My earliest memory is that of my mother reading to me from the Encyclopedia Britannica while trying to convince me to eat. This is not one discrete memory but rather a series of identical moments, a particular scenario that repeated itself so many times that I can still conjure the scene at will. I was two years old, it was Shabbos afternoon, my meal was a tiny chicken pulka (drumstick), and I didn’t want to eat it. Later on, I would acquire the verbal skills to explain to my mother how much I hated chicken on the bone, its sliminess, the veins, how it dried out to the texture of worn leather after being pushed around on my plate for hours.
But back then all I could do was firmly seal my lips together, bat my baby blues as only a toddler can, and command her to read to me, ad infinitum, the story of the man with the gatkes. I wish that I could say that I was reading the encyclopedia at age two because I was precocious, but in truth I only loved the sheer heft of it, the slick glossy pages and the quaint, old timey pictures. The picture that held my attention the longest was that of a man in old-fashioned clothing wearing pantaloons. My mother, whose first language was Yiddish, called the pants gatkes, an odd little word that delighted me no end, adding another layer of mysterious allure to the man in the funny outfit.
Maybe she told me a story about him when we got to that page, one that distracted me enough to get chicken into my mouth, and maybe, caught up in her words, I actually swallowed it, and so she turned to that page, again and again, hoping for a similar outcome the next mealtime. Or maybe I just liked the photo so much that I chortled with glee when we got to that page. My mother would then smile at my delight over something so small, and call my father over to admire my cuteness. My tiny ego would have loved all that attention, and so the man with the gatkes (who was Magellan, or Columbus, or some random monarch) is a memory that is inexorably linked to simultaneously feeling loved and cherished – while also harboring a lifelong aversion to chicken on the bone.
The word zachor, remember, is ubiquitous in our liturgy. A majority of our religious observance is performed in commemoration of past events. How many times in a week, in a month, in a year, do we invoke the words “zecher l’yitzias mitzrayim,” our original commandment to never forget the exodus from Mitzrayim.
Thousands of years after leaving Egypt we are persecuted once again. For us, this time is different. It is personal and intimate, transcending the dust of history, alive and breathing in our mothers, our fathers, and our grandparents. As the years pass the hourglass starts to run out of sand and so we scramble to document and preserve. Some speak freely and passionately while others, like my grandmother, go to their graves in silence. We have none of her personal memories to safeguard and so we rely on the memory of the collective to create a narrative based on supposition, a story that may or may not be true. For me, for my family, there is only one verifiable fact – when I reach out to hug my mother I am connecting with the only memorial my grandmother left behind, the only memorial she deemed important.
At my youngest brother’s aufruf (calling up to the Torah before the wedding), another brother gets up to speak. After the perfunctory beginning he launches into an old family story that involves said youngest brother falling down a flight of stairs, intimating that although his older siblings should have been watching him, they weren’t. There was a lot of laughter and a little blame being passed around. I, however, sit quietly. I don’t share this memory with them because my brother and I are nineteen years apart and I got married when he was a baby. We did not grow up together, we have no distinct shared memories.
But up until this very moment, when this very specific story was told, when he is 30-something and I am 50-something, I had not felt that space between us. It was enough to share parents, to share siblings, to grow up in the same house. Our core values were the same, we ate the same foods prepared the same way, we grew up with the same books lining the bookshelves, we grew up with the same family history. So although the specifics of our memories were different, our foundation was the same, and this was enough to bind us even though he was young enough to be my son. The subtle disconnect created by hearing this story was swiftly erased when we all started kvetching about eating chicken on the bone.
In the Torah portion of Ki Savo (26:1-11) we are commanded with the mitzvah of bikkurim, bringing the first fruits of the agricultural season up to the Bais HaMikdash beginning with the holiday of Shavuos. The bearer of the fruits is then instructed to say a very interesting paragraph, one that seems incongruous with the moment. “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people…. I am now bringing the first fruits of the soil that You, L-rd, have given to me.” Why would we use this passage, one we are familiar with from the Haggadah, when we are bringing the bikkurim? We associate bikkurim with Shavuos, and this is the Pesach story; why don’t we thank Hashem for being the G-d of nature, for giving us rain and fertile soil and for the abundance of our crops?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains this beautifully. Of course we celebrate G-d and thank Him for creating the perfect natural circumstances for the fruits to grow. But what makes the Jews unique is that we see Hashem primarily through our personal history, starting with our wandering Aramean ancestor until today. Our identity is bound up in our shared stories and our memories, and so when we bring the bikkurim we are reconnecting ourselves to our ancestors and to our collective past. We are ensuring that we never forget.
