Parashat Vayechi [December 28, 2012]


By Rachel Adler

You may have heard the news. On the evening of December 24th, Netflix streaming services had a major technical failure, and thousands of horrified Americans had to interact with their families. The emails poured in. “ Why don’t you just rip my heart out and feed it to a pack of wolves? “ Another: “Did Netflix really go down on Christmas Eve? That’s like bars running out of alcohol on New Year’s.” Another: “So Netflix is down. Now everybody has to talk to their annoying family.” And finally: “Hey let me show you how to stream Netflix! Oh. . .it’s not working. Let’s . . . um. . . talk about your hip replacement.”

In families like mine after a holiday meal, those assembled didn’t immediately turn on the media. It was, instead, a time for telling family stories, for reminiscing. A kid with a good pair of open ears could glean interesting tidbits about what dad and the uncles did when they were a a bunch of naughty kids, how Grandma came to America fourth class on a big ocean liner and discovered a life-long passion for that exotic fruit, the tomato, not to speak of archeological data, like the functioning of Great-great uncle Erwin’s first car which was apparently manufactured by Fred Flintstone.

I wonder what is going to happen when Americans no longer tell family stories? What is going to bind the past, present, and future together if not stories. In this week’s Torah portion, the last portion of the book of Genesis, we wind up the life stories of both Jacob and his favored son Joseph. Two wonderful events happen in this portion. Joseph and his brothers are truly reconciled, and the family is once more united. Second, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, Menashe and Ephraim, and in his old trickster mode, crosses his hands and gives the favored “right hand” blessing to the younger son Ephraim and this set of brothers doesn’t start a feud over it. Maybe, they grew up secure in their parents’ love and not in the atmosphere of emotional scarcity that made Joseph and his brothers so desperate for their father’s love. Maybe, because Joseph had only one wife, the children were not divided against one another by their mothers. All this is the sort of speculation that goes with the telling of family stories, the psychological insights into forbears that one never would have gotten for oneself.

What will happen when we no longer exchange and probe the stories handed down about the lives of our grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins? How will we remember our origins and the fraught environments in which we grew?

Re-member sounds like an opposite of dis-member. It is a putting back together. I remember stumbling on a closely guarded family secret at a shiva where someone was indiscreet. It turned out that my grandfather had a brother who hanged himself when he was eighteen. I have long wondered if that boy was one of the many gay teenaged suicides. What was it like for him in 1890 in Muscatine, Iowa, living in the neighborhood the other inhabitants of Muscatine called Jew Hill. His father was the community shochet, ritual slaughterer, and the mohel, and the chazan, the cantor. He had expectations that his sons be pious Orthodox Jews. There were no words for what a gay teenager might have felt in 1890, on Jew Hill in Muscatine Iowa. I remember that boy. Literally I restore him to membership in the family. I re-include him in the geneologies. I speculate about his life. He is connected to me.

To remember is not a biological urge. It does not happen without effort. It is a culturally inflected endeavor. There is a lovely little book by Y. H. Yerushalmi called Zakhor: Jewish Memory/ Jewish History. Yerushalmi contends that memory is something different from modern historiography. Historiography is objective and descriptive. Memory is passionately subjective and not descriptive but normative. That is, historiography is about the patterns that facts make and their interpretation. Memory is about the recurrence of culturally familiar meanings and “shoulds”. Memory molds us as members of specific communities. The Pesach seder is a communal exercise in fostering Jewish memory. In the seder, we are made to internalize as personal memory a searing communal identity. We, all of us, were slaves in Egypt. We, all of us, were liberated from slavery. We emerge from the seder with the sense that every time we see a stranger, an outcast, an exploited person, we should be feeling, “I have to help because that could have been me.”

