2013: Who Are You?
I'm fifteen years old and I'm with my family for the month of July in New Hampshire, living in a cabin on Crystal Lake, just beautiful, just idyllic, except that there are six of us in this little cabin and it rains and it pours for a whole week and we're all getting a little edgy. And then the rain stops and we're all excited just to take a walk down the hill to the little country store on the main road. And my mother says, “You all go on without me. I'm just going to sit right here and listen to the quiet.” So my father takes the four of us down the old road and we can see the country store across the meadow. I say to my little brother, “Come on, David. Let's take a shortcut across the field.” And before my father can say anything, we're running though the field until we get to a stream, and the steam is flooding from all the rain that week, but I'm fifteen, so I lead my brother, who can’t swim, into the stream but the water lifts him up and I just manage to grab him and we make it to the other side but we're wet and scared and cold and I feel as bad as I have ever felt in my life, because my brother could have been hurt and it was my fault. And when my father walks around the road and meets us on the other side, and sees that we’re wet and shivering, he doesn't have to say a word, because he knows that how I feel is punishment enough. When we get back to the cabin, we tell my mother and she is angry and appropriately upset with me.
Years later, as families do, we’re talking about that summer and the story is told how I nearly got my brother killed by taking him into a flooded stream.
And my mother says, “Yes, and I was yelling, “Don't go that way! Stop! Stop!” But as hard as I tried, I couldn't stop you.”
And everybody says, “Mom, you weren't there. You were back at the cabin listening to the quiet.”
And she says, “Of course I was there and I tried to stop you.”
And my father says, “Judy, just for the record, you weren't there.” And no matter how hard we tried, we could not convince her. She insisted that she was there. And if you would give her a lie detector test, she would pass if she would tell you that she was there.
What happened in my mother's memory is that the event was so upsetting that a second-hand report became a visual memory in her mind and over the years, she became a part of the story. She was there.
In real-life history, she wasn’t there.
But in her memory, she was there.
In this, my mother is very human. As a mother, the safety of her children was her main concern. So the scene near Crystal Lake crystallized some of her worst fears.
But she was not only human; she really represents our people. By the way, have you ever wondered why our religion is pronounced Judaism? Almost all of us, unless we’re Kohens or Levis, are descended from the tribe of Judah, one of the original twelve tribes. But we don’t pronounce it Judah-ism, as it is spelled, J-U-D-A-I-S-M. We say Judy-ism. My father taught me that the mother is the key to the transmission of Judaism, and my mother’s name is Judy, which is why our religion is called Judy-ism.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Anyway, this story about my mother represents how memory works in Judaism. The late Yosef Yerushalmi, a great modern Jewish historian, wrote a famous book called Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. Yerushalmi says that “History” and “Memory” are two entirely different things. History tries to separate fact from fiction and to present an objective account of “what really happened.” My mother was not there yelling on that country road.
But memory, Yerushalmi says, is part of our people’s DNA. The Hebrew word “zakhor, which means “remember,” contains the same root zayin-chaf-resh, as the word Yizkor, the service of memory that we observe four times a year, on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret near the end of Sukkot, the Eighth Day of Pesach and the Second Day of Shavuot. This Hebrew root appears in the Bible 169 times. Over and over again, we are commanded to remember; remember the covenant with Abraham, remember that we were once slaves in Egypt, remember the Sabbath day. Think of the rituals of Pesach: Eat the bitter herbs and the matzah and the charoset so that you will remember what it was like to be a slave. But how can I remember what happened in Egypt 3200 years ago? I wasn’t there in Egypt, historically speaking. But these are rituals aimed at forming collective memories that we share with all the Jewish people in the past, and all the Jewish people living today and all the Jewish people who will ever live.
Memory means that you see yourself as part of a link in a chain, extending to the past and also into your future. The story you are telling is not just any story, but your story. That’s why my mother was there on that country road; it became her story. That’s how memory works. At the Passover Seder, when we say that we went out of Egypt, we feel that we were there. These memories are in our minds and our hearts and they are part of who we are.
I think more and more these days about the mystery and the wonder of memory. I feel like I have all these files in my mind and if I click into my mind a certain way, I can come up with files I didn't know I’d saved. And all my memories, the ones that I think about and the ones that I don't even know I have, make me me.
And as Jewish people, we remember everything that our people has gone through because everything that our people has gone through, everything we have learned about life, makes us us.
I want you to think in your own personal terms. What’s in your memory? How do you think about your past? Does your past begin with your birth and childhood? Is your past only your own individual past, all your little stories and anecdotes like the one I told you from that day in New Hampshire, or does your past include that of your parents and grandparents? Does your memory include the memories of your people?
