Holocaust Remembrance Day / Pesto

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This week’s recipe: Pesto

I spent the summer between 11th and 12th grade in Israel, on a teen tour that was half Americans and half Israelis. We did all of the country’s greatest hits, including an afternoon at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. Yad Vashem is an obligatory stop for tourists, IDF soldiers, schoolchildren, and politicians, and as we wound our way through the exhibits, I was struck by the large numbers of Hasidic families pushing strollers and holding the hands of young children. When we left the museum, I asked a friend when she remembered first learning about the Holocaust, and she recalled a story her mother had told her. When the friend was four years old, she went with her parents to visit her grandmother’s retirement community. She splashed around in the pool in her swimsuit and floaties while her mother watched from a pool chair nearby. One of the residents of the retirement community leaned in towards the mother and, gesturing towards my friend in the pool, asked, “Have you told her about the Shoah yet?”

The truth is, I don’t remember when I learned about the Shoah (the Hebrew term for Holocaust), because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Shoah. My grandmother grew up in Nazi Germany, though she and her family were able to escape in 1937. She didn’t talk about it much, and certainly didn’t talk about it with her young grandchildren. Nevertheless, the consciousness of it was all around me. As a bookish kid, I read Number the Stars and The Devil’s Arithmetic, the latter of which scared me off of opening the door for Elijah for many years afterwards. I still remember the watercolor that came near the end of a picture-book version of the Diary of Anne Frank, of Anne and her sister Margot clutching each other and crying in Auschwitz, their heads shaved and their skinny bodies clad in striped concentration camp uniforms. When I was bored at synagogue, I’d flip to the back of the prayer book and read stories in the Holocaust remembrance section about the corpses of children being thrown on a pile to be burned; about a German soldier smashing a baby’s head against a wall; about a little boy who was publicly hanged but who was so small that his neck failed to snap, and so he struggled against the noose until he finally suffocated. Even totally unrelated books could become little Holocaust lessons. I remember flipping through a book of baby names (when I say I was a bookish kid, I mean that I would read anything I could get my hands on) and informing my mother that the name “Adolph” means “wolf.” “Adolf Hitler was a wolf!” she replied.

Then there was the formal education. As early as third grade, we started commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day in Hebrew school. In sixth grade, literally the entire year’s curriculum was devoted to the Holocaust. I found this egregious, not because 12-year-olds are too young to learn about the Holocaust, but because it’s the year before they have their bar or bat mitzvahs. Right before you decide to become a full-fledged member of the Jewish community, do you want to get the message that being Jewish means suffering, oppression, and extermination? Of course, being Jewish often has meant suffering, oppression, and extermination—that’s what half of our holidays are about—but the Holocaust was less than a decade of a history that spans thousands of years. My Hebrew school wasn’t the only one to make this mistake. The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, which we visited on a field trip, is a three-story structure arranged thusly: first floor is pre-Holocaust, second floor is the Holocaust, third floor is post-Holocaust. Fine, so it’s a Holocaust museum, but again, I find it distressingly telling that they would single out a few years, no matter how horrific and consequential they were, to build all of “Jewish Heritage” around.

When I’ve discussed this topic with other Jewish friends, I find that their cultural and educational experiences were similarly saturated with the Holocaust. (My favorite such example is a friend who went to Jewish middle school, where her chorus sang a Yiddish song whose title translates to “A German Burned My Sister in Treblinka.” Oy vey.) It looms so large in the lives of Jewish people even now, as the last survivors are dying off. So I was shocked to learn that the rest of the world doesn’t feel the same way. I’m not talking about outright Holocaust denial or anything like that, but I thought that the Holocaust had reached such a cultural mass—in history, literature, movies, and so on—that no one in America could be ignorant of its enormity.

Two incidents stick with me. One was in tenth grade European history class. Our readings for that day’s class were recollections of concentration camp survivors. Like most such accounts, they were unspeakably horrible and left the reader with nothing to say, and so our teacher wisely didn’t ask us to analyze or discuss them. Instead, he had us go around and say what we knew about the Holocaust. I knew that non-Jews in the class wouldn’t have the same depth of knowledge that I did but I was still amazed at how little they knew, how little brain-space it seemed to occupy for them. If you are at all connected to your Judaism, I don’t think a single day goes by when the Holocaust doesn’t cross your mind. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like never to think about it unless someone or something external brought it up.

The second incident reinforced that, in a much more painful way. In my senior year of high school, my school chorus went to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest for a tour. One of the places we visited in Prague was the Pinkas Synagogue, which serves as a Jewish museum and Holocaust memorial. The synagogue’s walls are covered in names of the tens of thousands of Czech Jews who were killed in the holocaust, and there’s also an exhibition of children’s artwork from Theresienstadt. My sisters and I all have very common names for Ashkenazic Jews, and I easily found each of our names on the wall. But the part that I found most affecting was the artwork, and when I read that all of children who drew them were murdered in Auschwitz, I started to cry. Meanwhile, non-Jewish members of the chorus continued to laugh and chat and flirt with each other. I didn’t expect them to be as emotional as I was. I also didn’t expect them not to be emotional at all.

The Holocaust is the best-known instance of genocide in human history. Hitler’s name is a synonym for the worst kind of evil, even though Stalin and Mao caused more deaths. It’s a cliché that being involved with a movie about the Holocaust is the fastest way to get awards. But abstract knowledge doesn’t guarantee genuine emotional response. And if that’s true of the Holocaust, what about the many lesser-known, less documented genocides? (The death toll in the Congo during the early period of Belgian colonization has been estimated at 10 million, for instance, but almost no one I know has ever heard of it.) Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, but how do we get non-Jews to remember the Holocaust in its totality, while freeing Jews from the burden of having their entire identity and way of relating to the world defined by that remembrance?

So anyway, here’s some pesto. (Most inappropriate segue in this blog’s short history, no doubt.) Cut basil goes bad very quickly, so whenever I need to buy some for a recipe, I always use up the rest by making pesto. There are about a million pesto recipes out there, and I’ve made delicious ones involving spinach, kale, arugula, walnuts, pistachios, and so on, but this is my simple go-to. I usually serve it on linguine along with some pan-seared salmon, but go nuts! And the nuts don’t even have to be pine nuts.

Pesto

Adapted from How to Eataly

Ingredients

  • 1 clove of garlic
  • Fine sea salt to taste
  • About 2 loosely packed cups of basil
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano

Instructions

  1. Place the garlic and a generous pinch of salt in the food processor and grind into a paste.
  2. Add about a quarter of the basil leaves and grind until broken down. Continue to add basil a little at a time, breaking down all the leaves before adding more.
  3. Add the pine nuts and grind until crushed.
  4. While the food processor is running, slowly add the oil.
  5. Finally, add the cheese and run until thoroughly combined.
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