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The Power of Remembering

by Jody Spiegel - Director of The Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

There is no word for history in the Hebrew language. (Historia, is from the Greek.) It’s probably because there’s no such thing as “history” in Judaism.

Zikaron (memory), however, features prominently and cuts straight to the core of Judaism’s perception of the past. Like Rabbi Saks says, “History” is his-story, not mine. The first two letters of “memory,” however, spell me. Without me there is no memory. Memory is a part of me, and history, apart from me.”

Put differently: History is made up of facts, and memory of experience. Judaism is less interested in dead facts than in breathing, living experiences.

It is for this reason that much of Jewish tradition and ritual draw on reenactment. We don’t commemorate, we remember. We don’t recount someone else’s story, we relive our own.

This is the case of almost every Jewish holiday. On Sukkot, for example, we move into huts for a week to recall the booths we lived in throughout our desert trek. Like a figurative time-machine, the sukkah transports us to that distant and formative journey.

In the fifth and final book of the Torah, in the last chapter (spoiler alert!) Moshe is about to drop the mic. “Family! Get yourselves together every seven years at sukkot. Assemble – parents, kids, old, weak... Listen to the reading of the Torah. Maybe have a brisket? Peace out my brothers and sisters– you got this and Hashem’s got your back!” This loose interpretation is the mitzvah called hak’hel (assemble as a nation). But Hashem later tells Moshe that the Jews will #fail and seek out other gods and basically assimilate but one thing that may work to keep them on track, what becomes the 613th mitzvah in the Torah, “to write for yourselves this song.” This isn’t the part of the Torah pointing the Jews into the music industry. Rambam, explains that this is the mitzvah for a Jew to write a Torah scroll for himself.

We understand that both the mitzvah of hak’hel and writing a Torah scroll were established to turn the passive into the active. Hak’hel was the reenactment of Sinai; it made it real again. #sinaireunion5779

But that worked in Jerusalem, in the Holy Temple, once in seven years. How about the other six years? Outside Jerusalem? Without a Temple? How would we be charged with living Judaism in modern day Toronto?

The mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll, to be stored and used inside one’s home wherever and whenever they may live, is to recreate daily what we experienced at Sinai.

Do more than study Torah in school and perform mitzvot when you must. Live them, experience them—and they will live on.

If we want to get through to the next generation we must shift our focus from Jewish knowledge and history to Jewish experience and living—Judaism as a lifestyle, not a topic for discussion.

In my work in Holocaust education, I’ve heard concerns of what will be when our survivors are gone. I don’t have those fears. I work with an incredible team to publish memoirs of survivors so that we have their stories of survival in perpetuity. I carry their struggles and stories, jokes and recipes, names and voices with me as I share their written memoirs across the country with students and educators. I ingest and express their stories to the next generation. Theirs is a living legacy not an historical occurrence.

The profound difference between history and memory is that history is an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story – something that happened to me and is part of who I am. History is information. Memory is of identity. I can study the history of other cultures, and civilizations and I can feel moved but they do not make a claim on me. They are the past as past. Memory is the past as I present it, as it lives on in me.

Without memory there can be no identity.

The beauty of our Judaism is that we must tap into it daily to draw from its richness to build our identity.

Judaism isn’t someone else’s story. It’s our own.

Jody Spiegel is the Director of The Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program. You can check out their Survivor Videos and Biography's at

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