YOM KIPPUR 5776: WHEN MEMORY FADES . . . WILL I MISS YOU?

As a rabbi’s kid I knew the synagogue’s phone number before I even knew my own.  It isn’t surprising, then, that I also have vivid memories of the shul’s custodian, Mr. Howard McCall. Indeed, because he and his family lived on the third floor of the building, I thought he owned the property. When asked at the age of four what my dad did for living, I would respond, “He announces the pages in Mr. McCall’s building”!

I have especially vivid memories of Howard’s proudest possession, a red 1968 Shelby Mustang GT500 Fastback, which he bought new. How I loved to ride in that car! To this day, hearing Glen Campbell’s version of Gentle on My Mind transports me to the interior of that ‘68 Shelby Mustang — Howard was a big fan of Glen Campbell, and often played his music on the car’s 8-track . . . which is why Gentle on My Mind hits my brain’s rewind button and takes me back in time to the passenger seat of that Mustang. It’s amazing at the powerful way in which music and memory can intersect to make the past come alive. Howard McCall, may he rest in peace, has been gone for quite a few years, but I can recall his car’s appearance as if I saw it just yesterday.

This childhood remembrance came to my attention by way of another intersection of Glen Campbell’s music and memory. A little less than a year ago, the country singer great released a powerful documentary entitled, I’ll Be Me. Set against the background of Campbell’s last road show, the film depicts the musician’s struggle with the relentless encroachment of Alzheimer’s Disease, with which he was diagnosed in January 2011. According to a very recent news release from his wife, Kim, he has now lost most cognitive abilities — though he still smiles, laughs, and occasionally lashes out physically as Alzheimer patients are wont to do when frustrated.

Hands down the most haunting element of the film is its closing track, entitled I’m Not Gonna Miss You. The viewer watches Campbell on stage singing and playing, knowing that the lyrics are a prophecy on the road to fulfillment. Most heartbreaking of all, Glen Campbell is more aware than anyone else that soon enough he won’t be aware:

I’m still here, but yet I’m gone. I don’t play guitar or sing my songs. They never defined who I am; the man that loves you ’til the end. You’re the last person I will love; you’re the last face I will recall,
And best of all, I’m not gonna miss you.

I’m never gonna hold you like I did; or say I love you to the kids,
You’re never gonna see it in my eyes; it’s not gonna hurt me when you cry. I’m never gonna know what you go through; all the things I say or do.
All the hurt and all the pain; one thing selfishly remains . . .
I’m not gonna miss you.

Approximately 5.3 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, which means you are likely to know a person with the disease, or at least know someone who does. Because Alzheimer’s accounts for the vast majority of cases of dementia — in fact “dementia” is not itself a specific disease but simply an over-arching descriptive term for all such conditions –, it is quite possible, even likely, that my father-in-law, Bill Krinsky of blessed memory, suffered from Alzheimer’s — though he was never formally diagnosed as such.

Until he died 2 1/2 years ago, Susan and I, her sister Joy and her husband David, Bill’s brother Barney and his family, as well as all his grandchildren watched Bill’s world steadily shrink into ever smaller circles: personality changes; the accumulation of vast stocks of household products because he would forget that he had been to the store and go back to buy more; an inability to find his way home; and ultimately a 90 mile drive from Boynton Beach to Belle Glade, where a state trooper finally stopped him, and to whom he told he was just looking for a gas station. Even the ability to play his beloved trumpet — so deeply rooted in his being as a lifelong professional musician — even that eventually was taken from him.

If you haven’t seen the gripping film, Still Alice, for which Julianne Moore deservedly received an Oscar for Best Actress, you should. It is the fictional story of Alice Howland, a linguistic professor at Columbia University, who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50. At the film’s most poignant moment, Alice speaks to a crowded room at an Alzheimer’s conference and shares her feelings:

“All my life I’ve accumulated memories – they’ve become, in a way, my most precious possessions. Everything I accumulated in life, everything I’ve worked so hard for – now all that is being ripped away. But it gets worse. Who can take us seriously when we are so far from who we once were? We become ridiculous, incapable, comic. But this is not who we are, this is our disease. I’m still alive. I know I’m alive. I have people I love dearly. I have things I want to do with my life. I rail against myself for not being able to remember things – but I still have moments in the day of pure happiness and joy. And please do not think that I am suffering. I am not suffering. I am struggling. Struggling to be part of things, to stay connected to whom I was once. So, ‘live in the moment’ I tell myself. It’s really all I can do, live in the moment. And not beat myself up too much… and not beat myself up too much for mastering the art of losing.”

