Telling the Jewish story

By Joshua Yudkin

In the musical “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda reflects on the legacy of America’s forefathers and writes, “You have no control [of] who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Put to music, these words manifest fears shared by humanity.

Yet, who actually shares your story? Has the agency? The right? The interest? How is it shared? With whom? What is shared?

This past week, I had the opportunity to receive a guided tour of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum by one of our community’s beloved members, Kathy Garber, and I was overwhelmed by the powerful anecdotes, the literally unimaginable statistics and the diversity (not to mention the quantity!) of visitors in the museum. Throughout the tour, I could not help but think about these words from Hamilton — how do we keep the memory of upstanders and victims alive l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation? Through how many strangers, researchers, family members, friends, governments, institutions and educators did this information pass?

As we stopped in front of the exhibit about the Warsaw Ghetto, I expected to hear the story about the bravery and impact of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Instead, we heard the story of the Oneg Shabbat, a clandestine group of 60 upstanders in the Jewish community who wrote thousands of pages about everyday Jewish life — from hunger to hidden theater productions and the role of women in the society. Over 40,000 pages of the Oneg Shabbat’s writings survived in buried milk cans. These writings have been included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Memory of the World Register and labeled as one of the three most important contributions of Poland to humanity. As upstanders, the Oneg Shabbat, victims themselves, recorded life in the ghetto and prevented the Nazis from erasing Jewish history and peoplehood.

When forced into the Terezin Ghetto, artist Frederika Dicker-Brandeis courageously carried only art supplies in her suitcase, leaving her entire life behind. The supplies were for conducting clandestine art classes for the children in which she provided art therapy and inspired creativity. She saved over 5,000 pieces of all the children’s artwork, and, before joining her husband on a transport to Auschwitz, she entrusted her suitcase, then filled with the children’s artwork, to her student Raja to hide the suitcase. Frederika, an upstander, provided comfort to victims in terrible times, and now timeless art pieces enrich and continue the timeless Jewish story.

Jumping now to 2022 in Dallas, Texas, our community is inundated with upstanders on all levels. The Student-to-Student initiative creates connections between Jewish and non-Jewish high school students. It is a program that activates Jewish high schoolers to build diverse relationships, share about Jewish life and ensure that hateful propaganda about Jews will not poison society again. JUST Conversations is another community initiative that empowers both Jewish and non-Jewish civic leaders to write our Jewish story through civic and social activism. Through strategic partnerships between other religious and ethnic communities, young Jewish leaders partner with their non-Jewish peers to educate and build coalitions focused on social justice issues that affect all strata of society. Similarly, seasoned community leadership also meets with government officials to demand decent dialogue and eradicate hateful and xenophobic discourse and actions for all. Our Jewish story is a story of upstanders safeguarding humanity.

Ralph Goldman, one of the most prolific Jewish visionaries and leaders of the 20th century, stated, “There is a single Jewish world: intertwined, interconnected.” I believe Ralph was referring to the way in which we, as Jews, see the world. The Jewish story is a story of relentless respect. It is a story of diversity and inclusivity of experience, expression and identity. The Jewish story endures — it is a living story that we write collectively.

The Jewish story always leaves the world a better place than we found it. For whom are you an upstander today? For whom will you be an upstander tomorrow?

Joshua Yudkin currently serves as an executive committee member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and is a co-founder of JUST Conversations. He is an epidemiologist by training who was recently awarded a Fulbright research grant and works at the intersection of community building and public health.

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