Israel: We must not teach history, but instill memory

These are the experiences, like a patchwork quilt, that make up the unique and beloved nation of which we are members.

The Frankelshead off to Russia (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Frankelshead off to Russia
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 Jewish educators, most notably our contemporary Jerusalemite master teacher Avraham Infeld, insist that it’s not history we need to teach the next generation, but memory that we must instill.
Says Infeld: It’s not what happened in the past that matters to them, but how it impacts their lives and the world they live in.
I thought of his words, as I took part in a junior high program in a school that got this right.
Like nearly all “meetings” today, this one took place on Zoom. Gone for now are the cozy gatherings in the school auditorium schmoozing with other grandparents over pretzels, lemon biscuits and tea. Instead, we were invited to an intergenerational get-together online with our granddaughter Eliana’s seventh grade.
Israeli schoolchildren around bar and bat mitzvah age commonly are assigned “roots” projects for which they need to investigate their own family histories. Not a surprising assignment in a country where a large portion of the adult population are immigrants.
Indeed, Eliana, 12, has already interviewed my husband and me, as have our other grandchildren at this age. Some took notes, others, like Spielberg, filmed us. What was different about this meeting of the Yachad School of Modi’in was that three grandparents’ stories were shared with the whole class.
The first story was told by Eliana’s other grandmother, Marla Frankel. She recounted the mission that she and Grandpa David undertook in 1977 to visit Russian refuseniks. Recruited by Israel’s secret services, they entered the Soviet Union on their Canadian passports and for 10 days met with Jews eager to learn about Judaism and Israel. They celebrated Passover there.
Of course, this entire dramatic chapter of the awakening of the Jews of Silence, as Eli Wiesel called them, happened long before any of these seventh graders were born. They don’t know about a time when Russian Jews would lose their jobs after being reported by informers if they entered a synagogue or, worse, if they applied to move to Israel. Nor do they remember their parents leaving an empty place at the Passover Seder for a Russian Jew who couldn’t celebrate the holiday of freedom.
For the Frankels, their experience of being followed by the KGB (also an unknown name to the children) was challenging and unnerving. Ironically, when they had trouble finding the address of activist Ida Nudel amid the rows of Khrushchyovka identical apartment buildings, the KGB agent following them pointed the way – he’d followed other visitors there before.
The Frankels were part of the stream of feisty Jews risking going behind the Iron Curtain to assure the refuseniks they weren’t alone in their struggle. Their brethren in the free world were supporting them. The struggle for Soviet Jewry did succeed. A million Russian Jews came to Israel. Their success was the beginning of the fall of the Soviet Union.
The second speaker was the grandfather of Yael, Sayid Yamin, who fought in the Yom Kippur War. Here, too, terms needed to be defined. Were all the children even sure how the war got its name 35 years before they were born? But they will all remember Grandpa Sayid’s story. He was 28, married and the dad of Yael’s mom when he was mobilized as a reservist in his battalion of combat engineers.
He didn’t tell the children how badly the war was going for Israel, but we grandparents all remembered.
Grandpa Sayid’s battalion was among those on whose shoulders fell the seemingly impossible task of bridging the Suez Canal and surrounding the Egyptian Third Army.
When they made the long journey to the Canal, the Israeli troops met unexpected fierce resistance.
“We were strafed constantly by Egyptian aircraft,” he said.
He didn’t mention the helicopters with the napalm.
“There was a long line, a traffic jam, of supply trucks waiting to cross.”
Many trucks caught on fire. “But fortunately,” he said, “The truck carrying all our weapons and ammunition wasn’t hit.”
The driver of that truck, however, panicked and ran away. The potentially explosive truck began sliding down a trench.
In a matter-of-fact tone, the stouthearted Sayid told the children how he managed to run to the truck, enter the driver’s side, and take the wheel while it was moving.
Had the truck crashed in the ravine, it would have exploded and killed the Israeli soldiers. If the truck was lost, the battalion would have faced the enemy empty-handed. It held the last of their battle supplies.
“I actually once had a truck like that,” he told the class with great modesty. “I knew how to drive it.”
Three years earlier, Sayid and two friends had started their own trucking company. At 75, he can still handle an 18-wheeler.
And yes, he was scared as he drove that truck of explosives across a narrow bridge with bombs falling around him. “But when that’s the job you’ve come to do, you just do it.”
The success of Operation Abirei Halev – literally, “Stouthearted Men” – changed the course of the Yom Kippur War.
The third story was told by Zecharia Herskovitz, grandfather of Maayan. He spoke about his family’s flight from Hungary the year after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when he was four. The reason: the Communist stranglehold and an outbreak of antisemitism.
He didn’t mention that his parents were among those Jews of Budapest who survived the Shoah in a country where over half a million of their brethren were murdered. He described how his parents chose a community where there were other Hungarian-speakers, their taking up poultry farming in the religious moshav Beit Meir. They were in clothing manufacturing in Hungary. Zecharia and his wife still live in the rural community, but he’s moved from chickens to aluminum.
THESE GRANDPARENTS come from Canada, Iraq and Hungary. In 2021, nearly all of the seventh graders in this middle-class city in the middle of Israel are native-born Israelis. Although many of them speak a second language at mother-tongue level and have traveled abroad on vacation, few have experienced the trials and triumphs of aliyah. That’s the good news.
Still, I can’t help thinking how quickly the dramatic events in my generation’s Jewish lives have turned into the equivalent of ancient history for my grandchildren. Our Sabra children do remember the joyful arrival of the waves of Russian immigrants and our adopting newcomer families, but it’s no big deal for our grandchildren that a friend’s grandmother made aliyah from Russia.
Taking the time to listen to their classmates’ families’ personal stories conveys an important message: In addition to our own family stories, there’s also something called “communal memory.” These are the experiences, like a patchwork quilt, that make up the unique and beloved nation of which we are members.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.