One of the Jewish contributions to society at large is an insistence on the importance of remembering history and finding meaning in it. Ancient Israel deemed history important by making a record of it in their sacred scriptures. The rabbis of the ancient period, having a history of the biblical period as captured in the Hebrew Bible, sought to explore the meaning of this history and interpret it in terms that they and future generations could use in the ongoing development of Jewish life.
Jewish liturgy and law as developed by the rabbis maintained Jewish collective identity for over a millennium. The unraveling of religious doctrine and practice that began in the eighteenth century with the Enlightenment challenged the basis of a unified Jewish identity and memory. From this era of questioning, new Jewish group experiences and memories emerged.
Some of these reshaped memories are still reflected in religious practice in forms as varied as Orthodox and Reform. Others are given expression through more secular themes, such as Zionism or the notion of Jewish culture. Still others emerge from dealing with the tragedy of the Holocaust.
For example, an examination of American Holocaust memorials is representative of how the American Jewish community remembers and thinks about the Holocaust. Do these memorials emphasize genocide? the survivors? the victims? rescue? non-Jews as well as Jews? These memorials stand as concrete examples of one aspect of Jewish collective memory. We can learn a lot about a community and its members by deciphering both what did happen to them and how they choose to interpret and communicate what happened, to themselves and to others.
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