Memory is about belonging to something larger than ourselves, something that embraces even the vanished past and the unreachable future. Moses says in Deut. 29, “I make this covenant not with you alone but both with those who are standing here with us this day before Adonai out God and with those who are not here with us this day.” When we are part of a covenant, we are connected to the past and invested in the future. We are not like King Louis XV of France who said, “After me, the deluge.” We feel responsibility for those who come after us. We are connected to the past and the future of our family history, even the family secrets and the black sheep. At the highest level, we who feel joined to past and future feel ourselves to be part of all human history.

The undergraduates I teach no longer seem to study history. I joke that they have only two historical categories: Before I was born and After I was born. Before I was born includes in no particular order, the Stone Age, Napoleon, Jesus of Nazareth, the Buddha, the Viet Nam war and Mahatma Ghandhi. After I was born includes George W. Bush, 9/11, the Iraq war, Afghanistan, Muammar Ghadaffi, Osama bin Laden,and the Haiti earthquake and tsunami. The world is growing closer and closer yet it is oddly remote for them. They lack first hand testimony to history. The patriarch of a family I know was interviewed in the 1980s for tapes that have been digitalized and are now played for every generation of children. The great-grandfather talks on the tapes about a lifetime of hard work and saving. He remarks that in 1924 you could get a good cup of coffee for five cents and a large dill pickle for three. “Things was cheap,” he explains, “but the money was expensive.” Someday I expect to tell my grandson what it was like being an anti-Viet Nam war activist, about the horrible moment when a crowd becomes a mob and the sound of the first splintering crash of a rock through a store window. These are moral tales, about thrift and a work ethic, about political engagement and the boundaries of right and wrong. It isn’t only in the classical Jewish tradition that we find the stories that form us. It is in the repertoire of family stories. And those stories are not always about saints and little points of light. Darker family stories also have moral weight.

I once confessed to a rabbi my difficulty saying “my father, my teacher” when I said yizkor for my father. My father was a sarcastic and difficult man who thought cooking and dishwashing were women’s work, even though his wife worked full time and was also going to graduate school. He fought with his twin brother and did not speak to him for over fifty years. The rabbi asked, “Did you learn anything about how to or how not to be a parent or a mensch from your father? “Lots.” I said. “Then you can say, “my father, my teacher,” concluded the rabbi.

My grandmother really was a positive moral example. I have a favorite story about what she taught me about Tzedaka, which, after all, means not “charity” but “righteousness” or “justice.” When I was nine years old, I was walking with my grandmother to the bakery, when I saw a flash of green. I pounced and came up with a $20 bill in my hand. Now when I was nine years old, $20 was an unfathomable sum. I had never held such a bill in my hands. Running back to my grandmother, I burbled about all I would buy with this money. Slowly she shook her head. “Don’t you see where that bill was lying? That is the bus stop where all the cleaning ladies get the bus back to the South Side. Some woman worked all day for that money and is crying bitter tears that she has lost it. I looked at the bill and thought of tired hands scrubbing floors and doing piles of ironing. Suddenly the bill didn’t look so large. “What can we do?” I asked. “We’ll find a charity that distributes food on the South Side,” my grandmother concluded. “At least some family won’t go hungry.” I learned about donating money, that day, but I learned much more. I learned about the kind of attention to others that would notice where the cleaning ladies’ bus stopped, the kind of imagination that could envision the giving of a wage and the horror of finding it gone, the kind of moral standards that would hold a privileged child responsible to learn about and alleviate the burdens of others. I have told her story many times.

It is almost New Year’s Eve now, that night when Americans let go of the past year and welcome the advent of a fresh New Year full of possibilities.

When will we learn that the past does not really leave? It hangs around in the form of old quarrels, inevitable consequences of past decisions, pollution, trash, and misapprehensions. Some of those can be rectified by corrective action, but probably not without some story telling about how we got into this place. It is the only way we learn to value and to forgive the past, and to maintain a genuine connection to it and thus to the present and the future as well. May Netflix stream like Niagara Falls, and may the liquor supply hold out, but may we also find a little time during this new secular year for storytelling, on remembering and re/ membering with both with the old and the young of our families, our communities, our kind.

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