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How To Remember and How Not To Forget

Yehuda KurtzerFilmed at Limmud New York

My talk organizes a lot of the major questions Jews are asking about modernity under the framework of the loss of ‘memory’ that the modern age has brought about. I hope that both the questions I ask in this talk – about why and how the past can continue to hold great appeal to Jews who do not want to live in it – as well as the framework that I try to offer for modern Jews to be forward thinking while looking backwards, will resonate with you as you navigate your way through contemporary Jewish life and its challenges.

Dr Yehuda Kurtzer is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America – teaching, writing, and building the organization. The Institute is a pluralistic research and educational centre, attempting to address the central challenges facing Jewish life through the world of ideas – bringing new thinking to both old and new challenges, and inviting Jewish leaders to grapple with the questions of the day. Yehuda describes himself as a proud American Jew who cares deeply about Israel, a historian and author committed to sharing ideas beyond the walls of the academy, and a committed Jew who wants to live both a real and aspirational Jewish life. He lives in Riverdale, NY with his wife Stephanie Ives and their children.

For a people obsessed with our past we seem to be doing a lousy job of holding on to it. It seems that one of the defining questions of life in the modern world for Jews is, “how do we hold onto a past that none of us actually wants to live in and certainly not want to retreat to?” I’ve been thinking about memory and the Jewish past for a long time trying to come up with some understanding of what it means for us to hold on to the deep past in a meaningful way because we know that that’s a critical feature of being Jewish and at the same time not try to mount an argument for somehow believing that Tevye the Dairyman marked the greatest time in Jewish history. We don’t want to return to it but we want to hold on to it and for a people who are so obsessed with our past, with our books, with our literature and our history I say we are having a hard time holding on to it because of this pervasive sense of what I like to call “Memory Anxiety as one of the many anxieties that we have in Jewish life and one that I think manifests in a whole variety of ways and I want to suggest today three big questions. Three big questions that I hear a lot, you can substitute your own words, you can substitute the voice of your grandparents, editorials in Jewish newspapers or whoever else seems to be asking these questions over and over again. The most obvious sight for memory anxiety and for Jews in the modern world is, “How will we remember the Holocaust when the survivors are gone?” a phrase I continue to hear in Jewish magazines, in periodicals and publications. Usually I write an op-ed around the time of Yom-Ha-Shoah when the community continues to ask, “how will we remember the Holocaust when the survivors are gone?” Regardless of the fact that we have built museums, we have built store houses of memory, we have chronicled the lives and the stories of as many survivors as we can get a hold on and if you saw recently they’ve even started to create holograms of survivors who can appear in our classroom with students to continue to tell their stories and yet in spite of all of the efforts to try to capture the memory of the Holocaust, we continue to ask the question in contemporary Jewish life, “how will we remember after the Holocaust when the survivors are gone?”. A second big sight of memory anxiety for Jews, of courserelates to Israel, in this formulation, “Why are younger Jews less emotionally attached to Israel?” Betraying the fact that the previous generation of Jews, of course, had the benefit of living through 1948, 1967 and Entebbe and if you happen to have been unlucky and born after any of those things it’s no surprise that it’s much harder to hold on emotionally to Israel. If like me your formative gap years in Israel were spent around terrorist attacks and the assassination of a Prime Minister no doubt your emotional relationship to the State of Israel is going to be different than if you happen to have been lucky and lived through a miracle. But if we’re asking these questions we are relying heavily on what we happened to live through and not particularly on what it means as Jews to have an historical memory of 1948 a deep memory is a community of 1967, a meaningful memory of Entebbe. In our third sight of ‘Memory Anxiety’ that we see in Jewish life, “why does there seem to be a lack of ‘continuity’ between the Jewish past and the Jewish present?” If I have one pet peeve more than any other is this word, continuity. This amazing word that suggests that what we really want out of the next generation of Jews is that they continue the mistakes or even the good decisions of those that came before them and yet you hear this enormously in the Jewish establishment, “why is there no continuity, why does it seem that the future seems so unsettled compared to the stability of what came before us?” ‘Memory Anxiety’ is pervasive throughout Jewish life, we fear that we are losing the grasp, losing the hold on what came before us and if we do that we are all together unfamiliar terrain, incapable of amounting a credible claim for why we are Jewish and why we continue to be Jewish. I want to posit that part of the problem is not what we actually remember but how we remember. Part of the problem is that we, as Jews have forgotten how we’re supposed to remember. We as moderns think that memory I somehow defined by the fidelity or the sincerity of the original thing you are trying to hold onto, if you remember every detail of it you’re getting it right and as things fade from your memory you’re losing it. This is not how, classically, Judaism understood what memory was supposed to mean and the best example of it is to compare and contrast the two primary Jewish holidays of memory, one ancient and one modern. How do Jews Remember on Passover? We ask the questions about meaning, the Haggadah starts off with a set of four extremely banal questions intended to invite us to ask questions about what it is that we’re actually doing there. The Haggadah is about stories about stories, anyone ever noticed that when you read through the Haggadah you never actually tell the story of the exodus from Egypt? If you were going to actually tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, right, well first thing you would do is you would have a hologram with a survivor from the exodus from Egypt, but the second thing that you might consider doing is that you would read Exodus 2 to Exodus 12. You don’t read virtually any of the Book of Exodus when you read the Haggadah, you tell stories about other people telling stories that’s why you have these crazy little bits about Bnai Brak. I read a story about my ancestors telling the story, or if you come to my Pesach Seder and probably many of your own, you tell stories about your families previous Pesach Seders and that’s doing it right. We don’t really care about what happened 2500 years ago in Egypt, we care about the evolution of a story because it has mattered in the past and should continue to matter to us now and I tell people when they ask about “Why is it that my kids are so disinterested in Passover, they come to the Seder but they hate it?” I say “Throw out the Haggadah. Ask an important question and that’s a legitimate performance of Pesach.” We invite participant involvement in Passover right that’s why we do all of these sill things so children will ask and if they stop asking about the silly things they remember the answers from the previous year you’re supposed to invent new silly things. You want everybody involved in a story because involvement in a story is ownership of a story that is memory. And of course we have rituals and play acting, depending on your ethnic background and your community, you perform, you dance, you march around the table, right, you hit each other, my in –laws family they hit each other at various times with leeks, I don’t know why, but you remember it. I don’t know that you remember the Exodus from Egypt but you remember what it is to participate in the story and in contrast how is Yom-Ha-Shoah, the memory holiday that has been created in our generations, primarily been commemorated and of course there are exceptions but the primary way in which Yom-Ha-Shoah’s commemorated is through fear of meaning; number one, the legacy of much of the generation of Holocaust survivors was; don’t talk to me about the meaning of the Holocaust in the presence of a survivor, it is obscene and it is banal and I don’t mean to contest that, it is probably right but it makes it very hard to understand something, absorb its meaning when our primary mechanism to remember it operates within a culture of a fear of meaning. We have fixed stories. In my upbringing, when I went to Shul on Yom-Ha-Shoah it was the survivor standing on stage and telling their stories . we fear the falsification of Holocaust stories again with very good reason, there’s virtually no transgression we can do in Jewish life worse than falsifying a Holocaust story. But in contrast to the stories about stories that make for good memory on Passover, we are obsessed with the fixed accurate stories of Yom Ha-Shoah as opposed to participant involvement, which defines Passover, we listen. When they told this story recently about the holograms and the creation of holograms of survivors the newspaper article reported that ‘they were creating holograms in order for younger students of generations to come to have a dialogue with survivors”. I’m not sure whether they understood what the word hologram meant, right? But in any case, the notion of what we are supposed to do around the memory of the Holocaust is to listen to someone else’s story. It is not to dialogue with them, it is not to invent our own version of the story. The attempts that people have done to do this over the last number of years, one synagogue attempted to write a Yom Ha-Shoah Haggadah and 25 years ago to write a Yom- Ha-Shoah Haggadah in the presence of survivors was obscene and it’s banal. To actually sit on the floor and eat potato skins and to cordoned off the children and to play act rituals of something that’s in our very recent past is hard to do in the presence of survivors and yet there’s’ got to be some middle ground between the notion that on Passover we’re actually telling a story that has lasted for 2500 years and continues to matter to Jews, it has required all of these elements and when we are trying to hold onto a story that happened only 50 years ago, around which we have enormous anxiety in the present of losing, we’re ritualising it almost entirely wrong. And fourth as opposed to rituals and play acting we’re obsessed with testimony and we’re obsessed with truth. And this, perhaps misses the biggest component of Jewish memory that there is, that Jewish memory was never about something being right it was never about something being accurate, it was about something being usable, it was about something being meaningful. I don’t care, as David Waltby says, I don’t care if these stories from the Bible happened or not, they don’t tell stories like that about me or you.” We’ve allowed those stories to evolve over time to be defined differently from our own life experience and by our own need for meaning we have to figure out a way as Jews to do that to our present day stories as well. So I want to share three critical Jewish ideas about what memory has meant and what memory should mean; the first, if you actually lived it, it’s going to be very hard for you to Jewishly remember it. The first story of the Exodus, the story that we actually tell in the Haggadah comes from the book of Deuteronomy and it is the Jew, who after they have come to the land of Israel, generations after the Exodus and has first fruits, bring it to the temple and tells their story as a Jew, this is what happened to my ancestors and this is why it matters to me. It may be possible that part of the reason we’ve forgotten how to remember is because we’re obsessed with telling the stories that happen to us and not the stories that couldn’t possibly have happened to us. The second Jewish idea of remembering requires stories and rituals, we saw this with Passover, we’ve got to loosen up. As opposed to being fixated on the exact accurate version of our recent past or our ancient past, let’s loosen up, let’s allow that the stories and the rituals evolve the story, they change it, they make it different, and they make it matter. Are we capable and confident of doing that for even the episodes in our recent past that we feel so nervous about their accuracy? And third and this is the most difficult but the most important; Yosef Hayim Yeerushalmi writes in the book Zakhor about the audacity of the classical Rabbis in antiquity. The Rabbis lived through a moment called Hanukkah, the first post biblical Jewish holiday that they create and what do they do after Hanukkah comes around? They write a blessing that says, “Blessed are you oh Lord our God who has commanded us to light the Hannukkah lights.” On what planet and in what book did God command the Jewish people to light the Hannukkah lights? “And he calls this, “the audacious creativity of living in history and being free to interpret it and what it leaves us with is this unbelievable wild idea that while we tend to think that being creative is the opposite of being authentic to the Jewish past, that in classical Jewish thinking, ‘Audacious creativity’ is identical to being authentic to the Jewish past. You want to hold onto the Jewish past? You’d better make it different and you’d better make it your own. Franz Rosensweig wrote in 1926, important, Jewish philosopher in the 20th Century, writes in 1926 that, “we don’t need any more books on Jewish subjects, what we need are Jewish human beings” now, I like books. I’m not ready to jettison them quite yet. I’m not sure if we want to hold onto the past that we need more testimonials and more museums, we need more Jewish human beings, and if we’re human beings knowing our own story, integrating it to the past and allowing the past to evolve with us we may then start to be able to remember. Thank you

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