Notwithstanding the heartbreak that comes with Alzheimer’s Disease, a healthy brain is actually wired to forget a vast quantity of information. Indeed, the ability to dump recollections of ordinary daily events is a key aspect of healthy cognition and necessary for a supple, functional mind. That you can’t remember what you had for breakfast on August 17, 1986 isn’t evidence of mental impairment, but quite the opposite.

In fact there is a very rare condition called hyperthymesia in which a person can’t erase such useless recollections. The constant, irrepressible stream of memories can cause significant disruptions to life as they flood the individual with the burden of non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting recollections. Those who suffer from hyperthymesia get lost in remembering, making it difficult to attend to the present or plan for the future because one is consigned to live entirely in the past.

Beyond its necessity for healthy brain function, Judaism even premises certain commandments upon forgetfulness. As we read in the Torah: “כִּ֣י תִקְצֹר֩ קְצִֽירְךָ֙ בְשָׂדֶ֜ךָ וְשָֽׁכַחְתָּ֧ עֹ֣מֶר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה לֹ֤א תָשׁוּב֙ לְקַחְתּ֔וֹ לַגֵּ֛ר לַיָּת֥וֹם וְלָֽאַלְמָנָ֖ה יִֽהְיֶ֑ה לְמַ֤עַן יְבָֽרֶכְךָ֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל מַֽעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָדֶֽיךָ — When you reap the harvest in your field and forget a sheaf, do not turn back to retrieve it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings” (Deuteronomy 24:19).

Forgiveness of others for the wrongs they have committed is also a religious duty, one which relies on a kind of forgetfulness, or at least the release of the negative emotions that come with remembering the wrong. Self-servingly, we often explain our inability to forgive as a result of being unable to forget. Yet according to a study at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, our brain works in precisely the opposite way. It is only because we are willing to forgive that we are able to forget, which means we’re able to diffuse the anger or distress it elicits. Neurologically speaking, then, forgetfulness is a reward for forgiveness. This is certainly a worthwhile thought to ponder on Yom Kippur, a day devoted to seeking atonement and reconciliation..

Yet for most of us, most of the time, not remembering scares us a lot more than not forgetting From a religious standpoint there is nothing more frightening than forgetfulness. As the late theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once wrote, “To us, recollection is a holy act; we sanctify the present by remembering the past. To us Jews, the essence of faith is memory. To believe is to remember.”

From a rabbinic standpoint, moreover, forgetfulness is the greatest curse a Torah scholar could ever experience. In mantra-like fashion, upon the conclusion of a Talmudic tractate, those present recite and repeat three times the words of the Hadran prayer, “We shall return to this tractate, and may it return to us; we shall keep this tractate in mind, and may it keep us in mind; we shall not depart from this tractate, and may it not depart from us, neither in this world nor in the world to come.”

When I was a teen, I rebelled against Jewish observance. Yet my rejection of Jewish life was framed in such a way that, ironically, I continued to observe the mitzvot through my deliberate transgression of them. You might say my religious life was like a photographic negative — a visual counterpoint to an actual picture, albeit one in which the various shades of light are reversed. The Yom Kippur of my freshman year in college, I observed the fast day by going for lunch at a restaurant with another Jewish friend, ordering a double bacon cheeseburger and a beer, toasting one another with the wish of “Happy Yom Kippur!” (It was probably then and there that God decreed that I’d become a rabbi . . .).

Little did I know that I was actually echoing a late 19th century practice in which Jewish socialists, atheists, and anarchists, chose to acknowledge Yom Kippur as the holiest and most solemn day in the calendar by rebelling against it. On the night of Kol Nidre — and never on a different night — they would gather to recite parodies of the liturgy, dance to the music of orchestras and feast on pork.  Who knew there was traditional precedent for my action?

Please understand . . . I am not proud of that moment; but I am not ashamed of it, either. It was part of my unique path to the place where I stand. I recommend it to no one, but I have long since forgiven the self-righteous anger and confusion of my 18-year-old self.

Here’s why I share this story with you: In that moment of repudiation of Yom Kippur, I still remembered where I came from. To rebel, one must have something to rebel against, and I was ever so keenly aware that my act was predicated on knowing it was the Day of Atonement.

Fast forward to the fall of my sophomore year in college . . . Away at school and sharing an apartment with friends, I found myself so caught up with campus life that I was no longer tuned into the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. Sometime during the day of Sunday, October 2, 1982, I was startled to learn that it was the second day of Sukkot. I had completely forgotten about the holiday.

The realization scared me. As a child, Sukkot was one of my favorite Jewish holidays. I looked forward to watching my father put up our sukkah, and eagerly anticipated its decoration, which was my job. In not remembering that it was Sukkot, I felt as though a piece of memory had been sheared away from my being, as though I had lost a piece of myself. The remembrance of my forgetfulness pointed how far I had drifted from my roots. At that very moment my heart began to turn back toward Jewish life, toward the forging of a new identity in which I could synthesize my past with a future that I would create for myself. The process took years to accomplish; actually, it is a life work that is still unfolding.

