I’ve never been known to recall details with great precision, something which, at 45, has become increasingly apparent as my kids have to remind me where we parked, or what time to pick them up from school, or even, on some days, that they have school.
I know, on occasion, this might make me a bad parent. The question is, does it make me a bad Jew?
The Bible reminds us over and over to “Remember the ancient days,” as Moses tells the Israelites. The Psalmist avows: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.” And the admonition, post-Holocaust, to “Never Forget” is for many a religious imperative. To be a member of the Jewish people, you have to remember the Jewish people.
Thirty years ago, in his definitive book on Jewish memory, “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory,” Yosef Yerushalmi argued that the Jewish endeavor was powered by collective memory; whether or not the Exodus actually happened was of little interest to the rhythms of Jewish life, and had no bearing on the authenticity of the historical Jewish experience. Jewish history — which included the study of Jewish memory — was late to the Jewish dance.
In his book “Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable,” Yerushalmi continued this investigation. Freud’s view of the transmission of memory, according to Yerushalmi, was virtually genetic, evoking for Freud “the powerful feeling that, for better or worse, one cannot really cease being Jewish.”
Recent neuroscience takes a different view of memory from Freud. Whether individual or collective, memory is seen more as an active construction than a fixed object. Every time we “remember” an event or a feeling, we are actually, literally, recreating that experience by reconnecting the neurons that first spoke with one another during the original event. Remembering an experience and reliving an experience may be neurologically identical.
Judaism understands this all too well, and has built into the structure of remembering a recreation of the original experience. That is why the Torah is chanted in public, instead of read silently — as if the people were re-experiencing its original power at the moment the Prophet Ezra began this public practice after the return from Babylonia. It’s why we remember the journey through the desert, and the agricultural pilgrimage to Jerusalem, by building and living in a sukkah. And it’s why the Passover seder, almost upon us again, is built around the retelling and re-experiencing of the Exodus.
And here I start to feel a little better about myself, memory-wise. For the implication of all this is that we, as individuals and a community, are meant to forget — and then to remind ourselves again and again.
The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, Psalmist of the 20th century, understood the traditional fear of remembering too little, and the modern burden of remembering too much.
In his poem “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem” he writes simply: “If I forget thee, Jerusalem/Let my blood be forgotten.” Without recalling our origins, we lose the source of our strength. But after all the persecutions and inquisitions and wars, how much more must we remember?
This brings us to the “religious” imperative of the contemporary world — outsourcing our memories, and perhaps even our experiences, to the great digital cloud in the sky. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (an “honorary” Jewish writer if there ever was one) evokes in his 1941 story “The Library of Babel” a future in which every real or potential book had already been written; we merely have to go in search of it, at great cost to ourselves. This was a dark, kabbalistic fantasy when it was written. Today it’s halfway built, a Google-powered singularity where memory and history have begun to merge.
In the contemporary world we remember much less than we ever did, for our machines do the remembering for us. That might actually be OK, most of the time. But for our remembering to matter, we have to learn what and when to remember, and how and when to forget.
I am reminded of one of my favorite Jewish stories. Before we are born, an angel reveals to us the secrets of the universe, the arc of our life, the wisdom and commentaries on the Torah. But just as we are born the angel presses down on our upper lip, creating the indentation we all possess, and causing us to forget all we had learned.
This cycle of remembering, forgetting and remembering — which Amichai evoked so beautifully in his final volume of poetry, “Open Closed Open” — is both the reality of our natural lives, and the primary conceit of the Jewish enterprise. In every generation, at every Exodus, we are the first to remember something we already knew.
Daniel Schifrin is a Berkeley, Calif.-based writer.