Identity is largely memory. When asked who we are, we respond with the past — I am someone who was born here, worked there, is tied to this family and community. A painful effect of Alzheimer’s is that in wiping out memory, it erases identity as well.
What is true for individuals is true for a people. Jewish identity is shaped by Jewish memory. The less we know about who we were, the less we understand who we are.
Jewish memory includes tragedy, of course, but there is much more to our tradition than catastrophe. We have been badly hurt, but we have also been greatly blessed. The faith, music, art, teaching, law and legends of the Jewish people are integral to our self-understanding. We place a great emphasis on remembering the Holocaust, and rightly so. But to remember tragedy and neglect Torah is to have a distorted identity as a Jew. Judaism is not solely what has been done to us; Judaism is far more what we have done. Our poets speak as loudly as our martyrs; if you would know who you are, listen to all the voices, and remember them.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe. His latest book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).