God’s gift to all of us is our ability to remember that we have forgotten. We are always experiencing those proverbial “senior moments” — where did I leave my glasses, my wallet or my phone? Did I park the car on the green level or the red one? Remembering that we forget . . .this is normal. It is a blessing to remember that we’ve forgotten, because when that happens it allow us to engage and reclaim a lost memory. Perhaps this is what the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, meant when he said: “Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” Redemption requires that we first acknowledge our exile; to remember is to save something from the oblivion of the forgotten. This is why Alzheimer’s is so devastatingly tragic. It is not that the person forgets, but that the power to respond to such forgetfulness through remembrance is taken away.

In Barry Levenson’s beautiful film, Avalon, we see an immigrant family with strong familial ties living on the same Baltimore street, working, playing and celebrating in the early years of the 20th century. With the passage of time the second generation moves to different parts of the city, while their children disperse to the far corners of the country. The grandparents remember all the family members and how they are related; the grandchildren have never met most of their cousins and do not know how they are related to one another. But it is the middle generation which is the pivotal link. Though they may have forgotten the intricacies of the family tree, they remember that one exists. What they do with their recollection of having forgotten will decide the future of that family.

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Our parents or grandparents possessed a rich vocabulary and a trove of Jewish memory. They may or may not have been observant, but they raised their offspring with an awareness of Shabbat and Kashrut, of the Jewish holidays and Hebrew. Their progeny, even those who opted not to embrace the rhythms of Jewish life, remembered what they were not doing. You might say they remembered that they had forgotten. But so many of those who followed them no longer have that ability.  You can only forget what you once knew; you can’t remember what you’ve never known.

In a few minutes we will recite Yizkor, a service in which we remember our deceased loved ones. The very word Yizkor means “He will remember,” in this case the “He” is God. God remembers what we have forgotten, even as so many of us have forgotten what we once remembered. Each time we recite Yizkor I look around and wonder who could be present to remember, but has absented himself. Each day as we read the yahrzeit list at minyan, I am keenly aware of those who live locally and could come to recite Kaddish in memory of a loved one, but aren’t there. It’s not my role to judge — perhaps they are unwell or travelling on a yahrzeit date. But because I’m only human, I do wonder about those who are healthy and not away. Do they remember that they have forgotten, or have they forgotten to remember? When does a piece of our our memory become irrelevant? Do we forget something only after we deem it of little consequence, or does it only become insignificant once we’ve forgotten?

When the Torah speaks of the cruel war in which Amalek waged war against the Israelites, we are told “זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵֽאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם — Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you left Egypt.” But then, at the very end of the passage the text states, “לֹ֖א תִּשְׁכָּֽח — Do not forget.” Is this not redundant? If we do not forget, have we not remembered?

Perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us that there are different levels of memory. Ideally, it is best if one does not forget, to bear in mind important truths at all times. Yet given our frailties as human beings we sometimes do forget; it simply can’t be helped. To us the Torah says, “Wake up and remember that you have forgotten, for it is the only way that you will remember what you have forgotten.” For when we can’t even remember that we no longer remember, we forever lose a priceless key to a priceless storehouse of meaning.

Beyond our individual memories lies a larger sea of living memory, far bigger than any one of us. Even when we cannot remember, others can and do. Glen Campbell’s music is remembered by millions though he can no longer sing what he once knew. The righteous deeds and values of those who suffer from dementia are deposited in the safe deposit box of their loved ones’ memories, who will tell and retell the stories that outlast the individual. Even death, with its ultimate erasure of all neurological function, cannot destroy the imperishable quality of memory, because others can tell our tale. Because every human being is a story, and because God loves stories, the good Lord created memory to preserve narratives worthy of retelling, even after their authors are no more.

When the Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jewish people, he would go to a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a mystical fire, say a special prayer, and, on the strength of these actions, the misfortune would miraculously be averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezritch, had occasion to intercede with heaven for the same reason, he would go to the special place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not remember how to light the mystical fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” Again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib, the Sasover Rebbe, would go into the forest to save the people and say, “I neither remember how to light the fire nor do I remember the prayer, but I remember the place.” And it, too, was sufficient to accomplish the miracle. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his study, his head in his hands, he cried out to God, “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even remember how to find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story.” And it was enough.

Do you remember what you have forgotten? Do you at least remember that you have forgotten? God knows how we are fashioned, and is aware that we are but dust. Because the Eternal is compassionate, God will forgive that we can’t recall how to light the fire, recite the prayer, or even find the special place in the forest. God only asks that we remember the story . . . or at the very least, that there is a story. For without a story, what are we, really?

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