I came across the following words by Mary Antin while reading her book, The Promised Land:
“The Wandering Jew in me seeks forgetfulness…..A long past vividly remembered is like a heavy garment that clings to your limbs when you would run.”
Whereas I can appreciate the circumstances that have caused Ms. Antin to experience such sentiments, her words turned the wandering Jew in me into a wondering Jew.
I read her lines and I wonder, why? Why would anyone want to run away from one’s Jewish past? Why would one want to forget those who, through their heroic actions and untimely deaths have bequeathed us with the legacy of the celebration of life and the gift of eternity? After all, of the multitudes of ancient nations, ancient civilizations, aren’t we, Jews, the only ones that have remained, thrived and moved from strength to strength? Has it not been precisely because we were commanded and in return vowed to always remember?
Moreover, I wonder, have not we, Jews, always sought memory, collected and cherished every shred of it, regardless of how sad it was? Have we not, at the same time, always celebrated the victories, the few joyous milestones in our long history? Memory has always been paramount for us, Jews. It always seems that when memory comes, we Jews move on to bigger and more promising times.
The wondering Jew in me asks yet again, why would memory be a burden, a yoke or some kind of shackles which one would want to shake off? “If I forget thee oh Jerusalem,” a vow which Jews have uttered for over two millennia is the most beautiful garment of them all. “And you shall tell your son,” a decree prescribed in our Passover Haggadah, which we repeat each year, is the lightest cloak made of the finest fabric. Our Jewish memory is the freshest and best defense in the face of spiritual death, national calamity or physical extinction. It is this invisible shield of the memory, the collective memory of our people that has protected us against all of these dangers and kept us alive. Forgetting is one luxury, we, Jews, cannot afford to entertain.
And I continue to wonder. After all, isn’t “Never Again,” the recent. Modern day motto of our Jewish people etched on our soul, all about memory, a vivid memory of our past? Would not forgetfulness and a past not vividly remembered only hasten the likelihood and the prospects of it happening again? Have they not taught us that that those who forget their past are doomed to repeat it?
If there is one facet of our people, our wandering people that this wondering Jew wishes not to repeat, it is our past, a past of years, decades and centuries of suffering with few and isolated moments of joy, fulfillment and glamour. They go together. They are intertwined. We could not have one without the other. They work in a cycle of “cause and effect” where on more than one occasion the cause became the effect and the effect became the cause, both threaded together to form the tapestry of our most unique Jewish past, a past we have every reason to be proud of. It is through remembering this unique history and through teaching it to our children that we will ensure it never repeats itself.
No, dear Ms. Antin, I have no desire to seek forgetfulness of our past. I’d rather remember it myself than be reminded of it. When memory knocks on our door, I want to be able to open it, smile and say, “You have never left us!”