At my son’s recent high school graduation, my emotion-fueled thoughts were all over the place. Yet I kept coming back to the Talmudic teaching that we master the entire Torah in utero, only to have an angel tap us on the mouth and erase that knowledge at the moment we enter the world. It was hard to believe the strapping graduate had once been that small, because there he was: ready to leave for a year of study in Israel, the next leg in his quest to relearn what was snatched from him the day he was born.
Even without an angel’s intervention, it is easy to lose the past if we are not careful. Years ago, my grandmother handed me an envelope of crumbling sepia photographs I’d never seen before — a soldier, pious scholars, girls in fancy dresses. “I can’t say who they are,” she clucked sadly, “only that they’re our family.” They were the faces my namesake great-grandmother left behind when she sailed to America, but without their names, they provided no new clues to our family history.
All four of my grandparents were New York-born. Whatever they knew about their parents’ lives in the Old World, they told me almost nothing, and I realized the importance of asking for more only after their memories had dimmed, or they had passed away. Any distinct, Slavic-inflected surnames were already long forgotten, replaced with common, pronounceable ones at Ellis Island. I had no specifics about our pre-Yankee experience, nothing practical to help me launch an online genealogical search.
I mourn that missing part of our past, but have thrown my energy into preserving what I can for the future. I appointed myself family archivist, bestowing sentimental value upon everything handed down to me: a shoe last, teacups, wedding bands, a silhouette from an Atlantic City honeymoon. I set aside items from our own lives, too, filling memory boxes for my sons. And I began to label everything.
Still, nostalgia often brings me back to my great-grandmother’s photographs. They offer a singular, though slim, connection to an earlier place on our family timeline, enabling me to evoke, if not know in fact, who we once were in Minsk. Now framed behind glass, my unnamed relatives stare out at me while I search their faces for familiar features. I whip up vivid tales about their loves, their secrets, and the tsuris that might have kept them up at night. Lest my stories be taken as truth, however, I keep my imagination to myself, though in my heart I believe conjured memories are better than none.
After all, remembering is what Jews do. We weave it into our rituals, our liturgy, and our texts. The scholar Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi wrote that we uniquely elevate memory to a religious imperative, and that it is the way Judaism compels us to remember communal events we never experienced personally, like the Exodus from Egypt. It ensures our survival as a people. I am not misguided, then, in yearning to fill in whatever blanks I can.
But time, like memory, is fleeting, and there is nothing like a graduation to prove the point. We may lovingly dust an heirloom, but no matter how hard we try, we cannot hold memories in our grip any more than we can keep our children small. The best we can do is to hand our reminiscences along to the next person for safekeeping. Memory is also selective, however, permitting each of us to decide what to hang onto and what to let fall away, while passing time softens the rough edges, altering our perceptions of the past.
I cling hard to whatever knowledge I’ve been able to gather. I tell my boys about the former owners of the tchotchkes on our shelves. From kiddush cups to cufflinks, we put our old things into service to preserve the memory of their former owners, the ones we knew and the ones we never met. Most importantly, we keep the photographs from that envelope on our walls to remind ourselves that while we lack the details, we do have meaningful roots.
As for the graduate, he will soon pick the memories he wishes to take with him, as if he were selecting keepsakes from the China closet. Some will ground him, reassuring him that whatever his path, he is loved. Others he will store in his room for future use. My prayers pivot on the hope that among the belongings he will always carry with him will be his attachment to our communal and family history, so when we, like the angel, pat him on the back before he goes, he will not forget anything, and that it will lead him home often enough, his laundry in tow.
Merri Ukraincik, who lives in Edison, N.J., is a regular contributor to this space.