remember learning about the Holocaust in the 4th grade. We read The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, where the narrator connects with her grandmother via a Passover miracle that allows her to travel back in time to experience her memories from the Holocaust. We learned about Passover and the Holocaust and spent several weeks doing so, longer than we spent on most books we read for English class and a unique blended unit with social studies class. Many of my friends read Night by Elie Wiesel, which I actually never read in school, but I grew up assuming everyone read at least one book about the Holocaust by the time they finished middle school.

I am very lucky to have grown up with the opportunity to learn so much from so many Jewish classmates and teachers and neighbors (I used to joke often that I thought I would end up marrying someone Jewish because that was the logical product of my environment) but I didn’t realize how much of a privilege it was until more recently. Just last week, during a September-themed trivia round, I was the only member of my team who knew what a shofar was. (It is a horn that is blown on Rosh Hashanah and is the symbol of the holiday.)

happy new year shana tova GIF by merylrowin

Learning about the Holocaust is not just about learning about the history of the Jewish people; after all, they were not the only group persecuted by the Nazis. Learning history should not just be about learning what affected your own family and your own community, because we live in an increasingly connected global community. The effects of World War II and the Holocaust can be felt by every single person on the planet today.

Not learning from the mistakes of the past and not understanding the context of present affairs are too dangerous. That’s clear when we see the echoes of this dark time ringing in different parts of the world today.

If you never learned about the Holocaust growing up, that’s not your fault. The temptation to deny it happened is really strong; to accept it as the truth is really difficult, the depth of the horrors seemingly too terrible to believe. But I ask that you take the time to learn about people that aren’t your own, and at the very least to respect them.

I love learning about cultures and traditions that aren’t mine. Joyous holidays and the delicious foods that are cooked and served to celebrate them, somber commemorations for reflection, observations of the events that are woven into the fabric of a nation of people. There is always something we can learn and take with us to make for a better future.

So tonight, I’ll be enjoying challah and apples dipped in honey, and not shying away from the past. I’ll admit that I don’t read as much history as I’d like, especially some of the more painful events. Heck, I want to forget painful parts of my own personal history. But I can’t. My history happened and it has shaped who I am; our neighbors’ history happened and shapes the world I live in.

May you have a sweet year. 2020 has been hard, but we can work to try to make future years easier.

I am an extremely novice baker; this is my 3rd attempt at bread and I’m starting to really believe that I should just pay for bread instead of sweating it out hand-kneading these enriched doughs ^^;

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