The couple had been my patients for many years. The husband was an educated, erudite gentleman who had a Ph.D. in one of the liberal arts, the specifics of which elude me. He spoke the language of Judaism even though he himself was not strictly observant. We had many wonderful and interesting conversations over the years and I’d like to think I opened his eyes a little to the beauty and diversity of the Orthodox community. He took great interest in my daughters’ education, peppering me with questions about the curriculum at Yeshiva University, and once they had graduated, he followed their career trajectories like a proud grandfather.
A couple of months ago I saw he was on my patient schedule for the next day. I was excited to see him, it had been a while, and I wanted to share with him all the wonderful things my girls had been up to. An hour before his appointment his wife called to speak to me. In a blunt, dispassionate tone she told me that her husband had Alzheimer’s disease and that she wasn’t sure his cognitive skills were up to the interactive nature of an eye exam, but he insisted on having his eyes checked. He was as happy to see me as I was to see him, and after we exchanged pleasantries, he leaned forward in his chair. “How are your sons?” he asked me. “They’re in Yeshiva College, right?” His wife, who was sitting off to the side, leaned forward, ready to jump in and help him.
“I have two daughters,” I told him gently, “they graduated the girls’ division of YU, thank you for asking.” He leaned back, satisfied, and we proceeded with the exam, which went well. As I was putting drops in his eyes to dilate his pupils, he looked up at me. “How are your sons?” he asked. “Are they still in YU?” Gently, once again, ignoring my aching heart, I told him that I had daughters and that they had graduated already. This dialogue repeated itself four more times over the course of the exam, and as he was leaving, he turned to me one more time to say, “Take care of those boys.”
What happens when memory fails; when time or miscreant genes insidiously steal the basic tenets of selfhood? Who am I, who are you, who are we, without our memories, without our past?
The decalogue begins with the most basic precept, “I am G-d, your G-d.” It is noteworthy that in the Hebrew text the word “your” is singular and not plural – elokecha, not elokeichem. When we stood together at the foot of Har Sinai, Hashem spoke to each one of us not as a group but as individuals. Rabbi Sacks notes that the word history has the word “his” in it, it is not personal, it is not my story, it is “his” story, it belongs to someone else and has little relevance to my life. Memory however contains the word “me”; it is my past, my present, and my future. Our holidays are not just commemorative, they are interactive. Each Pesach we physically re-enact the events that took place, we eat matzah and maror and tell the story of the Egyptian redemption to our children, generation after generation; it becomes my story and not just history. Each Shavuos we stay up all night and learn the Torah that we, each and every one us, received personally from Hashem.
Further on in the first commandment, Hashem describes Himself as “your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt.” He does not call Himself the G-d who created heaven and earth or the G-d who created man; He defines himself through a historical event which by extension is how we define ourselves. It is for this reason that passing stories and memories down through the generations is so important. We have survived as a nation for so many years because of our mesorah, because of our dogged and desperate desire to never, ever forget.
“Collective memory” is the memory of a group of people passed from one generation to the next. My mother and I are the only two people left who remember the story of “the man with the gatkes.” My grandparents are gone, my father is gone, my siblings were not born when the story had its origin. But the tale will live on because I told it, because I set it forth into the universe. Although the story imparts no wisdom, nor possesses the power to reshape the trajectory of future generations, it is a story that is mine, that is unique, and that is a cog in the collective.
My grandmother’s lack of story is a story unto itself. Perhaps she tucked her war memories away to protect us, burying them in the frozen tundra of Siberia, hidden under the ice in a place that will never melt and never release her secrets.
I don’t know what will happen to the memories, to the stories, of my dear patient. I’d like to think that at this very moment his family is recording and documenting, snatching back the stolen memories from the claws of the beast who holds their father captive. How utterly and incredibly profound it is to be part of a people who have a religious obligation l’zkor, to remember. Years from now, when our grandchildren are grandparents and when our own grandparents have been gone long enough to be called ancestors, the minutiae of our individual memories will be swept up into the embrace of our collective memory. All of our stories will merge and become part of the mesorah, and the cycle begins again with each new generation creating their own memories that will echo those of their forefathers.
Each Shavuos we stand at the foot of the mountain, as we did so many years ago. It is not just history, but memory that leads us there, as one man with one heart, with one mission; to renew our eternal vow with the Almighty.