Memory Keeper(s)

The past is present. Or so we attempt to ensure with each dive into tradition on Jewish holidays like Pesach. By reenacting the history of our people through the Seder we close the gap of time and space, making possible the embodied memories of exodus, Sinai, and divine encounter. This is one motivation for religious ritual and prayer—using the same language as countless generations before us, we can make history immediate in the modern day. 

In many of my pursuits as a rabbinical student, I tug on the threads of memory to connect with Jewish history and understand my heritage. For the most part, though, my stint as a hospital chaplain was different. I was more focused on the present than the past when I consoled patients about an uncertain diagnosis, offered my presence as we waited for test results, or spoke with families about the deaths of their loved ones. My responsibilities also took me to a local senior living facility. Here many similar conversations occurred about the present, even though the residents are not actively ailing. Residents are typically focused on the weather, the day’s menu, and the latest current events. I offered my attention and hopefully a little comfort along the way.

It was in the halls of the senior home that I met a man who challenged my understanding of pastoral care focusing solely on the present. My conversation with Marvin began earnestly enough.[1]He asked me about my tie and remarked that I seemed a bit young to be living among the retirees. He told me about his life as a young businessman, as a college grad, and as a new father. Looking at the wheelchair-bound figure speaking animatedly before me, it quickly became clear that the moments Marvin was reliving were far from recent. He was experiencing the poignant memories of yesteryear as if they were but yesterday.

The next time I returned to the senior living facility, I sought out Marvin to continue our conversation. He greeted me warmly but showed no recognition of our previous encounter. This time his caretaker sat nearby and she explained to me that Marvin had advanced dementia. He was unlikely to consolidate recent memories. Even so, we sat together and spoke about his family (now grown and moved away), his favorite places to visit (few remaining), and his thoughts about the world as it was many decades ago. In his mental state, Marvin lived his present life in the past. Through his reminiscences, he provided vivid descriptions of a world I could access only through history books. 

Marvin became a living reminder for me of the power and ephemeral nature of memory. Here was a man who had endured nine decades of joy and toil—myriad experiences that form the contours of his character—yet few remain accessible. Is this amnesia contrary to the essence of Jewish memory? The Torah is full of invocations to remember events both jubilant and tragic. We are commanded to remember Shabbat, the healing of Miriam, and the treachery of Amalek. Yet keeping these memories alive requires more than simply remembering. Actions are required to revitalize memories long past or beyond the reach of the current generation. The rituals of lighting Shabbat candles and sampling the edible symbols of the Seder plate transport us vicariously to the tables of great-grand relatives, placing history firmly in our hands.

Marvin’s aged mind makes him no less Jewish. On the contrary, the fleeting nature of memory and the poignancy of personal moments make us more aware of the multigenerational responsibility to bear witness. Marvin and his generation experienced tectonic shifts in the landscape of history generally and Jewish life specifically. My afternoons with Marvin are (ironically) some of the most memorable of my summer of Clinical Pastoral Education. As Marvin showed me, some memories remain present in our minds while others may be dispelled by time. In the Jewish tradition, we pass on the collective responsibility of keeping shared memories alive. As Marvin taught me, no one person can hold all the memories, so each of us must shoulder a portion of this sacred duty. 

Benjamin Altshuler is a fourth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR. He has served at UC Hospital West Chester, Alois Alzheimer Center, Twin Lakes Senior Living Community, and The Kenwood as part of Clinical Pastoral Education and his Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship. 

[1]Names changed

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