Purim, Memory, and Identity

A reflection from Avi West of Federation’s Jewish Life & Learning Department

I have been thinking a lot lately about the role of memory and identity. As I care for my almost 97-year-old father (together with a great team at Ring House and the Misler Center) and witness his increasing memory failings, I wonder how it affects his identity. A once amazing lawyer and accountant who juggled various audits in his head, he is now betrayed by memory loss and the way it affects conversation and limits social interaction. He truly lives “in the moment,” and that has taught me a great lesson. Most of my visits now include narrating albums of pictures, orally reconstructing family events, and talking about my memories of him. And wouldn’t you know it, our attempts to recall events sometimes leads us to new understandings and different meaningful connections. Retelling also involves reconnecting, although perhaps with different significance each time.

The Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, the shabbat of remembering. The name refers to a section from the Torah read on that day which starts, “Zachor, remember what the Amalekites did to you on the way out of Egypt… cutting down the weak stragglers.” This ties to Purim, because tradition attributes Haman’s lineage to a brutal tribe called Amalek. When we hear Haman’s name during the megillah reading and shake the gragger noisemaker to blot out that sound, we are fulfilling the Torah’s admonition to “remember to wipe out the memory of Amalek.” We perform an action to link memory of the past with lessons for the future.

The command to remember, zachor, is repeated nearly 200 times in the bible. We are to remember the Shabbat by making kiddush blessings, the covenant when we celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai on Shavuot, the exodus from Egypt by reading the Haggadah at our Passover seders, and even the idea that God also remembers as we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

As we learn from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

Our identity is bound up horizontally with other individuals: our parents, spouse, children, neighbors, members of the community, fellow citizens, fellow Jews. We are also joined vertically to those who came before us, whose story we make our own. To be a Jew is to be a link in the chain of the generations, a character in a drama that began long before we were born and will continue long after our death. Memory is essential to identity – to be a Jew is to know that the history of our people lives on in us.

From that message, I find great comfort in the continuous retelling of my father’s history and Jewish connections as we sit together. Even if the specifics fade from his memory, the act of reconnecting, using pictures and family objects, songs and food, establishes an “in the moment” horizontal connection for my father, and a deep and firm vertical connection for me. He may not remember most daily events, but he knows well that his collective memory lives on in me and his grandchildren. And in that, his identity is preserved.

This Purim, take advantage of listening to the megillah story in a group. Drown out Haman’s name, as we remember what he did and how his fortunes turned on a courageous woman’s decision to stand up. Share portions of food with family, friends, and those who are vulnerable and perhaps isolated. But, most importantly, celebrate with others. When we can no longer trust our own memory, the retelling and reenacting with others will still connect us to our past and future in new and meaningful ways.