For Americans, these may seem like quaint, irrelevant questions. Americans today have no sense of the past. A few Revolutionary war facts, some mythical tidbits about Abraham Lincoln, some isolated items about World War II, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11. Our collective memories as Americans are few. And our country is so polarized that we usually can’t even agree about what these few facts mean.
Americans in general have never been big on the past and I have a theory why. If your family has been living in Prague or Krakow or Berlin for centuries, you have a sense of all those ancestors living among you. Your great-grandmother lived in that house over there that you pass every day. But, whether we accept this or not, we Americans are a nation of immigrants from other countries and we have no relationship to the countries of our origins. My family came from Eastern Europe, but I have never once thought of myself as an Eastern European. I am only a generation or two from a Russian village, but it might as well be five hundred years. I have only one memory of that village, that my grandparents had a tiny hut that did not even have a floor. But that’s all I know.
Our schools have wonderful projects that produce artistic family trees but most of the time that is the only occasion in our lives when we really investigate our past and that's only because we want to get a good grade. And that project is in a box someplace in your basement.
So I’ve been thinking: How can we do better? How can we develop a deeper sense of our past?
And so I sat down with the person I know who has done the most work about his own past, our own Morris Spector, who has been working on his family history for twenty-five years, tracing his family tree back to the 1600’s. And the next morning I woke up to find an email from Morris and he signed it Moshe Henoch ben Eleazer Yitzhak ben Nissan ben Duvid ben Nissan. In this very Jewish way, he said that he was Moshe Henoch the son of Eleazar Yitzhak and the grandson of Nissan and the great-grandson of David and the great-grandson of Nissan. And so when I wrote him back, I tried to do the same thing, calling myself Binyamin son of ha-Rav Shlomo son of Yisrael, and then I had to stop, because I didn’t know my great-grandfather’s name. Not in Hebrew or English. And then I realized that I could only remember one of my eight great-grandparents’ names. One out of eight. That did not feel very good, but then again, I had never asked the question before in my life. And that morning I asked people I was talking to, and most of them could not remember or had never even known one of their great-grandparents’ names.
This was striking to me. Forget about the past as a concept. We have this vague sense that our families came from Poland or Russia or Germany, but that’s about it. We don’t know who we are. We don’t know what makes us us.
This is amazing. We don’t know who we are. We don’t know history and we don’t have memories. We have nothing except an exaggerated, self-centered view of ourselves as individuals.
And Morris emailed me that day with information he culled from the Internet, and I started getting into it. I saw my grandmother’s name on the ship manifest when she came over in 1922 on an emergency passport.
So during lunchtime I called my brother David, who has recovered quite nicely from the time I nearly killed him, and is a prominent attorney in Philadelphia. And he wasn’t at his desk so I left a message asking him if he had ever investigated our roots and if he knew the names of our great-grandparents. And twenty minutes later he called me back, shouting: “WHO ARE YOU?” I didn’t know what was going on. He was literally shaking. He had not been at his desk when I called twenty minutes earlier because a partner at his law-firm was from Texas where my family lived and she had dug up some information about my grandfather. And David had never in his life thought about our family tree and he had come back to his desk thinking that maybe this was the time to start when he got the message from me and started shaking.
As I have told you, over and over, “There is no such thing as a coincidence.”
This was the sign that it was time for us to find out who we are.
And between Morris and David’s partner, we learned in a few hours about one of the greatest mysteries in human history, why we spell the name Scolnic different from nearly every other Scolnic in the world, with two C’s and no k’s or h’s. And we had been wrong all our lives about why this is. And we learned so much about our grandfather Israel Scolnic that we had to completely revise how we remembered him. And I learned, still on the same day, that on my mother’s side, I am at least the third Benjamin Edidin, that this was my other grandfather’s name and also the name of my great-great grandfather in the 1800’s. And that is quite something, to feel such a part of a chain, to be a real link that brings the past into the present. I learned about my first, middle and last names, and my identity started to take on new dimensions inside me.
And that was all on one day. And that was just the beginning.
I tell you this story because we should all do this. My brother asked: “Who are you?” meaning, “Brother, you’re spooky.”
But I’m asking each of you: Who are you? Where do you come from? Do you know the names of your great-grandparents?
Was there some old lady called Bubbie and you just knew this kind person who kissed you, but now that you think about it, you really never knew anything about her life because you were too young to be interested?
We’re older now, and we need history, facts, and we need memories.
Again, the question is: Who are you?
If you think the answer is that you are just you, you are just self-centered and unaware. Fill out your family tree and you will get a better sense of perspective on where you fit in.
We should learn more about who we are, about where we came from.
So let’s be concrete and specific. We are planning an Adult Education course on genealogy, about tracing your roots, not just in theory but learning how to do it. Because ladies and gentlemen, we live in this incredible world where, to paraphrase Mick Jagger, it’s just a click away, it’s just a click away. And with guidance, we can all figure out a lot more about ourselves than we would think possible.
