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Jewish Amnesia

Jewish Amnesia

Along the way to the modern world, what has happened to the Jewish People's collective sense of memory?

by

One of the great gifts of human life is a sense of memory. I do not mean only the ability to cram for a test and remember all sorts of arcane facts, or the power of recalling various items of trivia that enable us to be champion board-game players. Rather, I refer to the long-term memory that creates emotions, loyalties, and attitudes and eventually borders on myth.

It is this sense of memory that gives life its flavor and makes each one of us so unique and special. For without such a memory we are truly "vegetables" as far as the world of spirit and values is concerned, and rootless "vegetables" at that.

The memory of the aroma of my mother's kitchen when food was being prepared for Shabbat or the holidays, the memory of how sparklingly beautiful the Passover Seder table looked to my four year old eyes, the memory of the wonder in seeing a caterpillar metamorphose into a butterfly for the first time -- that is the memory that is so vital to meaningful life.

Memory is in woefully short supply in today's society, and especially in Jewish society.

And for various reasons, that type of memory is in woefully short supply in today's society, and especially so in much of Jewish society.

The Jewish people as a whole and collective body always prided themselves on their acute sense of memory. Israel remembered that the Exodus from Egypt occurred on a Thursday, that the revelation on Sinai took place on Shabbat, that Rabbi Akiva was executed by the Romans in the hippodrome of Caesarea on Yom Kippur, and that the Jews of Ethiopia are descended from a "peace corps" mission of members of the tribe of Dan whom Solomon sent out at the request of the Queen of Sheba. With such exacting memory we have also recalled the people who populated the generations of Israel, the great heroes and the despised villains, as well as the historical events of the time.

This sense of memory was based on the obligation of one generation to transmit not only its accumulated knowledge to the next generation, but more importantly, to transmit to future generation the very power of memory itself.

Jewish parents trained Jewish children to remember -- to remember the Land of Israel even though they never saw that land, to remember the covenant with God at Sinai even though adherence to that covenant brought with it sacrifice and difficulties, to remember to be good and kind in a world that lacked compassion. In short, to remember to be Jews!

FADED MEMORY

But something happened to us on the way to the modern world. A large section of the Jewish people developed a severe case of amnesia. The transmission of memory from one generation to the next was interrupted. In 19th century Europe, the Enlightenment destroyed all memory of the "old Jew" and replaced it with the "new Jew."

The "new Jew" was to be modern and strong and self-reliant. He was also to be atheistic, non-observant of Jewish tradition and lifestyle, and without any sense of long-term memory. His memory span reached backed to 1897 or 1948 or 1967 or only to 1994.

In the United States, many Jewish families consciously destroyed Jewish memory.

In the United States, many Jewish families consciously destroyed Jewish memory, feeling that this was a necessary prerequisite for becoming fully Americanized. Memory inhibits assimilation and for American Jewry, its movie-makers, authors -- and even some leaders -- became dulled to Jewish memory.

Israel, too, has not been spared. The "new Jew" travels to Nepal to find spirituality, in an attempt to replace the old memories. Such are the rewards of enforced amnesia.

MEMORY PRESERVED

When my wife and our then little children moved from Chicago to Miami Beach to assume our roles as the rabbinical family for a small congregation, we were lonely. Our families were in up north -- in Chicago and Detroit -- and for me it was not only a change of locale but of professions as well. We needed some tender loving care, and usually the congregants don't think of themselves as being obligated to fulfill that role.

However, there was an elderly couple, the Gellers, who were members of the synagogue. They were sweet, gentle, unassuming, deeply religious people. In their noble way, they became surrogate grandparents to our children who sorely missed their own biological grandparents.

Miami Beach is hot and humid for seven to eight months of the year. When we moved there, the place was not completely air-conditioned as it is today. The elderly woman, Mrs. Geller, would bake a fresh loaf of Shabbat challah for us every Friday -- even though the temperature in her non-air-conditioned kitchen must have been extremely high. She did this for us every week of the year. And her husband would walk over in the hot afternoon sun to deliver that challah every Friday before Shabbat.

Our children were raised on Mrs. Geller's challah. It was the highlight of our week, our anchor to holy Shabbat memories.

We eventually moved from Miami Beach and later, in the fullness of time, the Gellers moved also -- on to their eternal reward. Our children married and are now raising children of their own. Somehow they transmit the memory of Mrs. Geller's challah to our grandchildren who have never seen or known her. My wife and I have always celebrated our Shabbat table with the memory of Mrs. Geller's challah being present.

The Jewish people need a good stiff dose of memory to help them cope.

