HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Creating Collective Memory as a Moral Imperative

by Nance Morris Adler Issue: Teaching Jewish History
TOPICS : Jewish Studies

Adler argues forcefully for the centrality of history in Jewish identity, as the storehouse of collective memory that binds us to our people, our values and our heritage.

We have all heard the adage: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” I would like to add to it: “Those who don’t remember their people’s history are doomed.” Much of how we are to behave as Jews is based in our remembering. Both God and our own modern experience exhort us, “Never forget”—we are to remember what was done to us and work to keep it from happening to others. If we don’t know what was done, we can’t participate in this work to better the world.

In the Torah we are reminded numerous times to “remember that you were strangers (or slaves) in Egypt” and as a consequence of that memory we are to treat others better than we were treated. We are to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our gates. We are to treat others as we want to be treated and we are to remember that it was God who helped us escape and that we must be faithful to God as a consequence of this memory. The study of history—or even the idea of history—comes late to Judaism. In Zakhor, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi differentiates between “collective memory” and history. Yerushalmi points out that memory is a religious commandment in Judaism. The root zakhor appears 169 times in Torah. What God commands in the Torah is collective memory. It is looking at an experience as if it happened to you rather than in its proper historical setting.

The best example of this is the Pesach seder. We do not say, “The father of my ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” We say, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” We say, God took “me” out of Egypt. The Pesach story is told as personal memory. It is also the most widely observed Jewish ritual. Secular, unaffiliated, otherwise totally assimilated Jews hold and attend seders—this collective memory experience speaks to them and reminds them of who they are and how they are supposed to be in the world.

For Jews, as Yerushalmi points out, up until quite late, all of history was seen as collective memory. It was all seen as a playing out of God’s plan for God’s chosen people and all connected no matter how far apart in time events occurred. In my sixth grade Jewmanities class I combine teaching the stories of Tanakh with the teaching of history. We look at the early kings of Israel as the Jewish archetypes they have become—memory—and then we look at them in their historical setting and as real people. We look at the prophets and their warnings of divine punishment and then learn about the Assyrians and the historical events of the conquering of ancient Israel and the destruction of the First Temple.

By seeing our story both as history and memory, connections can be made and lessons learned beyond what doing it as one or the other allows. One of the most valuable things, in my opinion, about the heroes of the Tanakh is that they are real people. To learn about Solomon as only wise and to not see that he also made bad decisions, mostly connected to women, makes it hard to connect to him as a role model. Knowing that our problems were also the problems of our ancestors makes their experiences and lessons apply to our experiences. This is the power of collective memory. Knowing how your people have handled problems—how Jews handle problems—allows you to make Jewishly informed choices in all areas of life.

Our history teaches us what it means to be a Jew—the good and the bad of it. Much of Jewish history is depressing and awful. It is regularly debated just how appropriate it is to even teach it to various age groups. Parents ask me why I want to make their kid hate being a Jew by teaching about the Shoah or the Inquisition or other dark episodes of our history. A seventh grader recently asked why we always learned about such depressing stuff. He wanted to know when we were going to learn something “sunny” about Jewish history. Unfortunately, seventh grade JSS is 70 CE—Middle Ages, so, other than the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry and Babylonian Jewry, there isn’t a lot of sunshine.

But there are still lessons to be learned here that should make students value their Judaism and want to cling to it as strongly as their ancestors, who did so often at cost of life. How do we use history to create a connection to Judaism that fosters that kind of attachment? Can our stories and a stronger collective memory work to counter the pull of popular culture that threatens the Jewish community today? I think that it can. Knowing the strength that being Jewish—being in community, the support of family life, the meaning given to life through being a Jew—gave to our ancestors in their struggles, will encourage modern Jews to want those same things. What one might have to give up because one is a Jew, will easily be compensated for by what one gains in the bargain.

So how do we inspire a deep and abiding love of and valuing of being Jewish? For me, it is through the teaching of Jewish history and memory, in creating a sense that all of Jewish experience is part of my Jewish experience and figuring out how to understand that so I can be a part of making the world a place where the negative experiences will not be repeated and the positive ones will be accentuated and increased. Sharing in the collective memory of one’s people allows one to partake in the ongoing story of that people in an engaged and meaningful way.

Having the memory of our stories, from Torah to today, as their own will allow our students to connect to their Jewish heritage in a strong and positive manner. It will keep them connected through adolescence, college and early adulthood. Knowing that all Jews shared the same story allowed our ancestors to excel in trade because they could connect to any Jewish community in the world; this same connection can make today’s young Jews proud to be Jewish and allow them to connect to a new community wherever they go in life. Knowing their history—having a Jewish collective memory—will allow our students to be engaged in bettering the world, deepening their Jewish lives and strengthening our global Jewish community.¿

Nance Morris Adler teaches middle school Judaics and Jewish history at the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle. nadler@jds.org

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Teaching Jewish History

Is Jewish history the linchpin to Jewish identity formation, the weak link in day school Jewish studies, or perhaps both? Jewish history provides students with critical links to their past and gives them the context for their own experiences. Discover insights in this field from senior scholars and educators, and find creative new initiatives being used by teachers in day schools today.

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