While there were quite a few excellent movies in 2012, my favorite, far and away was “Argo.” I saw it with my wife and another couple, and the film was so well-crafted that my friend was quite literally curled in his seat, covering his eyes and holding his breath during a scene where the only thing happening was the printing of plane tickets. The whole ending was tense, taut and exciting.
It was also completely fabricated.
Yet when I learned about that, I actually wasn’t all that upset. It was a great movie that prompted me to read Tony Mendez’ personal account how he got six Americans out of Iran, so that I could learn what had been true, what had been adapted, and what had been made up whole cloth.
We know that no movie that is “based on a true story” is ever the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The editors decide what stays in, what gets cut, and what order the story should be told in. What we forget is that our lives are “based on a true story,” as well.
Jonathan Gottschall is the author of the book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, and he reminds us that we all edit our life story. As he describes it:
A life story is a “personal myth” about who we are deep down — where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means….[I]t is not, however, an objective account. A life story is a shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings. (161)
It’s important to remember the real purpose of a story — and it is not simply to relay facts. It’s to put those facts into a meaningful context. A good story doesn’t simply tell us “what happened,” it tells us how and why it happened. In other words, a story — whether that’s a movie like “Argo” or our own personal narrative — is not designed to be a perfectly accurate record of history. Instead, our stories are much more like “memory.”
While history is an attempt to correctly portray past events, memory is a reconstruction of past events, some of which are going to be inherently distorted, overlooked, or even completely rewritten. And for our day-to-day lives, memory is much more important than history — and that’s an idea that resonates with a Jewish perspective.
Avraham Infeld, who served as President of Hillel International, once said that there’s no such things as Jewish history; there is only Jewish memory. What’s the difference? “History means knowing what happened in the past. Memory means asking how what happened in the past influences me, and my life today. It is for that reason that we do not teach our young that our ancestors left Egypt. We teach them that ‘every human being must see him or herself as having left Egypt.’” Memory, in other words, is the driver for the story we tell about ourselves here and now.
So yes, we do need history. We do need accuracy. We do need to make sure that we trying to act with intellectual integrity. But we also shouldn’t conflate history with story. After all, our personal and communal myths are rarely historically accurate, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have value.
Indeed, there’s a line that my friend and colleague Cantor Ellen Dreskin often says that is equally true about “Argo,” our collective Jewish memory, and our own life story: “Something doesn’t have to be factual for it to be true.”
How very true that is.
I was recently sharing my excitement about Bill Bryson’s latest book, At Home, during a Friday night sermon. The premise of the book is how we can learn so much history from the very ordinary objects in our homes. He writes:
Looking around my house I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me. Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to those two. Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon? And why do forks have four tines and not three or five? There must be reasons for these things… I heard a reference on the radio to someone paying for room and board, and realized that when people talk about room and board, I have no idea what the board is that they are talking about. Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me.
I started to turn these questions in my head, and to think about the Jewish home this way. A few years ago Vanessa Ochs wrote an article in which she proposed ways of categorizing the things in a Jewish home. Her categories, I realized, also provide ways that enable us to use our everyday household objects to tell the story and the history of the Jewish people and, more specifically, our personal family histories. The first category is ‘Articulate objects’. These are the self-evident items that might tell you that you are in a Jewish home, like a mezuzah on the door, a menorah, a challah cover. The specific ones that we have may tell a personal story, but the objects themselves tell more of the ‘official’ history of Judaism.
The second category she calls ‘Jewish-Signifying Objects’. For example, it is not unique to Jewish families to have photographs of the grandchildren in abundance. However, the university graduation photos of every one of my grandmother’s children and grandchildren all lined up on one wall tells a social history of the first generation of her family to get a college education, and the enormous value that a Jewish parent places on education in general.
The final category is what Ochs labels ‘Ordinary objects transformed.’ These are things that might be found in any household, but in a specific context take on the role of klei kodesh – holy objects that we use for sacred purpose or mitzvot. An ornate white tablecloth that is wrapped in plastic and taken out once a year is more than just a nice, white tablecloth. Used on Rosh Hashanah it is being used for the act of hiddur mitzvah – to beautify the mitzvah of making a festive meal. I use my home computer for all kinds of things, but 99% of the time that I am on Skype, it is to connect with my parents, in part an expression of kabed avicha v’et v’imecha – honor your mother and father.
I can’t wait to read the rest of Bill Bryson’s book so that I can walk from room to room in my home and tell the stories and the history of our society through the ordinary objects that I see. But it is also great fun, and a great way to do Jewish storytelling, for each of us to look around our homes for ordinary and everyday things that tell our Jewish stories. Give it a go, and I’d love for you to post some of your personal and family Jewish stories about some of the ordinary things in your home in the comments here. I’ll cross-post some of the best ones on my personal blog too.