About 8 years ago, I taught a literature class at an international school in Japan. My students, high schoolers, 16 years old fresh-faced, bright-eyed and open-minded were like models in a Benneton ad - diverse, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, many of them TCK s (Third Culture Kids). The first book we studied, was Night, by Elie Wiesel. I was beyond stoked to see this listed on the curriculum as required reading. It was among my top 10 faves and one I had also read in high school some, ahem years (decades) before. In case you are unfamiliar with Night, it tells the personal tale of Wiesel’s experience with his father in Auschwitz and Buchenwald during the height of WW2. Despite their personal distance from Jewish tradition, the Holocaust or any remotely comparable experience (say as a refugee, witness to a civil war or victim of systematic prejudice), they got it. And when they didn’t, they tried to understand; mostly because they couldn’t fathom the possibility of it being someone’s reality. We talked about the relevance and reliability of the piece. Was it because it was written from a youngster’s point of view, like The Diary of Anne Frank?
One week we spent our lessons in the school’s private kitchen. It was the same week Rosh Hashana was approaching and we had reached the section in the book when The High Holidays also arrive and the prisoners expressed their faith and tradition through hushed prayer and secret gatherings. This was no coincidence on my part. We spent the week preparing a few traditional foods that would have been prepared during better circumstances. We discussed the symbolic meaning of the foods and imagined being in Eliezer’s shoes. One student burst into tears. She felt guilty for enjoying the apples and honey knowing generations before her, people were murdered for such a simple act. Another student remembered traditional foods his Nigerian grandmother would make when she came for extended visits - feasts he felt he could not explain to his non-Nigerian friends. Another student revealed how her parents were without home and country for a period of time as they immigrated to Japan. We also spoke about faith and religion and the difference between the two. This insightful crew wondered if they too would lose faith if under the same pressure? They wondered if they had taken the meaning of their specific cultural traditions for granted - if they relied too heavily on convenience, the tools, the ritual, the foods? Their take-away from reading Night and eating apples and honey in the spirit of a holy new year and in honor of Eliezer, and other boys and girls like him?
We are more alike than different.
Everything is relevant, even when it’s not about us.