Committed to Memory
Well, I took quite the stroll down memory lane this week. Ellen and I watched the film “Old Yeller” for the first time since I was maybe four years old. Fess Parker as the dad and Chuck Connors as the young cowboy who lets the little boys keep his runaway dog, these triggered additional memories of Davy Crockett and The Rifleman. But the story of the fearless, loveable pooch who saves his adopted family but must ultimately be put down because of “hydrophobia” – rabies – tugs at the heart strings like no other tale.
Something else was at play, something that pulled me along and prompted me to view the film again some fifty years later: nostalgia.
Nostalgia is a feeling that appeals to many, and offends some. I’m not quite sure when it kicked in for me, but it’s a condition I’ve got now. Katie, by the way, seems to have been born with it. I’ve never met someone so young who loves to look at “old” photos and videos even though they were taken only a few years earlier. Still, I won’t complain – who doesn’t want their kid to sit with them for hours and look at family scrapbooks?
I got to wondering though. Is nostalgia simply a personal indulgence, a moment of instant gratification that serves no real purpose other than to create a feeling of euphoria for times gone by? Or is there some practical reason for its existence? Is it built into our DNA for survival purposes, something akin to our flight-or-fight response?
Dr. Alan Hirsch – neurologist, psychiatrist and director of Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation – in his article, “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding,” explains nostalgia as “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory — not a true re-creation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.”
Makes it sound kind of pathological, doesn’t it? Some fifteen years ago, I did a bit of talk therapy to work through some life-issues and mentioned to my therapist how precious my summer camp memories are to me. He dismissed them, convinced that I’d altered those memories so that they seem a whole lot better than they actually were. Except that I can remember the negative moments from my five summers as a counselor. And to this day, therapist be damned, I use those summer memories as a touchstone for the kind of experiences I gravitate toward in my life today.
Am I correct about this or was he? Dr. Clay Routledge, social psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University, writes, “When you’re nostalgic about something, there’s a little bit of a sense of loss—[the moment has] happened, it’s gone—but usually the net result is happiness.” And so I imagine there’s a balance to be struck here between the appeal of looking back and the necessity to not dwell there for too long.
Which brings me to Sukkot. It’s so fascinating that, for one week each year, we dwell in our past. Literally. Jewish tradition has us move outside of our homes and live in rickety, primitive structures we know as sukkot. Funny enough, no one really knows where the sukkah comes from. Some teach that they were the booths in which our ancestors slept during the forty years of post-Exodus wandering. Others tell us that sukkot were the booths in which our farming ancestors who who had settled the nation of Ancient Israel would stay throughout the harvest period when there wasn’t time to return home each night lest the ripened crops spoil because they weren’t gathered in time.
Whether or not we actually dwell in a sukkah, the festival of Sukkot – like many of our holidays – involves a powerful look backwards. I doubt many of us yearn for a return to houses that welcome in the chill and the rain and which we often share with bees that are attracted to the produce we’ve attached to it. So why do we hearken back to a time we’re not even sure took place?
As always, there’s more than one answer – often many more – to a Jewish question. For me, Sukkot reminds me that my ancestors had once been slaves (whether they had been or not). Impoverished, harassed, oppressed and indiscriminately murdered, that is a world I neither want to ever again be part of nor will I stand idly by while the same happens to others. Thus, when 400,000 Muslims were murdered in Darfur, our synagogue took a stand. When a million Rwandans from the Tutsi tribe were murdered, our synagogue took a stand.
And our Jewish sensitivity to slavery doesn’t extend only to brutal killings. Other “slavery” in our world – systems in which people are set apart and their basic rights are trampled – include mistreatment of women, of people of color, of those with a different sexual orientation. Also, we take a stand to protect the rights of our brothers and sisters living in Israel, even as we try to figure out how to advocate for innocent Palestinians in Gaza while not turning our back on Israel.
