Memory is incredibly powerful; while it can inspire, guide and comfort us, it can also overwhelm us with its searing emotional impact. In accepting the 2016 Templeton Prize, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointedly warns the West that it is making a mistake in “outsourcing memory” (Rediscovering Our Moral Purpose, in Standpoint.). He argues that while the memory of our computers and technological devices steadily grows, the memory of our children continually shrinks. Jonathan Sacks–the first Rabbi to be awarded the prestigious Prize–powerfully states in his acceptance remarks:
“History is an answer to the question, “What happened?” Memory is an answer to the question, “Who am I?” History is about facts, memory is about identity. …Memory is my story, the past that made me who I am, of whose legacy I am the guardian for the sake of generations yet to come. Without memory, there is no identity. And without identity, we are mere dust on the surface of infinity.” (emphasis added).
°Who am I?” and “Whose legacy am I transmitting to the generations to come?” are two big questions we tend to avoid. Typically, we are forced to face these uncomfortable inquires as we battle serious illness, approach the end of our lives, in the wake of a collapsed relationship or when a child marries beyond our comfort zone. We then ask: how did I get here? How did my family get to this point? At that point, it is usually too late in the game. To enable our children to better answer these big questions, parents and caregivers can strengthen identity by creating meaningful memories. This call to action –creating memories for our children in the age of global communication and the age of distraction– is challenging, requiring focus, energy and resolve. Yet, building the memory bank of our children will yield significant returns, and can prepare them to navigate through the complicated journey of life.
The sheer force of memory and the lens through which we experience our complex times hit me with an emotional thwack this week in Sorrento, Italy. I was not prepared for it. Walking down the narrow side streets of Sorrento in the late afternoon, I suddenly see the street through my 8 year-old eyes . I am walking the streets of the Rehavia section of Jerusalem with my Savta (grandmother). Maybe it was the piercing Mediterranean light shining on the imperfect limestone half-walls rising on my side, or the stray cats ready to pounce, or the polyglot murmur of women en route to food shopping following the afternoon siesta that triggered this emotional shift.
Those early 1970s summers spent with my Savta in her one-bedroom Rechov Molcho apartment are seared into my memory. Absent global communications, virtual reality or wi-fi, those summers were spent in the slow lane. Asimonim (phone tokens) were the currency of communications outside the home, and calling overseas was reserved for life events or the eve of a holiday. My younger sister and I learned to accept the blue cardboard-like toilet paper and the puffed wheat for breakfast. We raced up the flights of stairs to Savta’s fourth-floor walkup, and helped her take the laundry off the lines hanging from the kitchen window. We learned to stop talking on the Egged busses at the top of the hour, as the three loud beeps signaled the impending news, broadcast throughout the bus.
My memories are not all sipping chocolate milk through a small straw in a plastic bag in day camp, and include difficult times. I remember looking up at a black and white picture of Rafi, my mother’s cousin. Rafi is smiling, young and handsome. We are visiting with my mother’s aunt the summer after the Yom Kippur war. My sister and I were told that we were to behave, as Eema’s aunt may be sad. The pit in my stomach grows as I try to wrap my head around the concept that Rafi had been killed in the war, and was never coming back. Armored vehicles and young men and women in army fatigues are part of the landscape, but no one in our family had been killed.
As parents and grandparents, we aspire to create memories grounded in meaningful experiences. These memories are the imprints on the soul that endure. They become our existential point of reference. The memories are further informed by our key relationships built over years, by those that we allow to penetrate our hearts, whose guidance and SWOT analysis we seek when we are vulnerable. Ultimately, the memories we create will impact the values and identify that we yearn to transmit to our children—they are our true legacy, to ensure that we and our future generations are not “mere dust on the surface of infinity.”