Judaism: The World's Best Memory Palace

By Kissileff, Beth | Moment, September-October 2012 | Go to article overview

Judaism: The World's Best Memory Palace


Kissileff, Beth, Moment


In the beginning, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a string around the finger: a biblical memory prompt. "I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living being among all flesh," God says in the book of Genesis.

Jewish memory is at the heart of Judaism and and firmly rooted in the Bible. The verb "l'zchor," meaning "to remember" appears 228 times; "zecher" ("remembrance") 23; and "zikaron" ("memory") 24. Jews are commanded to remember the Sabbath, Miriam's affliction with leprosy at the hands of God, the golden calf, the giving of the Torah and the attack by Amalek as the Israelites left Egypt. God even tells Moses to record Amalek's deeds in a book, itself a means of remembrance. "The call of memory, the call to memory," said Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "it reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received and the evil we have suffered."

How is a commandment to remember to be fulfilled? Is remembering a solitary act or a communal one? And, practically speaking, what can one do to remember? In his seminal work Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, the late Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi argues that, in the past, collective memory was embedded in Jewish liturgy and ritual. Joshua Foer, 2009 USA Memory Champion and author of Moonwalking with Einstein, agrees: "In Judaism, observance (shamor) and remembering (zachor) are interchangeable concepts, two words that are really one." Foer adds, "For Jews, remembering is not merely a cognitive process, but one that is necessarily active. Other people remember by thinking. Jews remember by doing." The Passover seder, for example, takes a proactive step-by-step experiential approach to the act of remembering, exhorting us that "in every generation, an individual is commanded to view himself as though he personally has left Egypt."

Indeed, the Jewish calendar is structured to include days of collective remembrance of tragedies: A fast on Tisha B'Av mourns the destruction of both Temples and on Purim, Jews remember Haman's barely-averted murderous plan. Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, professor of Jewish history and thought at Yeshiva University, and a student of Yerushalmi's, elaborates on this in his paper Remembering the Temple, in which he says that the purpose of days of commemoration is to free "the community to focus--to the extent to which it was possible--on constructive living the rest of the year."

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The Holocaust, of course, is the tragedy that dominates the modern Jewish psyche; since the middle of the 20th century, memorials, museums and monuments have been built across the world to fulfill the mantra of "never forget. …

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