When I learned that this week’s issue would be devoted to weddings and simchahs, I immediately wondered how I could craft a message of joy and celebration rooted in one of the darkest periods in our history. Of course, we have all heard about the holy Jews who sang and danced as they entered the gas chambers, with the stupefied Nazis watching in disbelief. But as we carry on with the mundane challenges of our lives, it may be difficult to relate to such ratified instances of resistance. Those lofty people belong on a pedestal of awe; like the bright sun that provides warmth from a distance, they seem light years beyond us.
However, we really don’t have to revisit the war years to find a source of inspiration. The rebirth of our people and the fantastic growth of Torah communities in America and around the world are the greatest consolation for a grievously wounded nation.
Postwar American society was nowhere near as diverse as it is today, and in many ways less tolerant. When our parents and grandparents arrived on these shores, they faced countless cultural and economic challenges. Yet they managed to succeed without the established support system that exists today. How did so many people achieve stability and success without compromising their religion and cherished traditions?
To answer this question, I would like to turn to the story of Rabbi Herschel Schacter, a chaplain in the US Army whom we have mentioned in previous articles. Although Rabbi Schacter had heard of the concentration camps, nothing could possibly have prepared him for what he saw upon the liberation of Buchenwald. From the moment he met the survivors, he worked ceaselessly and devotedly to help them with their physical and psychological needs. But there was one event that endured in his memory—leading the Friday-night davening for hundreds of survivors shortly after they first tasted freedom. Rabbi Shachter described the scene:
“I had no prayer book. I had nothing other than my voice (without a microphone). Yes, I did have one very interesting something that I carried with me throughout my military career. I had a little chuppah; sometimes the chaplain was called upon to officiate at a marriage ceremony. So I brought this little canopy, with ‘mazal tov’ embroidered in Hebrew lettering, and put it on the little table serving as my ‘lectern.’”
This was just the beginning of the little chuppah’s career. Rabbi Schacter used it when he officiated at weddings that took place in the DP camp, heralding the beginning of a new life for shattered souls who were forging ahead with fortitude. Today, this iconic velvet cloth is part of our collection at Amud Aish, but the family has donated it with a specific condition; whenever there is a family wedding, they take their grandfather’s chuppah for the occasion, marking yet another milestone on its continuous journey.
At a dinner commemorating the 25th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald, Rabbi Schacter reflected on the meaning of freedom and the Jewish approach to such a gift. “This is a simchah for these people,” he said about the liberation. “They don’t forget those who died in the gas chambers, who suffered torture, but they are joyous to be alive in this land of freedom.”
This, I believe, is the secret of our success. Yes, we have suffered terribly, but this does not entitle us to deferential treatment. In fact, because of our difficult history, we are even more thankful that Hashem has granted us this opportunity of freedom to pursue our hopes and dreams. The foundation for this perspective, and the reason it is more natural to us, is rooted in the fundamental belief that Hashem has given us everything, the good and bad. This makes it much easier to move ahead, with our eye on the future.
Recently, I was at a sheva brachos where the chasan had lost his first wife. Expressing his thanks to Hashem, he remarked that this simchah had elevated him to new heights. After the tragic end of his first marriage, he stated, he was able to feel a greater appreciation for a new beginning with his wonderful kallah. If Rabbi Herschel Schacter had been listening, he would have been proud indeed.
People can choose to live in the past, mired in problems that obstruct their path forward. Baruch Hashem, the vitality of the Jewish people today is testimony to our ability to appreciate the most important simchah—the joy of life itself.