Memory is a funny thing. When we tell the stories of our own lives, we tend to report events the way we want to remember them–not necessarily the way they really happened.
Yosef Yerushalmi, one of the greatest Jewish historians of the 20th century, published a meditation on this issue as it applies to the collective historical memory of the Jewish people. Accessibly written and short (it’s under 100 pages), his book is called Zakhor, which means “Remember!” in Hebrew.
Zakhor highlights the ways that we Jews draw inspiration from “history” that might have little resemblance to the verifiable historical record. For example, at Passover we ritualize our sense of being present at the exodus from Egypt, despite historians’ questions about whether the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea could really have happened. Yerushalmi suggests that Jews only recently started to become interested in recording history accurately–and he wonders (and worries about) how this new approach might affect Jewish ritual and spiritual life.
We remember Yerushalmi on December 8th–the anniversary of his death. It’s a perfect opportunity to either pick up his book, or to take stock of our own memories–individual and collective–and reflect on what these memories say about who we are and who we want to be.