WEST BLOOMFIELD – The Jewish Community Center in this Detroit suburb has hosted its fair share of large gatherings, but nothing quite like last night.
Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel addressed a crowd of about 2,000 at the center’s 55th annual Jewish Book Fair yesterday. University of Michigan Hillel bussed more than 200 students to the lecture.
Many consider Wiesel the most important writer on the Holocaust. His name has recently been mentioned as among the possibilities for the next president of Israel.
Wiesel’s address took a unique form – instead of simply giving a speech, he used a traditional Jewish teaching method known as havruta to help the audience understand a passage from the Torah. Wiesel gave a summary of part of the story of Job followed by a discussion period, where audience members discussed their interpretations of the text among themselves. Afterward, he explained his own perspective.
Wiesel used the story of Job – a man who overcame personal suffering to raise a family and lead a meaningful life – to illustrate the theme of the universality of suffering among human beings.
“We are linked to one another by humanity,” he said. “God created man and woman, and we are all descendants.”
Audience members found this learning process effective.
Prof. Ralph Williams plans to use the havruta method in his course next semester on Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor who famously wrote about his experiences at the Auschwitz death camp.
LSA freshman Allison Pancus said speaking with a fellow audience member gave her a new outlook on the text. “So when Mr. Wiesel was talking again,” she said, “it had a lot more meaning.”
Michael Brooks, the executive director of the campus Hillel, found Wiesel’s use of the havruta learning method extremely beneficial.
“He taught and provocatively reframed a well-known text, and opened up a rich array of possible ways, both intellectually and emotionally, to understand it,” Brooks said in an e-mail interview.
After the discussion, Wiesel explained his interpretation of the story – something the crowd seemed to be waiting for.
“Stories have implications and applications to all times, including our own,” Wiesel said.
He spoke at length about his experiences during the Holocaust, weaving in references to Job’s story.
“We never believed it would happen,” he said. “But no matter what, one cannot give up hope. If Job could do it, we shall do it.”
Before concluding the address, Wiesel broadened the focus of his lecture to include topics like friendship and God. He said that while one can live without love, one can’t live without a friend. He also invited the audience to ask themselves what exactly friendship means.
Wiesel explained the necessity of helping fellow human beings in times of peril.
“Whenever a community suffers, I am involved,” he said.
Before his address, Wiesel, removed from the crowds perusing the books on display for the fair, talked with a group of University students in the basement library of the community center.
Students enjoyed seeing Wiesel in an intimate setting, asking questions that touched on topics such as racism and the Holocaust. One audience member even asked about Wiesel’s opinion of the “Soup Nazi,” a character featured in the television sitcom “Seinfeld.” Some considered the character offensive for making light of Nazism.
Wiesel seemed perplexed.
“Soup Nazi? What’s that?” he responded, grinning.
After the event’s conclusion, the crowd eventually dispersed, many seeming full of inspiration.
“He, as a person, is awe-inspiring, not only in the things that he’s done, but also in the ideas he holds,” Engineering junior Stephanie Ablowitz said.