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Remembering

May 20, 2009

Day12-2

Wednesday, 11:58 pm local time

Memory.

The number six million means nothing to me. It is incomprehensible. I’m a math/science guy at heart, so I appreciate the quantifiable, but to contemplate the extermination of six million people…it’s unthinkable. Literally – I cannot think about it, I cannot wrap my head around it. Even visiting Yad Va’Shem today, the Israeli memorial to the victims of the Holocaust – in Hebrew, the Shoah – it doesn’t help. I’ve been to Holocaust museums. I know the history, both the geopolitical and the religious, and it only does so much.

There are many ways to remember. I’m a grad student, memorizing things is my entire job. You can create lists of facts, like the walk through the central Yad Va’Shem museum. You can group like things together, as with the Valley of the Communities – a maze of rock walls (that look eerily similar to some of the archeological sites we’ve visited, like Masada and Mamshit) 40 feet high, on which are inscribed the names of the towns destroyed and affected during the Second World War. Yad Va’Shem certainly does an excellent job of engaging kinesthetic memory, as the whole place is a giant park, and the different memorials are unique and require different kinds of movement: the Garden of the Righteous among the Nations has a slow, sedate pace, while the Children’s Memorial stops you in your tracks completely. An event like the Shoah is unquantifiable, and so it requires that you engage different sorts of memories.

This place is filled with memories of the past. The Shrine of the Book at the Israel museum helps us remember the Masoretes who helped codify the Biblical text for us. The Western Wall is a memory of a Temple that once existed. Hezekiah’s Tunnel reminds us that some of this stuff really, actually happened. Millions upon millions of people have been through the city, through this country, all remembering their experiences slightly differently. We will be no different.

As is my idiom, my final post will probably be tomorrow from the airport, if Ben Gurion has wi-fi, as I look back and try to wrap the trip up in a single statement. I won’t be able to do it, just so you know. But as the group held its final session this afternoon, beginning the long journey of processing the trip, it occurred to me that I’m going to forget. I had a conversation in Hebrew with a street vendor today, my first full-Hebrew conversation in years, and one of the few sentences I could say was, “Shahakti harbeh milim” – I have forgotten many words. This trip has only been 12 days long, and yet I can barely remember what we did yesterday, much less back in Arad. The blessing of the blog is that it forced me to write down some of my memories; the curse is that I can never write down everything.

So this is where you come in. Remembering is a communal activity – memories are personal, but remembering is communal. My memories matter to me, yes, but they only matter to the world if I share them, I think. The best thing Kathy did for me last summer was made me tell her the story of my mission trip to Thailand, in extensive detail, in multiple parts, over the course of weeks. And I remembered a lot more than I thought, but only because she listened, because she asked, because she questioned.

Make us tell you our story. Our stories. We’ll try to sum it all up in a few sentences in an attempt to make pleasant conversation, but really so that we don’t bore you. Resist that. Make us go into detail. Sit with us in the silence of thinking. Ask us to share – because it’s going to be hard for us to do so. Our trip will have failed if we don’t create the spaces back home to share this story, even if the spaces we enter into are contested. Help us create that space. Help us remember.

It is early in the morning of our last day in Israel, in Palestine, in the Holy Land, in the Levant, in the space between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, between the Sinai Peninsula and the mountains of Lebanon. It is still dark out. Dawn has not yet broken.

But it will soon.

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