All of this because of Sukkot, and a history that has shaped us as a people that won’t stand by while others suffer. We are a people who regularly dwell in our past. Even though there’s not a whole lot back there to miss, we nevertheless climb into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and take those journeys so that we never abandon our stories, nor the valuable lessons we learn from them.
Antisemitism, it seems, is on the rise. The ADL estimates that 26% of the world’s population harbors antisemitic attitudes. Well, what’s new? Or rather, what’s old?
Antisemitism is old news. There’s ever a certain nostalgia to it. It gets our blood running, makes us feel indignant and, more importantly, proud. Nothing raises a person’s sense of Jewish identity more than the knowledge that it’s under attack. Wanna raise money. Forget Jewish education or building up Jewish spiritual practice. Respond to hate. That’ll get the dough rolling in, for sure.
Yes, there’s a lot of antisemitism in the world today. But things are different this time, different from the 1930s and 40s to which folks seem to be comparing today’s events. The differences, in western countries anyway, is that the governing bodies are neither tolerating nor legislating antisemitism.
Last month, when a man in Britain spewed antisemitic language on a bus filled with Jewish schoolchildren, he was arrested, charged and found guilty of using threatening language to cause alarm and distress. In the Netherlands this past July, two men were arrested for shouting “Death to the Jews” and inciting racial violence during a protest at the Hague. And in August, French police arrested two young women who were plotting to attack a synagogue in Lyon with explosives.
I’m not saying that these acts are in any way defensible. They are as reprehensible and condemnable as any act of bias can be. But there’s a huge difference. The countries in which these hate-crimes are taking place have governments that are responding, that are not tolerating this behavior. I could be wrong. I often am. But I don’t think we’re headed toward a second Holocaust. It’s a mess, to be sure. But it’s a very different mess from that of seventy years ago. And while it’s important to look back, it’s also important to differentiate then from now.
Author Michael Crichton writes, “If you don’t know history […] you are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” There are so many lessons to learn from the past. And even if it’s just to smile and sigh a bit at days of wonder gone by, the past connects us to one another and to the stories that impel us into our future. It also teaches us what a hot stove is, figuratively and literally, and to stay away from it.
But sometimes we can’t.
Country singer Glen Campbell released a powerful and unsettling video this week, entitled, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, and resigned to the disappearance of his ability to remember anything, he wrote and recorded this song with the understanding that it will likely be the last one he ever makes:
I’m still here but yet I’m gone
I don’t play guitar or sing my songs
They never defined who I am
The man that loved you ’til the end
You’re the last person I will love
You’re the last face I will recall
And best of all
I’m not gonna miss you
Not gonna miss you
I’m never gonna hold you like I did
Or say I love you to the kids
You’re never gonna see it in my eyes
It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry
I’m never gonna know what you go through
All the things I say or do
All the hurt and all the pain
One thing selfishly remains
I’m not gonna miss you
I’m not gonna miss you
For Glen Campbell, and everyone else who suffers from diseases that rob them of their memories, nostalgia becomes something in which only we can indulge, reluctantly embracing those bittersweet memories of better times spent with those we love, those for whom stories – the past – no longer exists.
During Sukkot, we pick up the lulav and the etrog, waving it in all directions to affirm that goodness exists everywhere. We even shake it behind, although we designate that only as one of the coordinates on a compass. Regardless of where we point those ritual objects, our tradition does embrace the past and acknowledges the goodness that is to be found there. Our stepping inside the sukkah is a step into eras gone by, ones that we happily visit alongside friends and family, always with the hope and the faith that we will together build a brighter, better future for all.
The time will come when our memories are no longer ours. Whether from disease or from death, our journeys will come to an end. Let us hope, that as we remember the significance of our ancestors’ stories, future generations will want to celebrate the benefits and goodnesses that were created by ours. Whether future generations sanitize their recollections of how we lived, or they remember us with all our scars and all our warts, may those memories – like our lulav and etrog – ferry sweet wisdom from our time to theirs, as a perpetual gift of goodness, of promise, and of love.