A jog down memory lane
Musings on childhood, peoplehood and sons wise and wicked.
On a recent trip to the States to visit my parents, I discovered something rather disconcerting. My father is having difficulties with his short-term memory. But that's not the problem. He's 86 and it's to be expected. The problem is that at 55, my difficulties are greater than his. He sometimes can't remember what happened six days ago; I found myself blanking out on most of the last six decades. After 35 years in Israel, recollection of my formative years in America has been all but wiped out.
Sifting through my parents' lifetime of memorabilia together with them, we came across dad's high school graduation album from 70 years ago. I graduated with the class of '70. He was able to recall more about his years as a teen than I. Thinking that a run through the old neighborhood might help jog my memory, that's what I did. Things only went from bad to worse. "Gee, I don't know if I've ever been down this street," I thought to myself a few minutes later, not recognizing the grand, stately structure at the end of it.
It was frightening to discover that the unfamiliar building was the high school I had attended five days a week. Then a reassuring wave of recall. I found myself passing the home of my first girlfriend, the one who broke up with me at the age of 12 because curly hair was no longer in fashion. This unleashed a flood of recollections of embarrassing moments of adolescence lasting the better part of a decade. I thought those were the memories the brain was supposed to repress. An apparent malfunction.
Around the corner was the synagogue I attended as a child and the Hebrew school where I prepared for my bar mitzva. My Torah portion... let's see, I was born on the first day of Passover, my mother's unexpected but welcome answer to why this night was different from all others. A flashback to my very earliest memory. My parents were waking me in the middle of the night. A heavy scent of roast mutton still hung in the air. I'd gone to sleep dressed that evening, wearing even my sandals, and now they were telling me that it was time to go. We hurried outside, past the doorposts that had earlier been dabbed with the blood of the lamb. A lot of excitement. A lot of confusion. Six hundred thousand souls readying for a journey...
I'D CIRCLED AROUND. Here was the school again. Another memory. Children of the '60s, my classmates and I had decided to rebel by replacing the traditional, formal prom, with a down-to-earth square dance. We spent months crafting a life-size cow to be part of the scenery. I could still visualize the finished product, but not much of what went into making it.
No, wait, it was coming back to me. Everyone was in a high state of anxiety. Feeling frightened and lost, we demanded something that might protect us. We were instructed to bring all our gold jewelry and throw it into a huge cauldron hung over a fire. We did so enthusiastically, the sense of having been abandoned and leaderless spurring us on. When the precious metal was molten, the brother of our leader, who had disappeared up a mountain 40 days earlier, molded it into the familiar shape of a calf. We danced ourselves into a frenzy that night, decked out in jeans and flannel shirts rather than gowns and tuxedos, true nonconformists, unwilling to accept to the conventions of our elders.
Now I was passing the home of another childhood girlfriend. An unexpected curiosity crossed my mind. At 16, we were talking seriously, of course, about getting married. The one thing I could recall about those conversations was that she, coming from a more religious family than mine, was insistent that our home would have to be kosher. I totally rejected the notion. Suddenly a strong, wintry wind began blowing, and I was propelled along as a driven leaf. No way, I had told her, not knowing that just a few years later I would become far more observant than she. And here was my teacher, being tortured to death by the Romans right in front of my eyes, a glimmer in his own even as he uttered his last breath, fulfilling the commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.
WHERE WAS I NOW? Completely lost. I looked at my watch. I'd been wandering for 40 minutes, and found myself in a lovely wooded area on a path that ended at a narrow, meandering stream. The park I had loved playing in as a kid. Home. Actually, home was on the other side. How many times had my friends and I thrown rotting logs into the water, daring one another to try to cross it. Would we have the courage to take that gigantic step? Were we up to the task? Would we know what to do emerging on the other bank? Were we prepared to shoulder the responsibility?
He who had led us this far but who would be barred from accompanying us any further was encouraging us, even as he cautioned us regarding our fate should we rebel, as he knew we surely would. I could still recall his words though I couldn't recall his face. I was always terrible with faces. Then another began to come into focus. Bright, piercing eyes, an imposing gaze, a carefully trimmed full black beard, a noble bearing. Some 200 of us were assembled in the monumental hall. A flag reminiscent of the ancient tallit hung on the wall behind the dais. The excitement was palpable. Finally, after so many centuries of dispersion, the promise of return was on the verge of being fulfilled. A Jewish state would be ours, if only we would will it.
AND TO HOME I returned. "You've been gone for a long time," my mother said with a concern I found reassuring. "Where have you been?" It wasn't an easy question to answer. Memories of peoplehood had become more vivid than those of childhood. "I was beginning to wonder if you were coming back."
I smiled, recalling how for the first 25 years or so after moving to Israel I'd been asked by family and friends when I would. Where had I been? What had I remembered? I felt like I was trying to open a file on a disk that had had an imaginary life burned into it over another that was more real but less resonant.
"What is the meaning of the statutes and laws that God has commanded you to do?" When those "senior moments" become more frequent and last longer, they must evoke the same panic one feels when that ominous message appears on the computer screen: "Program not responding. If you press 'end now' any unsaved data will be lost." But it has been saved. "And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, This is done because of that which God did for me when I came forth out of Egypt."
Is that the answer to the question of the wise child or the wicked one? What, indeed, is the difference between the two siblings, or the two sides of the self, or the two stages of development, or the two generations, or the two inclinations? The former speaks under the influence of a collective memory that the latter cannot access. The son our tradition reveres is the one who lives the life of his ancestors, as his father did before him and as his child shall after him.
JUST BEFORE this visit, my parents had become great grandparents for the first time. God willing, I too will be welcoming a new generation to the Seder table this year. "And you shall tell your son on that day, saying..." Each of us is an indispensable link in the chain. If we do not suffuse our children with stories of our peoplehood, if we are not successful in passing on our ancient memories, we doom them to a lifetime of exclusion. We make no room for them around the table. Our failure becomes their ignominy.
"Your mailbox has exceeded the limit set by your administrator. You will not be able to receive new messages until you delete..." A familiar greeting I wake up to most mornings. Probably my dad does as well, even without turning on his computer. Can you imagine handling a backlog of 86 years of communiquÃ©s? What I generally do under the circumstances is to get rid of some of what has arrived more recently. What was saved to my memory ages ago remains safe. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Chances are that what I did yesterday wasn't nearly as exciting as crossing the Red Sea.
But who remembers?
The writer is a Jewish educator living in Jerusalem and immediate past chairman of the executive committee of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies.