Last month I was invited to attend a reception in the Holocaust Center of New Zealand in honor of Joy Cowley, who became a patron of the Holocaust Center. Joy Cowley is in her 80’s a great grandmother and an author of over 1,100 books, most of them for first readers. Her name is well known to all New Zealanders who have children over 5 years old.
A feature of the reception was the button collection, a project by the day school to commemorate the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust. Inspired by the Paper Clips project, the school had decided a number of years ago to build a similar project. In order to give some kind of grasp to the children of the meaning of millions they began collecting buttons, one for each child. The project gained publicity and the buttons began coming in. It took many, many months to eventually accumulate that number, and the buttons came from all over the world as well as from within the country. 5 students, who had participated in the project, were at the reception and they discussed the project and the impact that it had upon them. They described the laborious counting, the hours and hours of sorting, numbering, labeling. They spoke of the drudgery, the counting that became almost mechanical over the months. They would take home packages of buttons to count as homework. They mentioned the sense of relief when a box of buttons arrived in the mail pre-counted.
There were individual buttons with stories, buttons that came with unique backgrounds, even buttons that came off clothing from the camps. Slowly it dawned on the students the magnitude of the holocaust and the staggering number that is a million and a half.
I listening to the students describe the process of counting buttons, and counting more, and more… It was a drab experience, draining and monotonous, yet so powerful and significant. Most adults would not be able to complete such a task unless there was a numbing of the mind. Every button represents a child, someone’s baby, an innocent life cut short so cruelly. The pain and aching of the heart could only grow stronger and less bearable. Eventually one would not be able to count, would not be able to see past the blur of the tears that cloud the eyes.
Large buttons, small buttons, buttons made to look like flowers; round buttons, square buttons, buttons shiny and buttons textured. Buttons of all colors, buttons that looked simple and white. A broken button with a jagged edge, buttons set with false diamonds. Buttons with wool still knotted to its holes. Plastic buttons, hand sewn buttons and buttons carved from wood. Boxes and boxes overflowing with buttons. A button overlooked, rolled into a dusty corner.
Every button a child.
Like everyone else in the room I had heard about the button collection, seen the boxes and knew about the campaign to build a monument in the city with the buttons. But hearing it again, hearing of the process and collection, we all felt the profound impact of the project anew.
In my mind I heard the word ritual, over and over again. That is what the process described. Ritual. Buttons, ritual. Counting, ritual. A numbing, monotonous act of ritual. A sensational act, the handling of sacred lives of children, running your fingers through a carton and hearing the jingle and clatter of buttons rippling and cascading over other buttons. And doing it meticulously for months and months.
A good part of religion is made up of ritual. Numbing, meaningless ritual. We go through the motions, we do what we did yesterday, last month, last year. We mumble a blessing with a blank mind we wave the four species without a second thought – because that is what we do, its what we have done every year for millennia.
The tone of the Pesach Seder is defined by ritual. Of all Jewish events none is beset with ritual as the Seder is. And these rituals differ slightly from community to community and family to family. The rituals triggers memories, sentiments, “In every generation one is obligated to feel as though he / she had just been delivered the the slavery of Egypt.”
Every ritual is a button, a precious reminder of something of great importance. Over time we lose the feeling and we need to be reminded of what these represent. Ritual is the texture of Jewish life, the ‘buttons’ that must not be forgotten. But we do forget. We toss aside buttons, allowing them to gather dust in the corner. The children, the products of these rituals remain of profound significance. We must never forget the million and a half.
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