On Productive Memory

Hamilton, Moshe Rabbeinu, John Lewis, and my grandmother

In the past month, since the Broadway show Hamilton was released on Disney +, there have been a number of conversation about the narrative the musical presents about America’s Founding Fathers, and its flaws in light of history. In certain ways, these conversations struck me ironic, as one of the central themes of the show is the question of legacy, and what it means to be able (or unable) to control the stories told about you after they’re gone. Hamilton isn’t trying to be history. It’s trying to be a narrative about the values of America—what America has been, what it is, and also, what it could be.

As Yosef Chayim Yerushalmi famously argued in his seminal book Zachor, there’s a difference between history and memory--both are deeply important, but they play different roles in our lives. It’s important, then, that we not conflate the two. From the very beginning, the Jewish tradition is aware of this distinction, as the book of D’varim shows us. If D’varim was meant to be read as history, there would be no point of most of the first half of the book--it would primarily be a direct repetition of the previous three books, when the rabbinic tradition tells us that there is not even a single extra letter in the Torah. Instead, there are a number of differences between the way that Moshe tells the story here, and the ways that those same stories appear earlier in the Torah. There are a number of examples of this phenomenon, but here, I’ll focus on one in particular.

At the end of D’varim chapter 3, Moshe tells the B’nai Yisrael the story of why he’s not permitted to enter the land. He says, “Now Hashem was angry with me on your account and swore that I should not cross the Jordan and enter the good land that the Hashem your God is assigning you as a heritage.” In Moshe’s telling, it is because of the flaws of the Israelites that he cannot enter the land. However, Bamidbar 20, in Parshat Chukat, paints a more complicated story. The people are complaining that they have no water, and so God tells Moshe and his brother Aharon, “You and your brother Aharon take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” God explicitly tells Moshe, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

Now, one could certainly argue that B’nai Yisrael are partly to blame for Moshe hitting the rock. After all, they continuously lack faith in God and ask to go back to Egypt. They blame Moshe for their hardships, and refuse to be grateful for the things they have, rather than focusing on the things the lack. Moshe, who has saved them from God’s wrath multiple times, cannot be faulted for finally losing his patience. However. Nobody forces Moshe to hit the rock. None of the people mock him for speaking to it, and he never even tries following God’s command. Therefore, his retelling in D’varim seems unbalanced at best, disingenuous at worst. But this is the story he chooses to tell, and he is not explicitly faulted for doing so. So the question is, what is the role of this repetition? What are we meant to learn from reading this story, and so many other ones, twice?

The act of retelling is, by virtue of necessity, an act of interpretation. Certain details sharpen and others fade as we place an experience in the context of our needs and thoughts in a given moment. As emotional intensity and the sharpness of initial experience fades over time, we tell ourselves that now we have the perspective and wisdom necessary to understand what truly happened. However, if we are honest with ourselves, our reflections on history are no clearer than our perceptions in the moment in which things are happening. So with this in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of productive memory.

I would define productive memory as being about memories that are kept and conveyed for their own sake, but also for the sake of preserving and encouraging certain lessons and values. This feels to me very much like what Moshe is trying to do through the narrative retellings of D’varim. He knows his death is on the other side of his words; he also knows that this is a new generation that hasn’t known the traumas and triumphs of the one he took out of Egypt. And so the goal is not only to teach this new generation their history, but also to give them the lessons that Moshe thinks will serve them as they enter the land and begin the next chapter of Jewish history. How can their past help inform improve their future? As important as it is for them to know what happened to their ancestors, it is just as important for them to learn the lessons they should take forward with them.

On Tisha b’Av, after Kinnot, my husband and I spent much of the afternoon watching Representative John Lewis’s funeral. If you didn’t watch it, I could not recommend taking the time to do so more highly--it was really extraordinary. Of the course of more than three hours, speaker after speaker managed to memorialize John Lewis the legend, John Lewis the hero, but also John Lewis the man. In doing so, they painted the picture of the Boy from Troy, as Dr. King famously called him, who could have been another anybody, but instead became, as President Obama said, one of the true founding fathers of America.

These stories, these messages, these eulogies--these were beautiful examples of productive memory. In telling the story of Lewis’s life, these speakers were also painting a picture of what America could be, if we lived up to the promise of a “more perfect union.” By giving over their memories of Lewis, they were painting a picture of a future he worked for, and whose mantle we now must carry. Because this man, who with so many other brave individuals had a vision of an America that was more equitable and more filled with love, was a person. He was the son of sharecroppers, who used to preach to chickens and hide so he could go to school instead of working on the farm, who could have easily chosen to stay home and protect his own life and safety. Instead, he risked his life over and over, he was arrested for noble causes 40 times, he spoke truth to power and became the moral conscience of Congress. And, as each speaker reminded us, if he could create this sort of change, then surely each of us can also do our part to carry his legacy forward.

There will never be another John Lewis, just like there will never be another Moshe Rabbeinu. But the stories that they told throughout their lives, and the ones we now tell about them, have the power to change who and how we are in the world--if we let them. This is the power of productive memory. It allows us to not only understand where we came from, but also where we should be trying to go.

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In closing, I have few words about my grandmother, Lore Jarmul, whose tenth yahrzeit is today, and whose story has become a powerful example of productive memory for me. My grandmother came to America from Germany in 1937 as an adolescent, speaking no English, but proved a quick study and earned a BA and an MA. She wore many hats over her almost 86 years. She went on to become a reporter, a volunteer for her town’s ambulance, an advocate for racial and economic justice, a thoroughly mediocre cook who believed strongly that nothing should take longer to cook than to eat, an avid gardener, and the author of the first ever college guidebook. She was also a loving wife and mother to three, mother-in-law to three others, and grandmother to seven. Since she died ten years ago, our family has grown--in addition to the two weddings of her grandchildren she got to attend, four others have gotten married, and in addition to the three great grandchildren who were born before she died, she now has 7 more, some of whom carry her name.

As the only grandparent I had who I knew past the age of 10, I had the honor of getting to know my grandmother as an adult, hearing more of her stories and letting her know more of me than was possible when I was a kid. And something I think about, still, is how to take the lessons and stories she shared with me and pass them on--how can I make sure that our memory of her not only does her story justice, but also encourages those who hear them to take up her values and live by them. It’s hard to encapsulate such a full life in just a few words, but her values live on with me, and my family, every day. So I’d like to conclude by sharing a part of a letter I recently found, which I wrote to my grandmother in July 2010, very shortly before she passed away: 

“Some of my friends have been asking me about you, and what you’re like. I tell them that you’re tough and strong, smart and independent, curious and thoughtful, kind and compassionate. Sometimes they tell me that you sound like me-- that I come by some of those traits honestly. All I can say is Grandma, if I end up like you, then I feel very good about how I’m doing in my quest to leave the world better than it was when I entered it.”

As we transition out of the period of mourning that proceeded Tisha B’Av and into the one of comfort that will lead us to Rosh Hashanah, I hope that we can take the memories and lessons that we have learned from those who came before us--whether it is Moshe, John Lewis, or our own family members--and ensure that their memories will be for a blessing, but also a force for positive change, and for beautiful revolution.