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Tony Judt, Joshua Foer, and a Jewish Memory Palaces

Tony Judt, Joshua Foer, and a Jewish Memory Palaces

My colleague Sandee Brawarsky spoke with Joshua Foer this week, and did an excellent job reminding readers of memory’s central place in Judaism. Foer’s in the news for his new book, "Moonwalking with Einstein," which details how he won the American memory championship.

It doesn’t hurt that the pre-publicity has been immense–from the fact of his family’s oustanding literary talent, with his brother Franklin being the former editor of The New Republic editor Franklin Foer, and his other brother Jonathan Safran, a wildly successful novelist. Then there’s the reported $1.2 million book deal and movie options he was offered, site unseen.

But don’t mistake me for taking anyting away from Joshua’s obvious talent. I haven’t read the book, but I did read the original Slate piece upon it was based, and lost an hour of sleep last Sunday night staying up way past my bedtime just to finish the book’s excerpt in the New York Times Magazine. The guy’s a wondorous writer, and the story he tells is fascinating. The most striking fact Foer uncovers is that early humans developed an especially strong visual and spatial memory, evolutionary biologists say, in order to remember where to find food and their way back home. Darwinism favored that skill just after ape-hood, but before civilization.

That fact is crucial to Foer’s training as a memory guru. He realized it wasn’t about having an innately gifted memory, but training himself in a unique memory trick: creating "memory palaces." Basically, it involves converting the things we have difficulty remembering, like numbers and ideas, into vivid images. Then you place in each image into a creatively imagined physical space, or a "memory palace." It’s a long dormant art, but when I was reading Foer’s essay last week, I was reminded that it isn’t dead yet.

Enter Tony Judt. I haven’t seen it mentioned yet, but reviewers seem to either be forgetting or not mentioning the fact the Judt’s recent memoir–"The Memory Chalet"–employed that same exact art of memorizing. In his last years of life, Lou Gehring’s virtually paralyzed Judt to the point where he couldn’t even write. In order to organize his life experiences into a coherent set of vignettes, he put remembered each one as single vivid image he stored in his own imagined "memory chalet." Then he didicated the contents of each room to his assistant, who wrote them all down.

Many of Judt’s memories are painful to read, particularly his one about his disillusionment with Zionism. But if you read Judt’s often doleful vision of Jewish history against Foer’s more often ebullient one, you’ll be reminded of the richness of the Jewish experience, where please and pain find a way to co-exist.

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