The Diary we Carry with Us

A few weeks ago, Hadar, the traditional egalitarian minyan in Manhattan, had a Name Amnesty Shabbat, where congregants could, without judgment, ask anyone their name — even the person who’s been sitting two seats away for the past five years. Interestingly, that very weekend Hebrew Institute of Riverdale had a Name Tag Shabbat, where everyone could get the same information without asking that embarrassing question.

Coincidence? Not really, since it was on the Shabbat that we read Parshat Shemot (Names). Get it? (The idea wasn’t original. Many years ago my good friend Gary Rosenblatt, the dean of Jewish journalism, suggested such a Shabbat in our shul. Knowing Gary’s sense of humor, they thought he was joking and shrugged it off. He wasn’t.)

For people of a certain age (including mine), this type of Shabbat resonates because memory has become an issue for us. It’s not only that we don’t know the name of the person two seats over; it’s that we asked our immediate neighbor (whose name, thank God, we do remember) for it on at least three recent occasions and still can’t pull it out of the air when we wish him a Shabbat Shalom.

So we joke about it — a close friend who just started daf yomi for the third time said “it’s wonderful because it’s all so new” — and call it a senior moment. Some neuroscientists say this is a result of our brains becoming crowded with so many memories and so much information as the years pass that there’s just too much to sort through quickly.

But whatever the reason, deep inside — and sometimes not so deep — it can be scary. Almost everyone our age has a relative or friend who suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s, or knows someone who does. So we understand only too well the enormous pain and anguish that true memory loss causes both to the afflicted person as well as those who love them. Please don’t let that happen to us, we silently pray. Almost anything but that.

This fear highlights the importance we place on memory. For many people, more ordinary aging issues — creaking joints, poor eyesight, getting up in the middle of the night (okay, that’s just for us men), or hearing loss — even if not fixable (which many are) — are bothersome but usually don’t diminish our inner selves. Memory, though, speaks to that inner self; knowing who loves us and whom we love, what we accomplished, when we succeeded in reaching our goals or suffered failures, where we left our mark, and how we lived our lives, are what makes us, well, us. It’s who we are, and without it we’ve lost a significant part of our very being. Almost anything but that.

What I’ve noticed about senior moments, though, is that they usually impact on short-term memory. I may not remember who won the World Series two years ago but I can tell you every winner in the 1950s; I may not remember the person I met at a Shabbat lunch a month ago but I can tell you the names of my eighth-grade teachers and classmates; I may not remember the plots, or even the titles, of books I just read or the details of lectures and shiurim I just heard, but I remember many of those I read and heard decades ago.

So one way I cope with short term senior moments is modifying the parameters of what’s important to me; I look at why I do things through slightly different lenses — and I’m not referring to my new ones, implanted by cataract surgery. Rather, these lenses assist with immediate rather than long-term vision, helping me concentrate on the experience rather than the memory.

For example, I love learning new things, being exposed to fresh ideas, having my eyes opened to different concepts. This love, plus the free time and flexibility afforded by retirement, allows me to spend about six or seven hours a week studying and taking courses, both live and on my computer, including the Hebrew Bible, philosophy of justice, Christian theology, midrash, World War II, American history, Jewish law and thought, and books of the Prophets, to name just some of the areas that piqued my interest over the last two years.
But unlike my college and law school days, I attend the classes not necessarily to retain the material, but rather to enjoy the lecture, ask a question or challenge an assertion, quarrel with or be satisfied by an answer, grasp a new and complicated thesis as it’s being explicated, discovering, and learning from, a new rising star in some field. It’s that experience I now value, not remembering the details.

So too reading — or should I say listening, because I do most of my “reading” these days by listening to audiobooks as I walk around Teaneck instead of driving, trying to get in my 10,000 steps a day (sometimes successfully). I enjoy the characters, appreciate the plot, am moved by the language, arguments, surprises, complexities, and wisdom of the book as I read it. It’s that experience I now relish, not remembering the details.

Indeed, I feel that way about going to museums, tourist attractions, and travel. I rarely take pictures (other than of my delicious grandchildren) because it’s the doing and the being that count now, not sharing photos or making an album (though albums do help me remember and re-experience). What’s more significant to me is being moved by a beautiful painting, basking in the atmosphere of a spectacular building (I’m thinking of the main reading room of the NYPL which I sat in recently — not doing anything other than just sitting and basking), uncovering the wonders of new places. It’s that experience I now cherish, not remembering the details.

In some ways it’s like enjoying a great meal at a fine restaurant. I don’t take pictures of the main course or particularly remember the delicious menu weeks later. Rather, I delight in savoring the food, appreciating the ambiance, treasuring the company of family and close friends around the table. It’s that experience I now prize, not remembering the details.

I admit I may be rationalizing a bit. The memories I retain are, of course, deeply treasured and valued, and I feel blessed when they’re present. And I wouldn’t mind remembering more and forgetting less; I’d certainly like having that forgotten name quickly fall off the tip of my tongue rather than lingering there until I wake up at 3 a.m. saying “Aha!” (to the consternation of my wife). But facing reality, what I try to remember the most is this: it’s not the memory of what’s happening that’s important to me at this stage of life, it’s the experience of the happening.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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