Yad Vashem: Write Like A Writer Portfolio Piece


Before I was old enough to go to camp, I would go to New York City for a week each summer, splitting time between my grandma and my aunt and cousins. One of my favorite things that I always did with my grandma was going to the Jewish Museum. Typically, small children aren’t very interested in museums, unless they’re interactive like the Museum of Science or the Museum of Natural History. But even as young as seven or eight years old, I loved the Jewish Museum. There was something special to me about being surrounded by and learning about my culture. 

However, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel, is much different. The Jewish Museum focuses on Jewish culture, and while there is one exhibit about the Holocaust, more focus is placed on Jewish art itself. Yad Vashem is not just a museum about the Holocaust, but it takes the visitors on a journey through it.

When I think of a museum in a traditional sense, I imagine a building with different floors and galleries, where one can walk around and observe every piece individually. Yad Vashem was constructed in a way that uses the building to tell the story of the Holocaust. You’re greeted by a nice, carpeted ramp, and projected on the wall is a compilation of pre-Holocaust videos; synagogue services, weddings, familial traditions, Jewish children singing Hatikva. This is meant to contextualize what Judaism was like in Europe before the rise of Hitler, but also as a reminder that Israel had been a hope long before the Holocaust. The museum is one main corridor, and visitors are meant to walk towards the balcony that gives way to a beautiful view of the countryside. Concrete floor replaces the carpet as soon as the exhibit begins; it serves as a symbol of the end of Judaism in Europe as seen before. The museum weaves visitors from one side of the corridor to the other, moving through exhibits that focus on what was happening in Europe throughout the great depression, rising antisemitism, the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, and the aftermath. 

Nothing was sugar coated. We saw a street corner imported from the Warsaw ghetto. We saw a real cattle car used to transport prisoners from the ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We saw the pile of shoes. We saw the pictures of the gas chambers and crematorium. The most impactful thing inside the museum was the hall of names; a room dedicated to 2.7 million pages of testimony, filled with the names of the Holocaust victims. Once done in the museum, we went to the children’s memorial. Housed in a small cave at the end of a tunnel, once inside, you’re surrounded by flames from Yahrzeit candles, reflected by mirrors to make it look as though there are millions, along with photos of some of the children who were killed. It made me think of the victim who I honored at my Bar Mitzvah; Moshe Shifman, who was murdered when he was just two years old. He had his life brutally taken from him before he had the opportunity to become a Bar Mitzvah himself, so it was very special to be able to do so in his honor. I didn’t know what he looked like, nor did I know his story, but standing in the memorial, I knew that one of the candles was a representation his memory. There were no proper burials, no headstones, no trace left of these victims; but the hall of names and the children’s memorial are ways to make sure that every story of the Holocaust was heard. 

We also saw what happened when the camps were liberated; pictures of the prisoners celebrating, pictures of congregations in the years following the Holocaust, pictures of Jews throughout the ensuing decades, pictures of survivors returning to their concentration camps. When I got to the end of the museum and stood on the balcony overlooking the land of my people, it was bittersweet. On one hand, such horrible things had happened to us in the past, but now, I was standing in the fruition of a hope that stretched thousands of years; ישראל (Yisrael). 

I remember the tour guide talking about how, about 20 years before our tour, she was touring a group of Holocaust survivors, and it gave me that same bittersweet feeling. When they got to the pile of shoes, one of the survivors recognized her mother’s shoes; a reminder that, as horrible as the holocaust was, we survived and are able to tell those stories of survival to future generations. This woman lost her mother in a horrific genocide at a very young age, but she was able to make a life for herself, all while keeping her mother’s memory alive. That is the truest meaning of Judaism.

Somebody who practices Christianity is Christian. Somebody who practices Islam is Muslim. Somebody who practices Judaism is Jewish. That -ish suffix means belonging to a nation: English, Spanish…Jewish. Judaism is so much more than a religion. We are a culture, but most importantly, we are a nation; meaning we are united around common language, culture, history, religion, and ethnicity. Jews all over the world share the same values; צדקה (tzedaka), richesness; עולם תיקון (Tikkun Olam), repairing the world; קהילה (kehilla), community, כבוד (kavod) respect. We all hold Israel to be our homeland.

The goal of making it to Israel is something that has only been able to happen within my grandparents’ lifetimes; they’re all older than Israel. But generations of Jews have dreamed of one day being able to visit Israel. Thinking about this new perspective I began to uncover after visiting Yad Vashem, I thought back on what it was like visiting the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. Both sets of my grandparents had visited, but my parents had not. As soon as I even saw the wall, it was surreal. I had only seen it in pictures before, but to be seeing it in real life made me feel like I was dreaming. I was amazed at how there were people that go there every day to pray, and at 16 years old, I was the first of my immediate family to visit. When I got up to the wall to pray, I was in total awe. As I put my hand on the wall, a wave of energy and emotions seemed to push from the wall, through my fingertips, and spread throughout the rest of my body. At that moment, I was not only Daniel or DJ Dworman. I was Daniel Jacob Dworman–זליגמן יעקב (Zelegman Yakov)–named after my great grandfather, who never got to meet me, nor did he get the chance to visit the Jewish homeland. Grandpa Morty was named after someone in his family who had passed before he was born, and so on and so forth. With that, the entirety of the nation of Israel, from אברהם (Avraham) and שרה (Sarah) to אייזק (Isaac), to משה (Moshe), was with me at the wall that day.

The nation of Israel is always with me. I live each day with Jewish values in mind. I wear a חי (chai) necklace, the same one that I got in Zefat, every day. I heard recently that if you are Jewish and you don’t live in Israel or observe Shabbat law, there is a great chance of your grandchildren not even considering themselves Jewish, let alone practicing at all. And that worries me! Obviously, I don’t live in Israel, but I don’t keep Kosher, I don’t keep שמר שבת (Shomer Shabbat) and I don’t pray every day. The feeling I had at the Western Wall. The feeling I had in Yad Vashem. That’s why I want to be Jewish. That’s why I want my kids to be Jewish. I want them to experience the same joy of carrying on the faith of their ancestors, and I want them to be able to do so with pride. But most importantly, I want them to be the embodiment of what Judaism teaches; how to be kind, thoughtful, proud, inquisitive, and righteous. In those ways, our people will live on, and our stories will continue to be told. 




Photo by Taylor Brandon on Unsplash