Memory and History


The quote above describes the reaction of Amon, the King of all the Gods of Egypt, to a suggestion by Teuth, the God of wisdom, about teaching people the art of writing. Why do I bring it up?


Given that Passover is approaching, I could just say “Zachor Et Hayom Hazeh” (remember the day) as the opening of the Passover Haggadah admonishes us. And in a way it is part of the message I would like to convey. It is said that in the XIX Century, one of the early Yiddish historians approached a Rabbi with a problem on what would be the best way to write about Jewish History, to which the Rabbi responded that there is not such a thing as “Jewish History” - Jews don't have “history”, they have memory.


I also find a similar problem when it comes to Yiddish. While I did learn Yiddish in the Jewish Day School, I also had a chance to speak Yiddish with my grandparents, for whom Yiddish was not a subject matter in school but the living language they grew up with, “Mameloshn”, thus giving me a different perspective on the language.


You see, I believe that there is an ineffable quality in memory – memory lives, a quality that cannot be said many times about the written word. Memory, as the Rabbi of the story would have said, involves us in a personal is not just that the memory belongs to us – we belong to the memory as well. The written history is just a text, external to us, conveying the facts of events from a long time ago. It is not alive. History can record memory, but it cannot contain it.


Storytelling, on the other hand, has the quality of memory – it brings events alive for us. The rhythm of the story is as important as the facts it contains. The facts without the rhythm remain a dry text; the rhythm without the facts lacks the content. Facts and personal involvement are both necessary when we try to teach a tradition. Facts are an important part of tradition, but the personal involvement is necessary to give those facts real, live meaning that can be useful for those who are listening. A tradition conveyed only through knowledge falls flat, while one bringing the past alive becomes part of our lives.


While thinking on all these issues regarding Tradition and Jewish identity I also thought, inevitably, about the difference between reading the papers and being aware of the world around us. Information as such is necessary, without it we cannot engage in any meaningful dialogue. But information without the ability to process it and analyze it is just dead information. It is our perspective, our ability to address the information with critical thinking and analyze it that breaths live into the information; without critical thinking, information has no meaning. Awareness is not knowledge and knowledge is not awareness, but both need to work together to produce understanding.


When it comes to the Israeli Palestinian Conflict, the distance between knowledge and awareness could not be larger. Most people grab the facts in order to justify the conclusions they had before even looking at the facts; awareness demands confronting reality and using it as a measuring rod for our convictions; for most people when it comes to the conflict confronting the facts is optional...if the facts do not fit their beliefs, they change the facts instead of their views; and this is a recipe for PREVENTING understanding. And without understanding there cannot be a meaningful dialogue, and without a meaningful dialogue, of course, Peace will continue to be evasive.


Our sages said “Mi Hu Givor? HaKovesh et Yitzro” - “Who is a true hero? The one who controls his (or her) passions”. I hope that soon the Palestinian leadership will confront the facts and reach the awareness necessary to establish a meaningful dialogue conducive to Peace and away from the violence and confrontation promoted by Hamas. For the good of both peoples.


Add Comment