Therefore, imagine my joy when I spoke at a public event in Jerusalem last year, and a woman approached me and said: "I am Mrs. Geller's granddaughter and I have baked a challah for your Shabbat table -- and here it is!" Our memories converged to create an emotional bond that transcended the passage of time and the change of place. For the great task of life had been accomplished -- memory had been transferred from one generation to another generation.

The Jewish people need a good stiff dose of memory to help them cope with the difficult problems they face the world over.

Each individual and family must dread the affliction of Jewish amnesia. It is never too early or too late to fight this amnesia and to develop Jewish memory.

Our task in life is not only to remember, but to create and transmit memory to the future generations. Our success in so doing will be the measure of our stature in the never-ending story of our people.

Published: June 3, 2000


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Visitor Comments: 7

(4) HOWARD MALLINGER, February 5, 2013 5:09 PM

AMERICAN JEWS

IT HAS BEEN MY SAD UNDERSTANDING TODAY THAT WE AS JEWS HAVE SADLY LOST OUR WAY. IT SEEMS THAT WE HAVE GOTTEN SO COMFORTABLE HERE IN AMERICA,THAT WE HAVE FORGOTTEN WHO AND WHAT WE ARE.OUR SOCIAL CONCIENCE SEEMS TO BELIVE THAT WE MUST SHOW EVERYONE THAT WE ARE JUST LIKE THEM.WE SEEM TO FORGET THAT THE TORAH STATES THAT IF YOU HELP ONE JEW,YOU "HELP"ALL JEWS. I AM NOT JUST TALKING ABOUT MONEY.WE SEEM TO HAVE FORGOTTEN THAT THERE ARE POOR,OLD,AND SICK JEWS. MOST OF THE TIME IT SEEMS THAT WE WANT TO HELP OTHERS BEFORE WE HELP OUR OWN FIRST. IN THIS LAND OF PLENTY OUR PEOPLE SHOULD STILL HELP OUR OWN BEFORE WE WANT TO HELP OTHERS,IF WE CAN. THERE IS A TREMENDOUS NEED EVEN NOW THAT IS NOT BEING MET,SADLY

Sonia, February 6, 2013 9:52 AM

While I surely understand the lamentations herein expressed...

There are orthodox, fully traditional shuls, synagogues with very active memberships and attendees who joyfully celebrate Judaisms, with pride perform the required mitzvot, and are living fulfilling spiritual lives, both participating and contributing to life to everybody's benefit. The question is how to elevate our lives as Jews and therein serving as models to the "kidnapped" and lost among us. And to start today.

(3) vincent, June 2, 2011 7:08 AM

Too Jew for some, not enough for others

I grew up in France, and was denied my Jewish story because my family's culture was mainstream Catholic. I experienced shame rage most of my life feeling emptiness inside, and I had no clue about the origin of my condition(I actually concluded I was mediocre person that didn't deserve happiness, Catholicism is a great inspiration for self-sabotaging!). I learned recently through people outside of my family that my grand pa wasn't that shameful Jew that hid during the German occupation letting his wife and my father (then baby) dealing with the Gestapo , but actually a hero of the Resistance highly decorated. He never told anyone. Being a Hungarian immigrant he didn't speak French well (another blow to trans-generational communication) and died when I was 10. Today for the first time, I want to know more (despite my family tradition of silence) and am determined to develop the consciousness I must have to be a responsible human being and a healthy father to my kids. Any suggestion/help/advice/collaboration...welcome! Shalom

Anonymous, July 8, 2011 8:09 AM

right to happiness

If you want to find out more about your family you could look into Jewish.gen and maybe you could find other family members, trace them down and contact them and they could have a lot of information for you. You could also take the excellent advice of JDNY, Sept 2, 2010, see below. By the way, you said you had a Jewish grandfather. What about your grandmother and mother? Also, there is no such thing as a mediocre person who doesn't deserve happiness. Rejoice that you are alive, rejoice in your children, in the sky, the flowers, the earth, thils entire magnifcent world that G-d has given us,. Rejoice when you see an onion, wilth such a thin skin and yet it protects it-do we have any such paper in our world, that can do what G-d's thin onion skin can do? And G-d's packaging of the coconut-look what He did to preserve the juice inside of it, so some thirsty person could come along and have a drink!!!! Best wishes in you search to find out who you are.

(2) JDNY, September 2, 2010 1:14 AM

Being an Observant Jew is the way to go in keeping great memories. Many Jews who aren't religious believe keeping some traditions is enough but the whole concept should be forgoten. There is nothing out there more beautiful like than Judaism and the Torah. Im only a teen and I should be learning more than I should but I know i'll have a maximum life of purpose and happiness if I learn more and celebreate in simcha on chaggim and helping Fellow Jews in reconecting to their heriatge and most of all talking with others about Torah. CHAG SAMEACH!!!!!

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