Our first meeting will have two parts. In the first, Morris Spector will tell you his story, his incredible story about how he has conducted his astonishingly successful search to find out who he is.
And then the second part of the meeting will be to start to plan a congregational trip to Eastern Europe. We want to learn more about what happened to our families and our ancestors and our people in Europe not very long ago. We need to gain some visual memories. So I'm hoping that we will learn who we are and who we were and what we went through. And I hope that through a trip, some of us will be able to see some of the places where our people walked and lived and feel some of the things they did. I have a need to see the places where my people have been, the places of glory and the places of despair, And just like my mother was part of an event that she wasn't at but which became part of her memory, I need to see some of the places where events happened that are part of my psyche.
Since I’ve been thinking so much about memory, I started to read about what is called the science of memory. How does memory work in my brain? How does my brain click in, how does it open the file when reminded? An expert in this field is Dr. Eric Kandel, who won the Nobel Prize for Biology for his trailblazing work in how memory functions in the brain. I’m not a scientist and so I couldn’t follow much of what I read, but I could relate to Kandel’s personal story, that which motivated him to study the science of memory in the first place. He had to flee his childhood home in Vienna to escape from the Nazis. And what propelled him to study memory were his own memories about that home and the pain and trauma of being hated and forced to leave. Here I am reading a book by the Nobel Prize-winning biologist on memory, and I am confronted by the Holocaust.
And because there are no coincidences, I’m sitting reading this book a few months ago when I get a call from a gentleman who lives at Tower One. I had never met him. He asked if I could come see him. He wanted me to hear his story from the Holocaust and he wanted me to see some photographs he had.
I’ve read about the Holocaust all my life. I’ve been to concentration camps; I’ve been involved in Holocaust education in many ways.
And so I was surprised by my reaction to his story and photographs. In a matter of an hour, his past was my past, his anger was my anger; his sorrow was my sorrow.
Like my mother after our incident at that stream in New Hampshire, his memories had become my memories.
And he said to me: “How can we tell this story?”
Many things, memory, his own traumatic story, my family’s past, my Jewish past, the Jewish commandment to remember, came together into two questions:
How can I tell this man’s story, as horrible as it is to think about?
How can we, as Jewish people, do something in our world today that learns from the past and acts in the present? There are genocides and injustices today. What do we Jewish people do to help? What can we do to help?
The first question, how to tell his story, as painful as it is, is a concrete issue. We have been videotaping him and we are working to find ways to tell the story again and again.
The second question is a tough one: If we Jewish people remember the horrors of the Holocaust, what are we doing about it? We have a great Social Action program at this shul, one we should be very proud of. This congregation has been consistently active and generous in the community. We do things twelve months a year. What we are good at around here is not just good intentions but sustained effort, week after week, year after year.
But there is another whole dimension of social action that we don’t do much in, and that concerns genocide on the world scene.
We have great discussions about current events, which is the first step. But we don’t do much with the knowledge we gain. I am hoping that this year, we can at least create a mechanism for letter or email writing or giving to causes that not only remember the Holocaust but act on it when genocide rages around the world. When we say “Never Again!” it must not just be that Jewish people should never again be massacred but that no one should be massacred. It shouldn’t matter whether it’s in Africa or Asia or Europe: If such things happen, we should be part of the response and the outcry.
So come to our course on Jewish Roots, and learn how to find out who you are. And if you can, consider joining us for a trip to Europe. And think about how we can remember what happened to our people by helping other people.
One way or another, think about developing your Jewish memory. The facts that we can learn about our family trees are just the beginning. From there, we have to remember what it was like to be Jewish in a world gone mad. We are living here in America because our families were the victims of history. We can’t just glide through our lives in this wonderful country without understanding that they uprooted their lives so that we could have these lives. We have to thank them and respect them for what they did. There is an Israeli movie called HaDira, the Flat, that some of us saw here a couple of weeks ago. In it, a grandson finds a letter from his grandmother who had died in the Holocaust. It said: “Don’t forget me.” It scares me and bothers me that we have forgotten so many of those who sacrificed their lives so that we could live.
When my mother tells me that she shouted that I should not take my brother into that flooding stream. I no longer argue. Now I understand that that story is about her love for her children and the fears every parent has that something bad will happen to their child. Now I just say: “You’re right, Mom, I remember; you did tell me, and I should have listened to you. And I’ll never do it again, because he’d probably sue me.”
And I think about that summer at Crystal Lake, when we were all alive, and when we were all speaking to each other. And it’s a great memory. The facts no longer matter; the memory matters a lot. Because my mother remembers out of love. We all should remember the love our ancestors had for us by giving us these lives. We have to know who they were, so we can understand who we are.