The Danger of Memory

Back in the naive days of March, when lockdowns were starting to begin in earnest in most of the country, many of us were hopeful that after Passover, all things would go back to normal. My son would return to his gap year Israel program, my daughter would resume her first year medical school classes, my husband’s operating schedule would be up and running and I would continue my job search. But as it became clear that we might be in this for the long haul, it tapped the memory of the collective Jewish community about other times we have as a people have endured plagues,lockdowns or worse. I remember telling my husband that we should see how quickly Anne Frank’s story would be brought up as a means of perspective. No sooner had the words came out of my mouth that Anne Frank was trending on social media.

Yes, we as a people have endured terrible things and we have survived. We are strong. We are resilient. We are unconquerable. And we remember the details of those horrors as part and parcel of our Jewish identity. While tapping into these memories can be a source of inspiration and strength, the manner in which they have been used in our current situation actually have been harmful. They have not strengthened but rather have made those struggling feel guilty for their feelings of loss and grief.

When the bar of the worst thing that can happen to you is the Holocaust, anything that does not reach that horrifying bar, is so easily dismissed. Young people especially are hearing the message that they should not be sad or voice any complaints because they couldn’t go to camp, school and socialize normally with their friends and family. They are reminded over and over that in the scheme of the history of the Jewish people, this is not the worst thing that has happened to them. And just as our ancestors survived, they will too and they might even come out stronger because of it. Our collective memory serves mostly as a harsh conversation ender before it can offer any inspiration.

The pandemic will end, but if we don’t recognize right now the loss and trauma our people, especially our young people are experiencing, we will only have mere survivors, not ones stronger and resilient. If we don’t make space for Jewish people to say what they are really feeling, we run the risk of a whole generation that is irreparably traumatized. Trauma services were not even a thought when Holocaust survivors came to our country. The US community did not only not truly understand what happened to their family members during the Holocaust, there weren’t any professional support systems for these psychologically damaged individuals. That doesn’t mean these incredible individuals didn’t despite all odds to thrive in this country, but at tremendous costs.

Thankfully in our communities we have mental health and professional services that need to be activated now to create the conditions that will allow people to say without embarrassment or apology that this entire situation is really hard. Parents need more resources to help their children navigate this more than they might need online school. Religious leader need to lay off messages from our collective memory and encounter what their communities are feeling right at this moment. Leaders need to provide coping skills and empathy that resists bringing up every other tragic event in Jewish history.

In my own family, this pandemic has not been the worst thing that has happened to us in recent memory. Three and half years ago, I lost my daughter Batsheva z’l. Her death was and is a tremendous loss for me, my husband, her sister and her brother. Her passing had and continues to have an effect on her friends, our local Jewish community and the community at large. When the hardships of the pandemic began to increase, I realized I was intuitively using the grief strategies I had employed when I first lost my daughter. I lowered the pressure on myself on what I would accomplish each day. If I got out of bed, showered, got dressed and prayed, that was enough. Instead of pushing for any expectation of normalcy, I went to the basics—the bare minimums. I have seen young families these last seven months with so much anxiety and feelings of failure because they haven’t been given the opportunity to be not so strong, not be the exemplars of resilience. I have counseled so many of these parents to simply lower the bar. No, you do not need to be up until 11 o’clock at night doing homework with your third grader. And, no, you do not have to wax rhapsodic about the beauty of Zoom school.

My 19 year old son, along with so many young Jews, had his entire life upended in March. He hastily left Israel and hunkered down with his sister, his father and me. His counselor job that he was so looking forward to at a Jewish overnight camp, the last summer together with his High School buddies, was cancelled. He managed to find a job working for the reelection campaign of our local State representative and found ways to socialize, albeit outside with social distancing, with his friends. Every other day we were bombarded by emails from the university he was hoping to attend in person in the fall whether he would be on campus or not. While his father and I truly loved having him home since just barely becoming empty nesters when he left for Israel in the fall, clearly his experience was somewhat different. It wasn’t only all the programs and socializing that he had missed that was so difficult but also, and maybe more importantly, was the overwhelming and crushing boredom that caused him and so many others such grief, sadness and anxiety. My husband and I tried our best to be cheerleaders and keep his spirits up, because after all,this wasn’t the most terrible thing to happen to him. But one evening during a casual conversation with my son, I mentioned that I was truly sorry for all the losses he had and was having. His response-‘I really appreciated you saying that Mom’- completely changed my message to him. I was no longer a cheerleader and tried not to promote my usual parental message to simply suck it up. It was only with this recognition that we were really able to help him.

Any amount of strength or resilience that we will glean after this comes to an end (and it will come to an end) will only occur if we are truly honest about the difficulties that we are having right now, during this hardship, not during any other. We have to look to our collective historical memory not to find survival but to find the practical tools to help us. While we will see survival and resilience in our past, our memory elides the real trauma that is hard wired in our collective brains. If we do the real grief and loss work now, we will be able to not only add our new stories of survival of Covid-19 but leave a practical legacy and policies of endurance. Hopefully, no more tragedies will befall Jewish people and all of humanity. But since the universe tilts toward the inevitability of some future event, we must move beyond a memory of trauma to a memory of healing.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group.
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