When Memory Overpowers Us

As a rabbi and educator, not to mention as a parent, I struggle with the question of how to pass along the often painful legacy of Jewish history without having it become disabling.

It seems to me to be impossible to be a Jew in the 21st century and not have the Shoah and its implications imprinted front and center on our consciousness, but the Shoah is not the whole story. Temples destroyed, Inquisition, Crusades, pogroms…. We have a pretty sad story to tell, no matter how hard you might try to make it less so. But if I am trying to convince a Jew of today why being a practicing Jew is a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor, I am quite sure that reminding them constantly of our often sorry history is not the key to my success.

This is a constantly recurring conversation inside my head, and my heart. Living Jewishly should be a gratifying, joyful experience; otherwise, why bother? Guilt is a poor motivational factor, and a counter-productive one. It wears people down, and leaves them seeking a way to escape the "oy-ness" that all too often permeates Jewish life. It can never be, nor should it be, an instrument of Jewish continuity efforts.

I know that, and I live my life accordingly both personally and professionally.

But the thing about our history is that it keeps coming back at you when you least expect it, and it reminds you of the perils of forgetfulness.

Just this morning, in the daily minyan in my synagogue, an older member- a Holocaust survivor- asked me if I would recite an El Maleh Rachamim for him- a memorial prayer- because he was observing a yarhzeit- the anniversary of the death of a close relative. "Of course," I said.

So he handed me a piece of paper with some eleven or twelve names on it, handwritten, men and women, some including the word in Hebrew signifying "and their children," all obviously from the same family- his family.

To be totally honest, I had heard his personal story before, but nonetheless, I was stunned anew. Quite obviously, all of these family members were either taken away by the Nazis, or actually killed on the same day. This day, 22 Iyar. I recited the memorial prayers and returned to my seat, staring at that piece of paper. When the service was over, the man came over to shake my hand and say thank you, with tears welling up in his eyes. I felt absolutely no need to be thanked- more a need to better understand how he, whom I know, gets up every day and comes our daily minyan, carrying the burden of his awful memories within him.

And then I left the service, and went about my business, another day in the life of a rabbi- of a Jew, just trying to figure out how to do justice to Jewish memory and not have it obliterate the capacity for joy in this life.

It’s never going to be easy…

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, and vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.