March 12, 2018 – Rabbi Paul Steinberg

The Power of Memory

I never did USY or BBYO.  I never went to Jewish summer camp.  I never set foot in a Hillel House and I didn’t go on a Birthright trip.  In fact, in my teens and early twenties I hardly did anything Jewish at all. By the standards of many Jewish sociologists, it’s stunning that I live as a committed Jewish adult, and a rabbi at that!  “What happened to you, is a miracle,” my father unforgettably quipped at my ordination dinner.

So how did this miracle happen in contemporary American Jewish society?  Memory – I’ve got Jewish memory.  I remember going to Hebrew school when I was a kid (and being kicked out of class for bad behavior).  I remember Jewish day school for three years of middle school (one that I didn’t really like). And I certainly remember that being Jewish was deeply important to my parents.

I knew I was Jewish because of what my family did together. I remember Passover seders with my siblings and family (both Jewish and non-Jewish), and friends; I remember making Hanukkah cookies with my mom; and I remember Saturday morning services – partly sitting next to my dad, working to keep up with the Hebrew, and partly wandering around the synagogue.  I also remember the stories my father told of my grandparents and great grandparents: stories of my grandfather wrapping tefillin each morning, my grandmother’s superstitions, and my great-grandfather’s voyage to America for religious freedom.

Interestingly, when asked about one’s Jewish identity, the most common phrase uttered is “I remember.”  Indeed, we are a people of memory and those early memories largely comprise the key elements of our Jewish identity – even if we leave it for a time.  As scholars Arnold Eisen and Steven Cohen write in The Jew Within:

Strongly Jewish childhoods, for all that a Jew may wander from them for a time, are a very good predictor of active Jewish adulthoods.  The memories of these childhoods, and in particular of observant parents, grandparents, or teachers, are crucial to the beliefs and behavior adopted later in life…. These Jewish memories, we believe, are also key to imagining the possibilities which lie ahead, both for the individuals concerned and for the American Jewish community they make up.  (pp. 14-15).

In this light, the goals of Jewish education become more clearly defined, namely to cultivate Jewish memory within our children. Memory develops around two aspects: a) our shared history, religion, culture, and set of symbols that bind us together as one people; and b) our sense of family, which unifies all Jews through either blood or theologically-based commitment and behavior.

Now that we are planted in the 21st century, we must especially focus on cultivating memory and developing our sense of shared history and family.  I say this due to the fact that many contemporary Jewish historians and sociologists do not paint such a rosy portrait as to what the remainder of the century will bring us Jews.  They primarily ask: Will the blessings of American secular society actually “bless us to death?”  In other words, will the freedoms, the individual autonomy, the choices that we have as to how and whether to live Jewish lives actually dissolve our distinctive Jewish identity and spirit? 

Obviously, I hope not because I believe Judaism to be a beautiful way of life and, I, for one, am a dedicated Jewish adult.  I didn’t become this way, however, because of the power of Jewish programming or because I was “called by a voice from heaven” – I simply had enough Jewish memory stored up from childhood to be able to see myself embedded within a profound collective family; I was able to see my life as a Jewish journey.  And even though I may have wandered away from my Judaism for a while, my memories gave me the strength to come back.

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