Remembering and forgetting: Thoughts for the new Year

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Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is almost upon us. It comes at a ridiculously early date this year, Labor Day evening to be exact. I’ve always been astonished by the way in which the time for celebrating Ramadan fluctuates, sometimes appearing in completely different seasons from one year to the next. The Jewish and Muslim calendars are both lunar, which accounts for the variation. The Jewish calendar controls the variability somewhat by introduced additional months to the lunar year from time to time, but the variability can still be disconcerting.

Knowing how early Rosh Hashanah comes this year, our Jewish group has been at work for several months now, planning how we will celebrate this year’s High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are lay-led so it is up to our members to choose a theme for the year’s services and develop a plan and gather resources for exploring that theme.

When the planning committee, of which I am a member, first selected this year’s theme of Hayom Harat Olam, we were still in what turned out to be the brief window in which it appeared that Covid was behind us. This Hebrew phrase from the Machzor, the traditional prayer book for the High Holidays, can be translated in a variety of ways – Today is the birthday of the world; today the world is poised to give birth; and similar ideas connoting rebirth, renewal and rededication.  We chose this theme during that brief window when it appeared that the we were poised to move into an upbeat time of new possibilities, unconstrained by the specter of Covid that had hovered over us for the previous fifteen months.

But look where we are instead. The new Delta variant has plunged us back into darkness, with the pandemic worsening rather than abating. To what can we attribute this regression? First, there is the flood of misinformation that has scared off a third of the population whose deep distrust of both science and government renders them deaf to messages about the efficacy of jabs and masks. Second is our failure to vaccinate large swaths of the world’s population, creating a virtual playground for the emergence of new and potentially deadly variants. And here I am, one of the many privileged citizens jockeying for position on the booster shot line while so much of the world remains totally unprotected.

In any case, rebirth and revitalization will have to step back for now while we continue to wrestle with more primitive issues of survival.

On a different, but related, note, the High Holiday planning committee asked me and Rosellen to prepare something for the portion of the Rosh Hashanah service called zichronot. The Hebrew word derives from the root “to remember.” There is so much about Judaism that is about memory and remembering: that we were slaves in Egypt; that we have suffered at the hands of many oppressors; that we are the heirs of a rich and inspiring culture; that we each bring to our holidays unique and beautiful traditions, as well as memories of family members no longer with us. There is always an abundance of themes to tap into for this portion of the service. Here is some of what zichronot brings to mind for us this year, around which we will build our contribution to the services.

If you read last week’s blog, you’ll know that remembering and forgetting were very much on our minds during our annual return to New Hampshire. Unlike us – insert a smile emoji here – our friends there are aging. For some, forgetfulness is a regular visitor to their lives, looking to take up more permanent residence, as it already has for those who have actually been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Others a decade older than us are a true inspiration. One friend, a brilliant artist, is still producing stunning work. Others close to his age have not lost a beat and are still able to inhabit their past, present and future without any signs of diminishing. They inspire us and give us hope.

Recently, at our daughter Adina’s recommendation, we watched a movie by Alan Berliner called First Cousin, Once Removed. You can find it on HBO and other streaming services. The film maker focuses on his relative, Edward Honig, a man of enormous accomplishments as a poet, translator and head of the creative writing program at Brown University. As he says about himself, he now exists entirely in the present. His past is completely gone with the exception of one tragic memory dating back to age 5 which has defined and shaped everything about him since. The movie raises a lot of profound questions about who you are and what’s left of you when memory departs and uproots you from your past experience. I know many of you have wrestled with these questions as you’ve watched friends and family fade away, leaving only the physical shell of who they once were. It’s the thing I fear most for me and for Rosellen. I find myself feeling grateful that my parents died at a point when they were still fully themselves. Their deaths were sufficiently tragic without the double whammy of disappearance of self before death.

In so many ways, remembering and forgetting define us as human beings. Without memory we lose our place both in our own personal stories and in the larger history of the times we inhabit. I fear invisibility, which is one of the reasons I keep hammering away at these blog entries: I fear that when I grow silent, I will disappear. That will happen soon enough but in the meantime through remembering and reminding I continue to be a part, albeit infinitesimal, of the living world.

There will be a lot to talk about on Rosh Hashanah, also known as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembering. 

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Marv Hoffman

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