> Israel > Jewish Society

Jewish Amnesia

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Berel Wein

Along the way to the modern world, what has happened to the Jewish People's collective sense of memory?

One of the great gifts of human life is a sense of memory. I do not mean only the ability to cram for a test and remember all sorts of arcane facts, or the power of recalling various items of trivia that enable us to be champion board-game players. Rather, I refer to the long-term memory that creates emotions, loyalties, and attitudes and eventually borders on myth.

It is this sense of memory that gives life its flavor and makes each one of us so and special. For without such a memory we are truly "vegetables" as far as the world of spirit and values is concerned, and rootless "vegetables" at that.

The memory of the aroma of my mother's kitchen when food was being prepared for Shabbat or the holidays, the memory of how sparklingly beautiful the Passover Seder table looked to my four year old eyes, the memory of the wonder in seeing a caterpillar metamorphose into a butterfly for the first time -- that is the memory that is so vital to meaningful life.

Memory is in woefully short supply in today's society, and especially in Jewish society.

And for various reasons, that type of memory is in woefully short supply in today's society, and especially so in much of Jewish society.

The Jewish people as a whole and collective body always prided themselves on their acute sense of memory.
Israel remembered that the Exodus from Egypt occurred on a Thursday, that the revelation on Sinai took place on Shabbat, that Rabbi Akiva was executed by the Romans in the hippodrome of Caesarea on Yom Kippur, and that the Jews of Ethiopia are descended from a "peace corps" mission of members of the tribe of Dan whom Solomon sent out at the request of the Queen of Sheba. With such exacting memory we have also recalled the people who populated the generations of Israel, the great heroes and the despised villains, as well as the historical events of the time.

This sense of memory was based on the obligation of one generation to transmit not only its accumulated knowledge to the next generation, but more importantly, to transmit to future generation the very power of memory itself.

Jewish parents trained Jewish children to remember -- to remember the Land of Israel even though they never saw that land, to remember the covenant with God at Sinai even though adherence to that covenant brought with it sacrifice and difficulties, to remember to be good and kind in a world that lacked compassion. In short, to remember to be Jews!


But something happened to us on the way to the modern world. A large section of the Jewish people developed a severe case of amnesia. The transmission of memory from one generation to the next was interrupted. In 19th century Europe, the Enlightenment destroyed all memory of the "old Jew" and replaced it with the "new Jew."

The "new Jew" was to be modern and strong and self-reliant. He was also to be atheistic, non-observant of Jewish tradition and lifestyle, and without any sense of long-term memory. His memory span reached backed to 1897 or 1948 or 1967 or only to 1994.

In the United States, many Jewish families consciously destroyed Jewish memory.

In the United States, many Jewish families consciously destroyed Jewish memory, feeling that this was a necessary prerequisite for becoming fully Americanized. Memory inhibits assimilation and for American Jewry, its movie-makers, authors -- and even some leaders -- became dulled to Jewish memory.

Israel, too, has not been spared. The "new Jew" travels to Nepal to find spirituality, in an attempt to replace the old memories. Such are the rewards of enforced amnesia.


When my wife and our then little children moved from Chicago to Miami Beach to assume our roles as the rabbinical family for a small congregation, we were lonely. Our families were in up north -- in Chicago and Detroit -- and for me it was not only a change of locale but of professions as well. We needed some tender loving care, and usually the congregants don't think of themselves as being obligated to fulfill that role.

However, there was an elderly couple, the Gellers, who were members of the synagogue. They were sweet, gentle, unassuming, deeply religious people. In their noble way, they became surrogate grandparents to our children who sorely missed their own biological grandparents.

Miami Beach is hot and humid for seven to eight months of the year. When we moved there, the place was not completely air-conditioned as it is today. The elderly woman, Mrs. Geller, would bake a fresh loaf of Shabbat challah for us every Friday -- even though the temperature in her non-air-conditioned kitchen must have been extremely high. She did this for us every week of the year. And her husband would walk over in the hot afternoon sun to deliver that challah every Friday before Shabbat.

Our children were raised on Mrs. Geller's challah. It was the highlight of our week, our anchor to holy Shabbat memories.

We eventually moved from Miami Beach and later, in the fullness of time, the Gellers moved also -- on to their eternal reward. Our children married and are now raising children of their own. Somehow they transmit the memory of Mrs. Geller's challah to our grandchildren who have never seen or known her. My wife and I have always celebrated our Shabbat table with the memory of Mrs. Geller's challah being present.

The Jewish people need a good stiff dose of memory to help them cope.

Therefore, imagine my joy when I spoke at a public event in Jerusalem last year, and a woman approached me and said: "I am Mrs. Geller's granddaughter and I have baked a challah for your Shabbat table -- and here it is!" Our memories converged to create an emotional bond that transcended the passage of time and the change of place. For the great task of life had been accomplished -- memory had been transferred from one generation to another generation.

The Jewish people need a good stiff dose of memory to help them cope with the difficult problems they face the world over.

Each individual and family must dread the affliction of Jewish amnesia. It is never too early or too late to fight this amnesia and to develop Jewish memory.

Our task in life is not only to remember, but to create and transmit memory to the future generations. Our success in so doing will be the measure of our stature in the never-ending story of our people.

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram