I’ve been thinking much about the importance of memory since my retirement from the congregational rabbinate almost three years ago, my own and the role it plays in a nation’s, a people’s, and a family’s history and identity. William Faulkner put it well when he said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Though we forget much as we age, what once happened, even if we’ve forgotten all about it, nevertheless continues to lie dormant in one’s unconscious until one day something provokes it and it re-emerge into the present.
This past year, my 36 year-old son Daniel asked me to transcribe 23 hour-long cassette tapes that I sent to my mother (z’l) from Israel between August 1973 and May 1974 when I studied in my first year of rabbinic school in Jerusalem. As I listened to my then 23 and 24 year-old self offer commentary about living in Israel before, during, and after the Yom Kippur War, I was struck by how much I had forgotten. Such is the benefit of keeping a journal.
The tapes reminded me that I greeted some of the first Soviet Refusniks coming to Israel. I described the blaring sirens that shook the silence of Yom Kippur afternoon on October 6, 1973 alerting Israelis that the country was, for the fourth time in 25 years, at war. I had forgotten that I took a bus to Hadassah Hospital a few days after the war began to give blood and stood outside the ER as helicopters from the Sinai front brought badly injured soldiers for treatment. I recalled specifics of my volunteering the night-shift at Berman Bakery, one of two large bakeries outside of Jerusalem, when on one night before the Festival of Sukkot our skeletal staff of Israelis and international volunteers baked 85,000 loaves of bread that were taken by truck to the Egyptian front and throughout Jerusalem. I described my early morning walk following my 8-hour night-shift from a central meeting point in Jerusalem to my university dorm in the blacked-out holy city, and looking up at a blanket of thousands of stars appearing like little lanterns suspended from a black velvet firmament sparkling in the quiet cold autumn Jerusalem sky despite the ferocious war on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. I spoke about how Israel was suffering a serious blow not only in the massive loss of thousands of young soldiers and the injury of many more, but to its self-image as an impenetrable regional power following the 1967 Six-Day War. I told my mother how I joined 250,000 Israelis standing in line for hours to walk by the casket of Israel’s founding patriarch, David Ben Gurion, as he lay in-state outside the Knesset doors. I had forgotten how many weekends I spent with my Petach Tikvah and Jerusalem families. And I spoke about my struggle and progress learning Hebrew, a life-long pursuit and love-affair with the language of the Jewish people that continues to this day.
Since I retired three years ago, I decided to do a deep dive not only into my own memory that transcribing these tapes assisted me in doing, but also into learning about my family’s history. In the process, I wrote a memoir and an imaginary conversation with my father who died when I was nine years-old. I translated the Hebrew biography of my great-granduncle Avraham Shapira of Petach Tikvah who I met when I was 6 years-old when he visited our family in Los Angeles in 1956, and a book of poetry, letters, and writings of his grand-nephew Michael Shapira, son of Yitzchak-Tzvi and Devorah Shapira (who I knew well during that year in Israel), who was killed at the age of 19 by Arab Fedayeen in 1952 on a road in the northern Negev while on duty in his Nachal unit.
I read again the letters that my father, a physician in the US Navy during World War II serving in the South Pacific, wrote to his cousins in Philadelphia between 1942 and 1944, among his only written words that I have in which he described in great detail the American soldiers and events of those years in Hawaii beginning a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor and on Midway Atoll after that critical battle in the war. I pulled out old boxes of family photographs going back more than 120 years and peered at the people preserved in those frozen moments in time, now all gone. I read the autobiography of my father’s favorite aunt, Fanny Sharlip, a refugee from Ukraine whose grandmother was raped in a Cossack pogrom and who fled with her family to America in the 1890s. Aunt Fanny worked as a seamstress in a Philadelphia sweatshop at the turn of the 20th century where she met my paternal grandmother and became the best of friends. Fanny contracted Tuberculosis and her doctor urged her and her husband, my grandmother’s brother, to move to a warmer climate. They moved west and settled in the Boyle Heights neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles where most Jewish immigrants to LA initially lived.
In hearing about her successful recovery from TB, others from the east coast who also suffered from the disease sought her ought once they moved to LA, and she and my great-uncle took them into their own home to help them heal. However, the burden became too great from so many taking up residence with them. They and my grandparents, two other couples, a few doctors, and wealthy Los Angeles Jews took matters into their own hands and purchased a small land parcel in an out-of-the-way area called Duarte outside Los Angeles’ city limits (the LA City Council refused to build a sanitarium because it feared the contagion inside the city limits). There in Duarte they pitched tents and created what came to be known as “The City of Hope,” now an internationally renowned medical center.
I’ve always been fascinated by history, and as a consequence of knowing more about my own family story, my sense of gratitude deepened for my forebears’ struggles and successes and how I stand upon their shoulders.
Memory defines us; and even if we do not personally experience an event, we can make it our own. The Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim remarked: “Knowledge creates memory” which suggests that when we learn history and listen to the stories of our parents and grandparents, we take in their memories and make them ours as essential elements of our family story. When we lose memory, we lose a sense of how we came to be who we are and, for our children’s and grandchildren’s sake, who they are too. Faulkner was right – “The Past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Note: A Seder discussion with my family around our table this year inspired this blog, and especially the line from Mishnah Pesachim 10:5 that constitutes a core theme of the Seder and Jewish life: “In every generation we are to regard ourselves as having personally been redeemed from Egypt.”